MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

For D-backs, Nats, it's time to buckle down for stretch

For D-backs, Nats, it's time to buckle down for stretch

For D-backs, Nats, it's time to buckle down for stretch

If you're the manager of the D-backs, Nationals, etc., you might want to remind your players of baseball's recent history.

To sum it up: It ain't over 'til it's over.

So buck up, boys. Keep going. You never know. When Tony La Russa began mapping out the final 32 games for his 2011 Cardinals, he called a team meeting.

Forget the standings, he said. The Cardinals trailed the Braves by 10 1/2 games in the National League Wild Card race, but those were just numbers.

La Russa reminded his players they'd achieved a reputation around the game for professionalism and effort.

So finish hard, he told them. You never know.

The 2011 Rays and Cardinals taught us all a lesson about playing hard until the end. The 2012 A's did the same thing.

At the moment, six teams are on the outside looking in -- that is, all within seven games -- Nationals, D-backs, Yankees, Indians, Orioles and Royals.

Every game matters to these teams. They can all be within striking distance on Labor Day -- or need something really magical to happen.

At the moment, it's tough to find teams that appear vulnerable. The Reds seem to have enough starting pitching to avoid the kind of slump that hit the Braves, Red Sox and White Sox in recent seasons.

The A's have a deep pitching staff, too, and if the Rays get their top guys rolling, they can pitch with anyone. But, as La Russa told the Cardinals in 2011, that stuff doesn't matter. He preached that it's all about today.

Actually, he preached that it was about executing pitches, having quality at-bats every night for nine innings. If that sounds simple, it is. It's what Alabama football coach Nick Saban calls "the process." Lots of small things can morph into big things.

Tom Boswell of the Washington Post reminded his hometown Nats of that very thing this week. After a tough four months, the Nationals are finally playing the way we all thought they'd play. Problem is, they trail the Reds by 6 1/2 games.

They're dead, right?

Yes, probably.

They've won 14 of 20 and closed the gap with the Reds from 9 1/2 games. You never know. At the moment, Washington's clubhouse has to be stirring a little at the thought of being able to write a different kind of ending.

For the teams in front of the Nationals, finishing has its own challenge. It's sometimes easier to have a we've-got-to-win-every-game mentality than to simply be trying to keep what they already appear to have.

There are extreme examples: La Russa's 2011 Cardinals went from 10 1/2 games out on Aug. 25th to winning the World Series. That year, the Rays were nine games out on Sept. 2, but clinched a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season.

Both teams needed help. Had the Red Sox not finished 7-20, it wouldn't have mattered that the Rays went 17-8 down the stretch. Likewise, the Braves opened the door for the Cards by losing 16 of their final 23. But the Cardinals did their part with a 16-5 finish.

The 2012 White Sox spent 126 days in first place in the American League Central. But they couldn't close the deal, losing 11 of their final 15 to escort the Tigers to the postseason. The Tigers were given an opportunity and took advantage with a 15-7 finish.

In fact, two of the AL's three first-place teams on Sept. 1 last season -- Texas and Chicago -- ended up finishing second, with the White Sox missing the playoffs entirely. The Rangers didn't get out of the Wild Card game, despite spending 186 days in first place and leading the AL West by 6 1/2 games on Aug. 12.

The A's didn't give up on last season, either, even when they trailed the Rangers by five games with nine to play. They had the lead down to two when the two teams finished the regular season with a three-game series at the Coliseum. In other words, the Rangers needed to win once to clinch the AL West.

The A's won the opener, 4-3. Lead down to one. OK, no big deal.

Only thing is, you could see it coming from miles away. Baseball is the weirdest of sports. Teams can reel off five- and six-game winning streaks all season long. But when the finish line is near, when the heat is on, sometimes the simplest things become impossible.

The Rangers could be saved only if someone stepped up -- much like Detroit's Justin Verlander rescued the Tigers against the very same A's in last year's AL Division Series.

Unfortunately, Texas didn't have a Justin Verlander. Its best players stopped producing. Oakland's Travis Blackley beat the Rangers in the second game. Tie division.

On the final day of the regular season, Rangers starter Ryan Dempster, acquired for the stretch run, couldn't hold a four-run lead, Josh Hamilton dropped a fly ball, and the A's won, 12-5, and staged a wild clubhouse celebration. Meanwhile, the Rangers, once touted as the best team in baseball in 2012, limped back home and lost the AL Wild Card game to the Orioles.

The Nationals are 3-1 in a stretch of 19 straight games against the Marlins, Mets and Phillies. An offense that averaged just 3.4 runs per game in the first 114 games has scored 5.4 per game over the last 20. Finally, they look like the team we all thought they'd be.

The Reds play 14 of their final 27 against teams with a losing record. But they've got six of their final nine against the Pirates, and those games could be critical.

The D-backs are just six out. Problem is, unlike the Nationals, Arizona is showing few signs of getting hot. That's why these next nine games -- six against the Giants, three against the Blue Jays -- are hugely important. If the D-backs are going to make a run this is the time.

As for looking ahead at their schedule, they shouldn't. They've dug themselves too much of a hole to worry about tomorrow or next week. Never mind those seven games against the Dodgers.

Besides, if they can creep closer during these games against the Giants and Blue Jays, they'll start to feel the possibilities. They certainly don't want to fast forward to the bottom of the schedule, because it's absolutely too delicious to even consider.

If the D-backs get to the final weekend, they may be able to take care of business themselves with three home games against the -- wait for it -- Nationals.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.