Still, playoff berth seems likely

The number looks bold and confident in the standings column next to the Nationals' name. With 38 games left in the regular season, under "playoff chances," it says 99.7 percent.

But if the standings say it is a lock that Washington will see playoff baseball this October for the first time since 1933, the players themselves say part of their success is not buying into those numbers. So despite increasing their lead in the National League East over second-place Atlanta this week, no one in the clubhouse was ready to throw a party.

"It's something we don't take for granted," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We've been playing well all year. Hopefully it continues."

That refrain is heard at virtually every locker around the oval room whether the Nats win or, as happened in a sloppy contest Wednesday night, lose in ugly fashion. It is a talisman used to prevent getting ahead of themselves. The Braves and Boston Red Sox both saw similar odds in their favor in the final week of August last season. Both missed the playoffs anyway.

"We try and take two out of three every time we play, and that's what we did this time," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "But this means nothing [Friday] or the next series."

Of course, since last season baseball has added an extra wild-card berth, and that's more cushion for teams at the top. Entering play Thursday, an off-day for Washington, the Nats were 10 games clear of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the club currently just outside the playoffs.

Crunch the numbers: If Washington plays .500 down the stretch -- a 19-19 record -- then the Pirates would have to go 30-8 to pass them. The Los Angeles Dodgers, at 10? behind, would need a 30-7 record. The St. Louis Cardinals own the second wild card but have to go 30-9 to pass the Nats. That's where the players stop paying attention, however. Because while a 30-9 record seems like too much, St. Louis has yet to play Washington this season. The Cardinals have seven chances to cut that deficit.

San Francisco leads the NL West, but a 28-10 record would swipe home-field from the Nats if they finished .500. Cincinnati, with the second-best record in baseball, could do so with only a 21-16 stretch run. The playoffs are close to a lock, but good playoff position is far from it. And winning the division is now paramount given the one-game series for the two wild cards.

"In a one-game [scenario], you get the best team in baseball vs. the worst team and that top team will still be scared to death," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said.

And to avoid that fate and win the NL East, three games remain with Atlanta, which would take over first place with a 26-12 finish against a .500 Washington record. The division lead might be six games, but that, too, is within the realm of possibility. There is still work to be done.

"I have the same amount on the table for every game. It's not a big game; it's another game," Nats manager Davey Johnson said. "Every game has its own weight. ... You don't get emotionally way up there. When you're playing a last-place team, they still count."