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Looking at the Nationals' clinching scenarios

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Looking at the Nationals' clinching scenarios

PHILADELPHIA -- And so we have reached the home stretch at last, the final nine regular season games of what has turned into a most entertaining and surprising year for the Nationals.

Much as they would have loved to break out the champagne bottles and plastic locker barriers during the just-completed homestand, the Nationals couldn't quite create enough separation between themselves and the Braves to clinch the NL East title yet. Thus, the celebration is likely to happen on the road this week, either here in Philadelphia on Thursday night or sometime Friday-Sunday in St. Louis.

Wait, you ask, don't the Braves still have a chance to steal away the division crown? Well, technically yes. But the odds are stacking severely against that happening.

The Nationals enter play tonight up five games with nine to play. The magic number is 5, so any combination of five Washington wins and Atlanta losses wraps this thing up.

Think of it this way: If the Nats go only 4-5 the rest of the way, the Braves would need to go 9-0 simply to force a one-game tiebreaker for the NL East title. (And yes, they would have to play that game in Washington next Thursday, with the winner declared division champs and the losers shipped off to the Wild Card game. That's a new rule instituted by MLB this season.)

So in many ways, it almost doesn't matter what Atlanta does down the stretch as long as the Nationals play respectable baseball and don't gag everything away.

The best-case scenario for the Nats would have them clinching as soon as Thursday night at Citizens Bank Park, which would be poetic in many ways after the Phillies clinched three of their five NL East crowns against Washington (2007, 2008, 2010).

Adding to the intrigue, the Nationals could have a chance not only to celebrate on the Phillies' turf but also officially eliminate them from the postseason altogether. Despite a late surge to get back in the race, Philadelphia trails the Cardinals by 5 12 games for the final Wild Card berth. Their "tragic number" to be eliminated is 4, so any combination of four Cardinals wins and Phillies losses puts an end to that long-shot dream.

If the Nationals can't wrap things up by Thursday, they'll head west to St. Louis and bring the champagne with them. That would present a potentially bizarre scenario, one that could see the Nats clinch the NL East and the Cardinals clinch the Wild Card on the same field at the same time.

How would that work? Would both teams dog-pile in the middle of the diamond? Doubtful. Whichever team won the game would likely get to celebrate, with the other retreating to its clubhouse.

And what if the Nationals can't finish this off before Sunday? Well, they would then head back home for the final, three-game series against the Phillies.

On the bright side, they'd get to clinch in front of their own fans.

Something, though, tells me Davey Johnson and Co. have no interest in experiencing that.

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Wilson Ramos to have surgery soon, hopes to be back with Nationals

Wilson Ramos to have surgery soon, hopes to be back with Nationals

All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos, a symbol of strength all year for the Nationals, a man physically imposing and tough enough to earn the nickname The Buffalo, walked into the clubhouse in Washington on Thursday with the help of crutches, his right knee still swollen from the fall on wet infield dirt that he suffered three days prior, an awkward landing that re-tore his anterior cruciate ligament.

He made his way through the locker room, as other players smiled in his direction.

One shouted his nickname: "Buffaloooooo." He smiled, a nice reminder of the support he has from his teammates, the support he will need moving forward in what could be another year-long rehab to get back to where he was just a few days ago.

"I feel a little bit more relaxed," Ramos said through an interpreter. "I've had a few days to take a step back and think about it. It's obviously very frustrating for me going through this towards the end. But all I can do is stay positive and make sure I get my rest, rehab properly and come back stronger."

RELATED: WHY RAMOS' INJURY IS DEVISTATING FOR NATIONALS' FUTURE

Ramos, 29, will take the next few days to let the swelling go down. Then, it's reconstructive surgery and after that a long recovery that will keep him away from the Nationals during the playoffs. He will watch from home as they embark on another playoff run and try to finish what he helped start. Ramos will not be able to see their mission all the way through and that, in particular, is crushing.

"I’m going to have to support the team from home because it’s going to be very difficult for me to get around with the knee after the surgery," he said. 

"It’s going to be very difficult [to watch in TV], given the circumstances. I wish I was out there helping the team as much as possible but at the same time, I gotta be a professional and a good team and support the team from home as much as I can so that’s what I’m going to do."

Manager Dusty Baker said he hopes Ramos can still help advise the remaining catchers Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino through phone calls and text messages. Ramos has years of experience working with most of the pitchers on their staff and can be a still be a resource.

“He’s a big part of our team the last couple days when he hadn’t been in the dugout there’s a spot missing in the dugout," Baker said.

It may be the last impact Ramos makes for the Nationals, as he's an impending free agent. And with his rehab likely stretching until late next season, there are many questions about his future.

If Ramos has it his way, he'd love to be back in Washington, where he has played for seven MLB seasons.

"This organization has given me the opportunity to grow play a role as much as I have and I’m very appreciative of tall that. I would love to stay here and keep playing with this team," he said. 

"They’ve given me an opportunity in my career that I haven’t gotten anywhere else. Unfortunately, this injury happened so close to the end and it may affect whether I’m able to stay with a National League team or not, but if it’s up to me, I definitely would like to keep playing for the Nationals and play as long as I can."

Ramos has received lots of messages from family, teammates and fans in support. He's trying to keep his spirits up, knowing the difficult road ahead and the uncertainty of his rehab from a second torn ACL. 

It's not an easy situation to handle, but Ramos is happy with what he accomplished this season. He is likely to win the Silver Slugger award for NL catchers and earn MVP votes after batting .307 with 22 homers and 80 RBI.

It was a great year, he just may have to wait a while for the opportunity to build on it.

"I'm very pleased with the season and the way it's gone this year. I've worked hard to put up the offensive numbers that I did this year, especially after a disappointing last season," he said. 

"It's a very frustrating time for me as well right now, going through this situation, but all I can do is make sure I prepare right, rehab right, get stronger. I've gotta look at everything and how everything happens for a reason. I've gotta get the most positive thing that I can out of this situation and keep moving forward."

RELATED: Gio Gonzalez has plenty to work on before Nats playoffs begin

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Gio Gonzalez has plenty to work on before Nats playoffs begin

Gio Gonzalez has plenty to work on before Nats playoffs begin

Gio Gonzalez' seesaw 2016 regular season is officially in the books. Next stop: the NL Division Series where he will face the L.A. Dodgers, likely in Game 3 and possibly with one of the two teams' season on the line. Either way, it will be important.

Over the years, teams have trotted out far less accomplished pitchers in playoff games, ones with nothing close to the track record of Gonzalez. And for long stretches this season, he has been effective, like in July and August when he held a 3.16 ERA across 11 starts.

But a lot has happened since August for Gonzalez, both on the field and off of it. In his five starts since, he's given up 19 runs in 23 innings. That stretch includes his 3 2/3 innings on Wednesday night against the Diamondbacks, when he gave up three runs on eight hits and three walks and threw a whopping 100 pitches.

Just in time for the playoffs.

The Nationals have an unenviable situation without Stephen Strasburg, who is rehabbing a right flexor strain, and with Joe Ross still building his workload. They better hope the version of Gio Gonzalez they see in the NLDS is better than the one they have witnessed over the last several weeks.

“It wasn’t that good, but we didn’t score any runs either. He had a lot of pitches in a short period of time," manager Dusty Baker said after the Nats' 3-0, rain-shortened loss.

"They ran his pitch count up. They didn’t swing at very many balls and it looked like they were trying to wait on his fastball."

Gonzalez will now have to make adjustments in bullpen sessions over the course of the next 12 days. He will have to do that with a lot on his mind. Gonzalez heads to the funeral of close friend Jose Fernandez on Thursday and was pitching with extra emotion against Arizona. 

“He’s an emotional-type guy," Baker said. "I talked to him a little bit about Fernandez and he was pitching for him and for us. Just wasn’t a very good night."

Now Gonzalez will have plenty of time to grieve and recalibrate before he sees the Dodgers. Whether that hurts or helps has yet to be determined.

“It can [help]. Just depends on, not only can it reset him, but after things have subsided some… they say time heals all wounds, but some wounds take longer to heal," Baker said.

"It probably won’t really set in until after the season when he’s back in Miami and around and Jose’s not around. Hopefully, he can have a couple good ‘pens and get it back together because we’re certainly going to need him come playoff time."

Gonzalez does have some success against the Dodgers to build off of. He holds a 1.69 ERA across 32 innings vs. L.A. since 2012 and held them to one run through six earlier this season.

Gonzalez is also just ready for a fresh start.

"You start the postseason with a zero ERA. It's a new series. New way to look at it," he said.

[RELATED: Podcast: Can Nationals win without Wilson Ramos?]

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