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MLB

It’s Time For The Marlins And Nats To Be Their Most Diabolical

Don Mattingly yells at umpire
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

My, how the tables have turned. I have spent months, even years, looking down on two of MLB’s most woebegone franchises—the Washington Nationals and the Miami Marlins. Often in private and sometimes in public, I have disrespected their rosters, scoffed at their team-building “philosophies,” and rolled my eyes when their irrelevant games exist to prevent me from getting matchups I actually want to see. But the joke’s on me now: In this coming weekend, two of the most important, must-watch teams in baseball are these same Marlins and Nationals.

With not even a week left in the MLB season, we’re in that weird stretch of the calendar where most games mean nothing but a few games mean everything. In the American League, the guest list for the playoffs is all but finalized. The Yankees, Guardians, and Astros are guaranteed to be your division champs, while only the Orioles, with their sturdy 4.5 game deficit in the wild card, even hold a mathematical possibility of sliding into the picture. The National League, meanwhile, has the Dodgers and Cardinals locked into first and third, respectively, but does feature a pair of down-to-the-wire races. In the NL East, the Mets’ one-game lead on the Braves needs to hold if they’re going to get a bye out of the wild card round. And right on the fringes, the Milwaukee Brewers hang just a half-game back of the Philadelphia Phillies as they look to get the final ticket punched.

With that in mind, there are so many series this weekend that don’t really have to be played. Rangers-Angels, Pirates-Cardinals, Twins-Tigers—they can certainly exist if people in the area feel like going out to one last ballgame before the long winter, but from any other perspective, they have zero bearing on anything important. The neutral TV watcher, for the absolute highest stakes, simply must tune in to Mets-Braves (Atlanta weather permitting) as the defending world champs battle their charismatic, new-money rival for the right to cross a bridge over the first obstacle of the playoffs. But what of the Brew Crew and the Phils? They’ve both got a treat in the form of some alleged easy wins. Milwaukee hosts the Marlins for a four-game series beginning Thursday night, while the team currently in the third wild card slot finishes out against the Cubs today before traveling to D.C. for four in three days against the Nationals.

This is just what you want if you’re still fighting for your season. The Nats are an absolute wreck—54-101, missing even the few hitters who contributed anything of note to them this year, and failing to possess any respectable starting pitching. The Marlins are slightly better, at 64-91, but even though they showed spirit back in the spring, they have been in a tailspin, going 17-36 since the start of August as they’ve consistently struggled to give their very good pitching staff any run support and have preemptively announced the departure of their manager, Don Mattingly, before he’s actually departed. They should be no competition at all for motivated teams in must-win situations. And yet.

You and I both know it’s not that easy. Hell, the Mets and Braves themselves have learned that lesson this week. In Queens, the New York pitchers couldn’t contain the Marlins offense on Tuesday, and only an Eduardo Escobar 10th-inning walk-off on Wednesday prevented the humiliation of a sweep. In Washington, after taking the first two, the Braves lost a game on the Mets last night when CJ Abrams—a 21-year-old piece of the Soto trade—conquered the Braves’ bullpen to electrify the few true believers who were actually rooting for the home team.

Baseball is a dangerous game, no matter who’s playing it. Brewers and Phillies fans might thank their lucky stars that they’re not running up against, well, the Mets or the Braves in this crucial moment. But just because their two cellar-dweller opponents haven’t enjoyed their own seasons, it doesn’t mean they can’t ruin someone else’s, too. The Phillies slide into today having just suffered a couple of heartbreakingly close losses to threaten their position, and even though they should in theory be hitting the ball off a tee against guys like Erick Fedde, they still have to deal with the chaos caused by the sheer inexperience of the Nats’ batting order—Abrams, Alex Call, the 30-year-old rookie slugger Joey Meneses. And the Brewers, in addition to the imposing task of facing Sandy Alcantara on Friday (they’ll have Corbin Burnes at least), could find themselves foiled by even just one goofy play brought on by, perhaps, Jon Berti and his 37 steals, or Bryan De La Cruz and the September hot streak he’s enjoyed since bouncing back from AAA.

As little as these teams, institutionally, might be trying to win right now, baseball is a silly sport, and MLB only encompasses players who, if nothing else and by definition, have the potential to perform at the highest level. Though you’ve been right if you’ve ignored them until now, it’s time to get acquainted with these terrible franchises, just to see how much they can screw things up for someone else.