WASHINGTON — It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Washington Nationals weren’t supposed to virtually concede the National League East crown with three weeks to play. They weren’t supposed to, in the first week of September, play as poorly as they have since late May, with the stakes now as high as they’ve been since the early spring.

Yet they did. The Nationals began last week still pushing for a serious chance at the division title. Win or sweep their three-game series against the New York Mets and at least split with — or even take three of four games from — the Atlanta Braves, and the Nats could have been as close as 3½ games out of first, with three head-to-head matchups left with the division-leading Braves. The week was a missed opportunity. The Nationals won once against the Braves to avoid a sweep, and once against Mets after a historic, seven-run comeback in the bottom of the ninth. Catcher Yan Gomes, though, pumped the brakes on the postseason implications of a 2-5 stretch.

“I don’t think we need to get too far ahead of ourselves, I think we put ourselves in a good position,” he said after Sunday’s 9-4 win in Atlanta. “We came in here and wanted to gain ground on them. It didn’t happen. We have to move on.”

The Nationals have a 0.5 percent chance of winning the NL East, according to FanGraphs — about the same odds the site Vegas Insider gave the Washington Redskins to win the Super Bowl this season (0.33). Washington’s likeliest path to the postseason with 20 games left is the wild card, a tight race that seems poised to constrict further in coming days. Five other teams are within seven games of the Nationals, who start this stretch atop the wild card standings.

The Chicago Cubs currently occupy the second wild card position, three games behind the Nationals, and they’re followed by the Arizona Diamondbacks (1½ games back), Milwaukee Brewers (two), Philadelphia Phillies (two) and Mets (four).

Most worrisome for the Nationals is that, with the division title out of the picture, they will be reframed as the leader, not the chaser, of this playoff race. They now must maintain their grip on the top wild card spot with the second hardest remaining schedule among playoff competitors, according to weighted opponent winning percentage (WOWP). The slate starts Tuesday: Three games in Minnesota against the American League Central-leading Twins; three at home against Atlanta and three in St. Louis against the Cardinals. Then there’s an off day and a three-game set in Miami against the last-place Marlins before an eight-game homestand to end the season: five with the Philadelphia Phillies and three with the Cleveland Indians.

This is concerning because the Nationals have, at times this season, struggled against teams above .500. Each of those closing opponents, save the Marlins, has a winning record. The Nationals need to play their best against the best competition if they want to maintain home-field advantage for a potential one-game wild-card playoff. Playing at home hasn’t been a boon for NL teams since the single-elimination wild card started in 2012 — road teams are 5-2 in that game — but the Nationals would prefer to open the postseason at Nationals Park rather than somewhere else, like Wrigley Field.

The most clear and direct threat to the Nationals is the Cubs. It seems unlikely they’ll catch the Cardinals for the NL Central title — the Cardinals have opened a 4½ game lead — but it’s possible. The Cubs have the third easiest remaining schedule, according to WOWP, and seven head-to-head matchups left with the Cardinals, including a three-game series in St. Louis on the last weekend of the season. The one comfort for the Nationals is that neither the Cubs nor the Cardinals have a playoff ace the caliber of Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg.

The Diamondbacks used to have one in veteran right-hander Zack Greinke, but they dealt him to the Houston Astros at the trade deadline, seemingly sinking their season. Yet Arizona arrived in Washington two days later, won two of three against the Nationals and hasn’t slowed since. The Diamondbacks have relied on young pitching and do-everything position player Ketel Marte and now have a chance to get into the tournament. Their remaining WOWP is the second weakest among those still in the playoff hunt, and they play 12 of their final 19 games at home. The only slate easier by winning percentage is that of the Milwaukee Brewers, who have nearly the opposite home-road split.

The Phillies and Mets are on the outside but still very much players in the postseason chase. The Phillies might not contend for much longer — they have a hellacious 10-day, 11-game road trip against three of baseball’s top eight teams in the middle of the month — but they’ll still be a large factor for the Nationals. The last five games of that road swing come in Nationals Park.

The Mets, despite having one of the only rotations in baseball that could keep pace with the Nationals’, have lost 10 of their last 15 and sit one bad series away from spending the rest of the season playing spoiler. You could argue the historic Nationals’ comeback, so deflating that Mets center fielder Brandon Nimmo told reporters it was “hard to do even in a Little League game,” dealt the biggest blow to their season. They have a mediocre remaining WOWP, but with 14 of their last 20 games at Citi Field, they have the most advantageous home-road split of any team in contention. Whether the Mets will remain so begin being determined Monday with four home games against the Diamondbacks.

The Nationals, for now, can only put their heads down and try to play their way out of this predicament.

They know, as several outrageous games in the last few months have shown them, that anything can happen in one game, like a wild card elimination matchup. But they have three weeks left to put themselves in the best position to win it.

“It’s September, you got to win every day,” Scherzer said. “That’s just how it is. You’ve got to win every day.”

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