The Nationals may be the hottest team in baseball, but their season-long battle with inconsistency has set the mathematical odds against them heading into the final 10 games of the season.
After taking two out of three from the NL East-leading Braves at home this week, the Nats are 13-4 in September, but they have gained only two games on the Reds for the final NL Wild Card spot since the beginning of the month, and they currently sit 5 1/2 back. This weekend's four-game set with the last-place Marlins is practically a must-sweep situation if the team that once counted itself among the favorites to represent the NL in the World Series wants to keep its fleeting playoff hopes alive.
"This time of year, you want to be playing for something," center fielder Denard Span said. "It's tough enough in September to get up for a ballgame. But when you're playing for something like we are, it makes it easier to come here and do our jobs. I've been on both sides of the spectrum, where you're not playing for something in September and you are playing for something in September. It's definitely obviously a lot better to be playing for something."
After a successful bullpen session on Monday, Stephen Strasburg appeared set to return to the mound to make his first start in 10 days in the series opener. The right-hander was scratched last Friday with right forearm tightness, which might have occurred when he was experimenting with a new pitch the day before in New York. Strasburg rested for two days and threw a bullpen session on Monday without issue, but told manager Davey Johnson on Wednesday that he still felt some tightness in his forearm.
"He felt a little something there, but he wanted to pitch tomorrow," Johnson said after Wednesday night's loss. "I said, 'Well, no way. I got guys on full rest. I'll pitch them and you can be in the lineup for Saturday.' So it's my decision."
Instead, Gio Gonzalez will get the ball on Thursday, fresh off having a streak of three consecutive wins snapped with Saturday's 5-4 loss to the Phillies. Gonzalez has posted a 1.63 ERA since yielding seven earned runs to the Royals in just 3 1/3 innings of work on Aug. 23.
Right-hander Henderson Alvarez gets the ball for the Marlins, hoping to keep his recent momentum going toward a positive send-off to his injury-shortened 2013 campaign. Alvarez enters Thursday second only to Jose Fernandez for the lowest WHIP among Marlins starters, thanks to seven scoreless innings on Saturday in which he allowed just four hits.
"It was big, exactly what we needed, especially with a doubleheader," Miami manager Mike Redmond said after the first game of Saturday's twin bill. "You know going in it's going to be a long day. To get the solid pitching performance from Alvarez, he looked great."
Nationals: Span's hitting streak continues
• With a single in the seventh inning on Wednesday night, Span extended his hitting streak to 29 consecutive games, now two games clear of former Minnesota teammate Michael Cuddyer for the longest streak in the Majors this season.
• Left-hander Ross Detwiler was scheduled to fly to Viera, Fla., to pitch in an instructional league game on Monday after throwing three simulated innings in Washington on Wednesday. Detwiler has been on the 60-day disabled list since July with a herniated disc in his back, and Johnson implied that there may not be enough games remaining on the schedule for Detwiler to return to the club this season.
"If that's the plan, he might as well stay down there," Johnson said Wednesday. "I don't see it. He'd need to have four days off, and then there's only one game or two games left. I don't see the point in coming out and having him for one game, probably. But that's going to be a decision made down the road."
Marlins: Pierre still level with DiMaggio
• Juan Pierre grounded out in the seventh inning of Wednesday night's 4-3 win over the Phillies, keeping the 14-year veteran even with Joe DiMaggio on the all-time hits list with 2,215 career hits. Pierre tied DiMaggio for 175th place with a pinch-hit double in the seventh inning of Tuesday's 6-4 loss to the Phillies.
"I don't think some of these guys know exactly who DiMaggio was," Pierre said of his teammates. "Especially being so young. But they all came up and congratulated me, so that's cool."
• Third baseman Ed Lucas stayed hot with a 2-for-5 effort and the go-ahead home run in the 10th inning of Miami's 4-3 win. Lucas has now hit safely in nine of the last 10 games, and he is hitting .321 (17-of-53) in September.
• Miami right fielder Giancarlo Stanton crushed a two-run home run in the fifth inning on Wednesday night, his 23rd homer of the season and 12th career homer against the Phillies. Stanton has hit 18 of his 116 career home runs against the Nationals, six more than any other opponent.
• Johnson said last week that Strasburg's lingering injury is not related to the surgically-repaired ligament in the right-hander's elbow. Strasburg said on Tuesday that he felt fine and was good to start in the series opener against the Marlins.
Eric Single is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.