WASHINGTON (AP) -The Washington Nationals are getting a sense of what it feels like to play in late-season, pressure-filled baseball games.
And they're thriving.
Now, truth be told, the pressure isn't exactly on the Nationals as they close the season against two of the NL's top teams.
After all, the Nationals are not the ones in danger of a history-making collapse to lose a division title - the New York Mets are. And the Nationals are not the ones trying to avoid yet another close-but-no-cigar finish - the Philadelphia Phillies are.
``When you play these teams,'' Washington outfielder Austin Kearns said, ``you realize what it takes to be a playoff-caliber team.''
No one knows how long it will be until the Nationals truly are of that caliber. Still, in many ways, rookie manager Manny Acta's team awoke Thursday prepared to declare its season a success.
By completing a stunning sweep of the NL East-leading Mets on Wednesday night, the Nationals improved to 72-87, eclipsing last year's victory total and assuring themselves of finishing no worse than tied for fourth in the division.
``We accomplished some things that we wanted to do,'' Acta said. ``First of all, we wanted to win more than 71 games - that's been accomplished. And we're still in a very good position not (to finish) last. That's what it's all about for us right now.''
After their day off Thursday, the Nationals end the season with a three-game series starting Friday at Philadelphia, which has been closing in on New York for two weeks.
Asked by a MASN-TV reporter how the Nationals would follow up their three-for-three performance against the Mets this week, outfielder Ryan Church responded: ``Sweep the Phils.''
Church contributed a homer, a double and four RBIs in Washington's 9-6 comeback victory Wednesday. The Nationals trailed 5-0.
``That says a lot about this team, and the direction that we're going,'' Church said. ``We've got the right nucleus around here. ... It just shows you that we care.''
Plenty of teams are content to roll over by the end of a lost season, knowing that the playoffs are out of the question and perhaps figuring that there's little difference between finishing last or next-to-last.
But Acta has been pushing the message that he wants to try to win every game, no matter what the stakes appear to be, and that it would be significant to put an end to the franchise's run of three consecutive last-place finishes.
``We are going to continue to play hard all year,'' said right-hander Jason Bergmann, 4-0 over his past five starts after beating the Mets on Tuesday.
First baseman Dmitry Young foresees a tangible benefit to edging the Florida Marlins for fourth in the NL East.
He's sure players around the majors are taking notice of what his team is doing - and by playing the Mets and Phillies tough down the stretch, the Nationals could persuade a free agent or two that Washington would be a good place to go.
``When they look at our team, they're going to be like, 'All right, they projected these guys to win 35, 40 games. This is a fourth-place team with a payroll this low,''' Young said. ``Trying to get key guys to place the pieces of the puzzle together - the way we finish, it's going to help.''
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AP Sports Writer Mike Fitzpatrick in New York contributed to this report.
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