Advantage over Braves now 8 1/2 games entering series in Atlanta
The Nationals can sense it now.
After sweeping the New York Mets at Citi Field this week and watching the Atlanta Braves, their National League East rivals, get swept in a harrowing series in Milwaukee, the division lead for first-place Washington is now 8 1/2 games.
That means the Nats have a legitimate chance to put the division race away when they travel to Atlanta this weekend for what was expected to be a critical three-game series. Instead, even losing two of three to the Braves would leave Washington in a solid position entering the final 16 games of the season. And if it wins two or three games at Turner Field, the race is all but over.
|Nationals at Braves|
|Ross Detwiler (9-6, 3.23 ERA) vs. Kris Medlen (8-1, 1.64 ERA)|
|When » Friday, 7:35 p.m.|
|Where » Turner Field, Atlanta|
|TV » MASN|
|Radio » 106.7 the Fan,|
|WFED 1500, WHFS 1580|
|Atlanta pitcher Kris Medlen has been called the anti-Stephen Strasburg. Not based on his stuff, which is impressive, but because the Braves chose to ease Medlen's workload in the first half as he returns from 2010 Tommy John surgery so he could help them in the second. He has done that and more. Medlen was inserted into a fraying starting rotation July 31 and immediately provided dividends. He has won seven of his eight starts and had a no-decision in the other. The Braves have won all eight of those games, including an Aug. 22 win at Nationals Park in which Medlen pitched seven shutout innings.|
"We're not relying on them to melt down," first baseman Adam LaRoche said Sunday. "We're relying on ourselves to continue to do what we've done all year."
The Nats' magic number to clinch a playoff spot was just five games entering play Thursday -- an off-day for the club. The last time that happened in Washington was 1933, when the Senators won the AL pennant and went to the World Series 79 years ago. The magic number to win the NL East is 11 games. That combination of Nationals wins and Braves losses will bring the District its first division title since the team moved to the city in 2005.
But even with the big lead, the schedule will make a strong finish a challenge. The Nats (89-54) must navigate the series with Atlanta (81-63), a team that is comfortably ahead for the first NL wild card and has nothing to lose this weekend. They were ahead of St. Louis, which holds the final NL playoff berth for now, by 5 1/2 games before the Cardinals' game at the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday.
For Washington, a three-game home set with the Dodgers follows. That club entered Thursday one game behind the Cardinals in the NL wild-card race. The Brewers then visit for a four-game series, and they suddenly are just three games out as the contenders in front of them continue to collapse.
The Nats then finish with road trips to Philadelphia -- like Milwaukee also now just three games out after being left for dead -- and St. Louis. The season ends with three more games against the Phillies at home.
But first things first: Washington needs to take care of business against the Braves. The two teams have met 15 times this season, with the Nats taking 10 of those games. They have a big advantage with two left-handed starters -- Ross Detwiler on Friday and Gio Gonzalez on Sunday -- going this weekend. Left-handed heavy Atlanta has struggled against lefties all year, ranking 21st in batting average (.244) and 22nd in OPS (.689).