Jun 19, 2014, 10:46 AM EDT
They weathered an up-and-down first two months to the season, treading water while a host of key players overcame injuries, and have since gone on their first sustained run of the year, winning 12 of 18 and taking over first place in the NL East.
And now, the Nationals really find out where they stand in the big picture, because the Braves are coming to town for four games, and everybody knows what that means.
“This is the best team in the division over the last year,” Jayson Werth said. “If we want to win the division, it definitely goes through them. All these games are meaningful. We know what’s at stake and what they mean, even in the middle of June.”
If you’ve followed the Nationals even casually over the last season-plus, you know there is no greater hurdle standing between this team and October baseball than the Braves. Since the start of 2013, the Nats have gone 7-18 against their chief NL East rivals. Go even further back to August 2012, and they’ve won only seven of their last 29 games against Atlanta.
And it’s not only the record in those games. It’s the way the Nationals have played in those games. Committing errors. Making poor decisions on the bases. Blowing late leads.
All of that context will be hovering over Nationals Park tonight when Jordan Zimmermann faces Gavin Floyd in the opener of a 4-game series, but manager Matt Williams is being careful not to make more out of these games than any others.
“I think we feel good being where we’re at,” Williams said after last night’s 6-5 win over the Astros. “We face a really difficult team over the next four games. I think it was really important to win this one tonight, and we need to look to tomorrow now and be prepared for that. Beyond that, we can’t look. We can’t peek around the corner. It’s about when you open the door tomorrow, what’s tomorrow, and we’ll deal with that and let the days following deal with themselves. We need to come ready tomorrow.”
Thanks to their recent surge and the Braves’ recent slide — they’ve lost 6 of 8 and just got swept by the Phillies — the Nationals have given themselves a bit of cushion entering this series, leading both Atlanta and Miami by 1 1/2 games. A series split would still leave them holding that same lead. Even losing 3 of 4 would leave them only 1/2-game back.
Of course, there’s something to be said for the idea that the Nationals need not only hang with the Braves this weekend but prove to themselves and everyone else they’re actually capable of beating them.
“I’m going to plead the Fifth,” Denard Span said last night with a laugh. “I’m not going to give them bulletin-board material. If we go out there and play like we played tonight, play like we played the last two nights — playing aggressive, pitching the ball well, hitting with runners in scoring position — then there’s no question we should win.”
It’s important to remember it’s still mid-June. The season isn’t yet halfway complete. The Nationals still face the Braves nine more times later this summer and fall.
But make no mistake: This is an important weekend. The Nats may not be able to completely overcome their biggest hurdle over the next four days, but they certainly can make significant progress.
“Standings, for me, until you’re 10 games up going into September, they really don’t matter,” Werth said. “Anything can happen. With that said, we’ve been playing good ball, and I think coming into this series, we’ve got some momentum. Hopefully we can use that momentum and kind of build on it.”
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