As the Braves come to Washington, the Nationals focus on themselves first

brushback_harperThe Nationals are not in position to concern themselves with their opponent for the next three days. The Braves have been too good and the Nationals have been too mediocre for their series at Nationals Park to resemble any kind of showdown, the way it could have shaped to be. Before the Nationals can worry about making up ground, they first need to start playing better.

“We can’t think about anything,” center fielder Denard Span said. “We just got to think about trying to win games right now. We got to keep battling. You don’t quit trying to win your division until you’re mathematically out of it.”

The Nationals are not mathematically out of it, but the arithmetic is moving past dire and nearing hopeless. After the Braves’ reeled off their 10th straight win last night, they are a season-high 12 ½ games clear of the Nationals. Their nine remaining games against the Braves may be most important, but no game can be wasted.

The Nationals are at the whim of the Braves, who can seal the division with a strong finish. If they play even .500, the Nationals would need to go 38-13 to tie for first. It’s not impossible – the Dodgers just underwent a 13-game swing in the NL West over 44 days.

But the Nationals have not shown any signs they have a Dodgers-like run in them. Their only hope to charge into the postseason in their final 50 games lies in cleaning up their defense, producing more clutch hits and receiving consistent starts.

“They’re getting to be all important at this point,” Jayson Werth said. “Anytime you play the team in front of you, especially when you’re behind, they’re games you need to win. We need to win.”

Even if the Nationals take seven of nine games from the Braves head-to-head – which, given how each team has played since the all-star break, is a rather unlikely proposition – they would need to make up 7 ½ games over their other 40-odd games.

So, as tempting as it is to label this series especially important, the Braves have pulled so far ahead that’s not really the case. The more likely postseason point of entry for the Nationals is the wild card. The fraying-at-the-seams Reds have cooperated by going 2-7 in their last nine games. Washington is still within striking distance, 6 ½ games back.

Before they can focus on the standings, though, they need to improve their play. The modest aim of getting back to .500 is a more pressing matter than catching  any opponent.

“We’re just trying to win games,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “Our goal is to get to the playoffs, whether we win the division or get the wild card. We just need to start winning games. That’s the bottom line. At this point, you take your mind away from the standings and you try to win some ballgames.”

For the next three days, that means trying to beat the hottest, and perhaps the best, team in baseball. They have bludgeoned teams, outscoring opponents 94-56 and averaging 5.5 runs since the all-star break.

The Nationals will face the Braves for the first time since they dealt for lefty reliever Scott Downs, a de facto replacement for Jonny Venters. The move may not have been aimed directly at the Nationals, but Atlanta probably had them in mind. Bryce Harper in particular is allergic to LOOGYs – this season he’s 2 for 31 with 14 strikeouts, two walks and a double against left-handed relievers.

“We just need to pile [wins] up, hope [the Braves] have a hiccup and give us some back and see where we’re at,” Adam LaRoche said.

FROM THE POST

Setting up their series against the Braves, the Nationals let one slip away in an 8-5 loss to the Brewers.

The Nationals can draw inspiration from Davey Johnson’s 1996 Orioles, James Wagner writes.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Werth banged up

Ohlendorf to DL

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 5, Rochester 4: Drew Storen allowed two runs on four hits and no walks, striking out three. Eury Perez went 1 for 5 with a three-run triple. Chris Marrero went 2 for 4. Jhonatan Solano went 2 for 4 with a triple.

Binghamton 6, Harrisburg 0: Billy Burns, who earned a promotion from Potomac over the weekend, went 1 for 3 with a walk. Rick Hague went 1 for 3. Robert Gilliam allowed five runs in six innings on six hits and two walks, striking out seven.

Potomac was off

Kannapolis 4, Hagerstown 3: Shawn Pleffner and Stephe Perez both went 2 for 4 with a double. Kylin Turnbull allowed two runs on six hits and a walk over 6 1/3 innings, striking out three.

Auburn 13, Hudson Valley 4: Jake Johansen allowed one run in five innings on seven hits and a walk, striking out two. In his first eight starts, Johansen has a 1.11 ERA with 30 strikeouts, 15 walks and 12 hits allowed over 32 1/3 innings. Isaac Ballou went 4 for 5 with two doubles. Cody Gunter went 2 for 5 with a double.

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