Two potentially fruitful weeks for the Nationals

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Since they moved into first place atop the National League East about a month ago, the Nationals have yearned to build some cushion. They have hovered near or in first place for some time now, no lead over the Atlanta Braves larger than two games. Even though they have been idle since Wednesday, the Nationals gained a half-game and sit 1 1/2 games ahead of the Braves.

If the Nationals hope to gain ground on the Braves before the two teams face off August 8-10, the following few weeks pose a potential opening. For all their flaws, the Braves have stayed in the thick of the division race and been buoyed by their pitching, defense and hot streaks, including a nine-game winning streak in early July. The Nationals have played better since June, but have yet to hit a big streak; the largest of the season is five straight wins.

Beginning Friday in Cincinnati, the fourth game of a nine-game road trip, the Nationals have a chance to start a a new streak. Over the next two weeks, the Braves have four games against the lowly Padres, four in Los Angeles against the Dodgers, then another three in San Diego and two in Seattle against the much-improved Mariners.

The Nationals, on the other hand, get the following during that stretch: three against the slumping and injured Reds, three in Miami against the slipping Marlins, four at home against the potentially-fire-selling Phillies, a make-up game against Baltimore and then three at home against the middling Mets. So over the next two weeks, the Nationals have a decidedly weaker schedule than the Braves.

How the Nationals respond to the loss of Ryan Zimmerman for an extended period of time could perhaps undermine this easier stretch of opponents. Zimmerman was rounding into form at the plate when he strained his hamstring on Tuesday. Without him, the Nationals will rely on Danny Espinosa to man second base while Anthony Rendon returns to third. After slumping for over two months and being pushed to the bench, Espinosa went 3 for 10 with two RBI in the Colorado series. With the non-waiver trade deadline less than a week away, Espinosa’s play will be important.

Even without Zimmerman, the Nationals have a clear advantage over their fiercest division rival over the next few weeks. They need to take advantage of the situation.

FROM THE POST

Mike Rizzo must protect the Nationals’ chances both this year — and for years to come, writes Adam Kilgore.

Steven Souza Jr. can’t find room in the Nationals’ crowded outfield — yet.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Taylor Jordan recovering from elbow soreness

Should the Nationals make a trade to replace Ryan Zimmerman?

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Buffalo 3, Syracuse 1: Taylor Hill returned from a brief stint on the disabled list and allowed one run on three hits over four innings. Josh Roenicke gave up two unearned runs. Tyler Moore went 2 for 4 with his seventh home run. Brandon Laird added two hits.

New Hampshire 5, Harrisburg 3: Zach Kroenke allowed five runs on eight hits over seven innings. Derek Self added two scoreless. Jason Martinson and Drew Vettleson each drove in a run.

Potomac 9, Winston-Salem 6 (11): Matthew Span gave up five runs on seven hits and four walks over 2 2/3 innings. Richie Mirowski, Jake Walsh and Gilberto Mendez combined for 8 1/3 innings and only one run allowed. Oscar Tejeda went 3 for 5. Mike McQuillan and Shawn Pleffner each drove in two runs. Tony Renda and Randolph Oduber added two hits each.

Hagerstown 5, Kannapolis 4 (13): Jake Johansen allowed three runs, two earned, on three hits and five walks over three innings. David Napoli fired four scoreless innings of relief. Justin Thomas pitched three scoreless. Narciso Mesa went 4 for 4. John Wooten drove in four runs.

State College 5, Auburn 3: James Bourque allowed four unearned runs over 4 2/3 innings. Brandon Miller went 2 for 5. Bryan Mejia tripled.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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