The Philadelphia Phillies have won five straight and 13 of 17. (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Regardless of their schedule, the Nationals have an utter stranglehold on the National League East. They lead the Braves by 6 ½ games, and with a three-game series in Atlanta this weekend, they have the chance to knock them out. They may have already:  If the Nationals go 7-14, an utter collapse, they’ll win 94 games. The Braves would still have to 13-7 to catch them.

Still, in baseball, nothing is certain until it is. And the Nationals’ path to October suddenly looks more difficult than just a couple weeks ago. Their September was paved with losing teams, but then two of them started winning.

Of the Nationals’ final 21 games, 10 of them will come against the Brewers and Phillies, two teams that appeared to be out of it. They have somehow brought themselves back to the fringes. The Phillies, who swept the Nationals at the end of August, have won five straight and 13 of 17. The Brewers have won 16 of 21, including a win over Atlanta last night.

Both teams, remarkably, are now just five games behind the Cardinals for the second wild card spot. Two teams, the Dodgers and Pirates, stand between the Phillies and Brewers and the Cardinals.

The Nationals have recently made hay pummeling teams out of contention and playing with both eyes on 2013, going 6-2 against the Cubs, Marlins and Mets. Now, though, they will not have the chance once they finish their series at Citi Field.

When they leave New York, the Nationals will conclude the season by facing the Braves, Dodgers, Brewers, Phillies and Cardinals. As of this morning, all five teams could claim at least a shred of hope for making the playoffs. All of them could be fighting just as hard as the Nationals, with something to play for.

Also, in case you haven’t noticed, the Cardinals and most of the teams chasing them for the second NL wild card have stumbled. The Nationals now lead the Cardinals by 12 games. Their magic number to merely make the playoffs is nine. They could clinch a spot as a wild card within a week or so, but then they have their sights set much higher.