The Washington Nationals are in the strongest position they’ve held all season, but it still doesn’t feel secure. After sweeping the Cincinnati Reds and climbing to 10 games above .500 for the first time, they maintain a 1½-game lead atop the National League wild card race. But six teams are within five games of them.

One of those teams, the Milwaukee Brewers, arrives at Nationals Park for a three-game weekend set. The Brewers — winners of six of their past eight games — are one game behind the Chicago Cubs for the second wild card spot and 2½ behind Washington. There’s little margin for error, and the Nationals know it.

Here’s what to watch for…

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Return of the Max?

The long-awaited return of Nationals ace Max Scherzer could come this weekend. The team hasn’t announced its rotation beyond Friday’s series opener — which will pit left-hander Patrick Corbin against Milwaukee right-hander Adrian Houser — and Scherzer might fit one of those slots. (Aníbal Sánchez would be on regular rest Saturday, so he’d likely start that day or take an extra day of rest and go Sunday.)

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Scherzer hasn’t pitched since July 25, and since he landed back on the injured list in late July with a mild rhomboid strain that he has said he feels ready to return. He made his strongest progress yet in the past week, including a 32-pitch bullpen session Tuesday. The Nationals haven’t publicly ruled out sending him to the minors for a rehab start or another bullpen session, but the team and the ace are both itching to get back to regularly scheduled programming. The Nationals are proceeding with caution and want to ensure that when the veteran right-hander returns to the roster, he remains for the rest of the season.

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Still, the incentive is there to return Saturday rather than Sunday: If Scherzer were to pitch the former, it’d line him up on a five-day schedule to start a potential wild card game on Oct. 1.

The team’s game notes on Friday did not include Scherzer as the starter for either game.

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Creating separation

Of the NL wild card contenders, the Nationals have one of the more difficult remaining schedules. Though they get downtrodden squads such as the Baltimore Orioles (two games) and the Miami Marlins (six), nine of their final 13 series are against teams with winning percentages above .511 and legitimate playoff aspirations. Their two American League opponents other than the Orioles — the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians — are two of the league’s best four teams.

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The Nationals are facing a gauntlet, so they must take advantage when they can.

The sweep of the Reds was a perfect example of what the Nationals can do to a contender. Cincinnati entered the series within striking distance of the wild card’s second spot but, after losing three straight, they’re reeling and 6½ games back.

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Gaining more ground this weekend starts with beating up on a Brewers rotation patch-worked to overcome injuries to three of its top five arms. After Houser, the Nationals face middling right-handers Jordan Lyles and Chase Anderson. In the past 10 starts combined of those three, they’ve made it beyond the fifth inning only three times. The Nationals have excelled all season at figuring out starters in the fifth and sixth innings and knocking them from the game. Now, to beat a dangerous Brewers lineup, it’d help to continue the trend.

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Limiting Christian Yelich

The Nationals understand how dangerous Christian Yelich is because the reigning NL Most Valuable Player showed them in May. In the series sweep for Milwaukee, Yelich went 5-for-11 with a home run and three walks, and this was after he returned from a week off due to back troubles. Now, Yelich leads the majors in on-base-plus-slugging-percentage (1.111), is on pace to deliver baseball’s first 50-homer, 30-steal season and seems poised to repeat as MVP.

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Yelich gets help in the lineup from second baseman Keston Hiura, infielder Mike Moustakas and left fielder Ryan Braun. The order has posted five or more runs in four of their last seven games.

PITCHING PROBABLES

Friday: RHP Adrian Houser vs. LHP Patrick Corbin

Saturday: RHP Jordan Lyles vs. TBA

Sunday: RHP Chase Anderson vs. TBA

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