Ted Leavengood: Behind the smiles, a major league staredown

Let’s forget the final game in Phoenix, though the Nationals did not go easily in their only loss in nine games. Rather, it is easier to remember the loose and easy smiles all around the dugout and positive demeanor of the eight-game winning streak. What’s not to like when you are 27 games over .500 with the best record in baseball?

But in truth, there is a very serious confrontation under way. Like arm wrestlers locked into combat across a barroom table, the Nationals and the Braves are engaged in a mano y mano match of strength against strength. Each is determined not to blink as they stare unwavering across the table, each searching for signs of weakness. This past week, Washington’s steely resolve was unshakeableas they maintained their lead at four and a half games in the National League East.

The 10-game swing to the west is a test of its own, but the Astros have the worst record in baseball and the card that manager Brad Mills takes to home plate every night looks like one of those spring training lineups that leaves the regulars resting at home. Except these are the regulars. Still, the Nats were shaky in winning the first three games until the takeaway event when Jordan Zimmermann stormed through that aggregation with an ease that seemed more proportional.

Zimmermann’s complete domination Thursday night in Houston was the first indication of the strength Washington has going into these last 47 games of the 2012 season. His fastball command was astounding as he pounded 94 mph fastballs past lefties dead on the inside black of the plate all night. Watching over Zimmermann’s shoulder on the center field camera was pure joy, as he struck out 11, walked no one and allowed only three hits. Atlanta does not have his equal.

After the 5-0 win Thursday, Stephen Strasburg took the mound for the first game in Arizona. The Snakes are competitive in the NL West and the middle of their order with Aaron Hiil, Jason Kubel, Paul Goldschmidt, Justin Upton and Miguel Montero presents a far greater challenge than Houston’s. Strasburg held the heart of the order to a single hit and though his numbers on the evening were less impressive than Zimmermann’s, the statement for the Braves was just as emphatic: You have nothing to match this.

And, of course, there was Gio Gonzalez’s complete game win this past week in Houston. There was no back down in that game when all was said and done. In the dugout and in his interviews Gio is Ray Romano, but on the mound, there is only Rambo, no Romano.

When you stack up the strength of that pitching against the Braves, the scales tipple and wobble but point toward Washington. The Braves have cobbled together a capable rotation headed now by Ben Sheets, 34. Then there is Tim Hudson, 36, Paul Maholm - just acquired from the Cubs, who has a losing record and a career ERA of 4.30 -- and Mike Minor. The core of the Atlanta pitching staff as we enter the dog days of August has more downside risk, but doesn’t look that bad so far.

But it is the power in their lineup that intimidates. There they have the youth and energy to match the Nats. Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward are both 22, having strong seasons and hitting well over the past month. But it is the veterans - Brian McCann, Martin Prado, Michael Bourn and Chipper Jones - who should be carrying the load. Only Jones and McCann have been hot during this crucial stretch.

Instead, it has been Sheets and company that have been the difference. All five of his starts since joining Atlanta in July have been quality ones and he has won four. Only once, when Tim Hudson was rocked for six runs over four innings, has a Braves starter failed. Despite that poor outing, Atlanta won the game against the Phillies 12-6.

In their last head-to-head matchup with the Braves, Washington split the series after losing the first two, the first of which was a historic meltdown in which Atlanta trailed 9-0 but came back in the final innings to win 11-10. Since righting the ship to win those two games against Atlanta, Washington has won 18, losing only six. The Braves, over the same stretch, have won 14 and lost seven. The standoff really dates to that last Nats-Braves series.

Regardless the outcome of this West Coast swing, the three-game series with Atlanta a week from now - Aug. 20-22 - will be the next big difference maker. But however we play it or say it, this is history in the making. They will gather around the hot stoves in this offseason and those to come talking about the 2012 National, about their stretch run against the Braves.

So whether your favorite is a rare steak or planked salmon, savor these days like the most expensive of meals. Roll these moments around in your mind and enjoy them second by second as they unfold. It is great baseball, as it comes only a few times in a lifetime. As Natalie Merchant said so well, “these are days to remember.”

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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