Set to square off against a red-hot division foe

You know what’s tough? Waking up and reading reports about the horrific movie theater shooting in Colorado and then trying to refocus on sports.

Truly awful stuff, and awful that it happened in a town which is apparently about 20 miles from Columbine.

After opening the second half by playing four against the Marlins and then three against the Mets, the Nationals now move on to face the next division rival in their path - the Braves.

The Nats are just working their way up the NL East standings over this two-week stretch. After splitting with the fourth-place team in the division and taking two of three from the third-place Mets, the Nats will have four games in three days against an Atlanta squad which comes into town 3 1/2 games back of first in the NL East.

The way the rotations will shake out over the weekend, neither team will end up sending their best four starters in this big division set.

jackson pitch red close sidebar.jpgThe Nats will throw Stephen Strasburg tonight, Edwin Jackson and John Lannan (in that order) on Saturday and Ross Detwiler on Sunday, while the Braves will counter with 10-game winner Tommy Hanson tonight, Ben Sheets and Randall Delgado tomorrow and Jair Jurrjens on Sunday.

Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann will miss the series for the Nats, while Tim Hudson won’t throw for the Braves.

The Braves have been grooving lately, winning eight of their last 10. They’ve lost six of their eight games against the Nationals this season, however, and have hit just .229 in those contests.

“I think we match up pretty good,” Nats manager Davey Johnson said, when asked about this upcoming series against Atlanta. “I like our starters, and my offense with everybody now kind of healthy, offensively I think we match up with them. I like my ballclub and I like the position we’re in going into that series. We had our sights on the Phillies and the Braves at the start of the year. The Phillies are kind of fading a little bit. Atlanta’s got a fine ballclub, and it’s going to be a fun four games. My guys are looking forward to it.”

The Nats will continue to work with an eight-man bullpen and four-man bench through the weekend, which is how the roster is constructed following yesterday’s roster move which brought back Drew Storen and sent out Rick Ankiel.

Johnson said after yesterday’s game that he was glad the Nats were able to keep all their bullpen arms up with the big league club for now, and added that he’s not concerned about working with a short bench for the time being, saying his starting position players have been performing well enough that he might not pinch hit much, anyway.

We - the media and fans - tend to get caught up in big series like this one, and sometimes put an unnecessary label on big matchups. I’ve already heard this called “a must-win series” for the Nationals, when in reality, that’s way over the top.

It’s just July, as Ian Desmond reminded some reporters after last night’s game. There are nearly two and a half months left in the season and there will be plenty more chances for the Nats to pull away from their division opponents or the Braves to make a run at the NL East crown. Unless the Nats end up taking all four games in this series and pushing Atlanta to 7 1/2 games back (which would be a major blow), this will just be another episode of tug-of-war between two competitive teams who will still meet six more times later this season.

There’s no need to put too much emphasis on a July series when there are so many games ahead of us. But this should be a fun four-game stretch between two teams playing good baseball right now.

It’ll be interesting to see how things shake out in the nation’s capital over this three-day period.

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