Down the stretch they come

Over their last 15 games, the Nationals are 7-8.

Reason to be concerned? No, not yet.

But it's not exactly the way you want to be playing with the postseason quickly approaching and meaningful regular season games still to come in the next week and a half.

The Nationals' competition down the stretch is fairly stiff. They've got one more game with the Brewers this afternoon, three at Philadelphia against a Phillies team that definitely won't roll over with the Nats in town, three in St. Louis against a possibly playoff-bound Cardinals squad and then three at home against the Phillies.

The second-place Braves, who are now 4 1/2 games back of the Nats, have three at home against the lowly Marlins, three at home against the equally lowly Mets and three in Pittsburgh against the Pirates, who have absolutely fallen off a cliff the last handful of weeks.

The schedules favor the Braves in a big way. The numbers favor the Nats, who have a magic number of six. Should they play .500 ball the rest of the way, the Nats would force Atlanta to win out to finish in a tie for the division.

Surprisingly, it's been the bats which have quieted a bit of late. The Nats have put up 3.6 runs per game over their last nine contests, this from a group which had averaged 4.9 runs per game in the 60 previous games since the All-Star break.

The bullpen also hasn't been at its best the last couple weeks.

Craig Stammen had one of his shakiest outings in a while yesterday, and manager Davey Johnson said it was the wildest he's seen Stammen this season.

Even though he really didn't pitch all that poorly, Ryan Mattheus had another rough line and got stuck with the loss after surrendering three runs on four hits in an inning of work.

Tyler Clippard has been shaky, Sean Burnett has struggled of late (although he had a nice bounceback outing yesterday, striking out two in an inning of work) and Christian Garcia even showed he was human Saturday, allowing two runs in the ninth inning in a blowout.

The only guy who seems to be peaking right now is Drew Storen, which again is why he'll likely get the vast majority of the save opportunities the rest of the way out.

It won't be an easy road and the Nats aren't playing their best ball as the postseason nears. But they've played well enough these last six months that they've given themselves some room for error. They still have the best record in baseball and a firm grasp on the division - for now.

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