How big is tonight's game?

ATLANTA - The Nationals' final trip to Atlanta this season hasn't gone as planned though the series' first two games.

They've had close calls go against them. They've struck out a whopping 29 times. They've seen the Braves manufacture runs with groundball singles, walks and errors.

Two games, two losses. The Nats' division lead over the Braves, which was 8 1/2 entering the series, is now down to 6 1/2.

Nats fans might be a little antsy today, fearing a three-game sweep by the Braves which would push them back to within striking distance in the division. A 5 1/2 game lead with 16 games remaining on the schedule after today (15 for Atlanta) is significant, but it isn't insurmountable.

So how big is tonight's series finale, which will be broadcast nationally on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball? How crucial is it for the Nats to win at least one game in this series and avoid a sweep?

Perhaps, not surprisingly, if you ask the guys in the Nationals' clubhouse, they'll tell you tonight is just as crucial as any of the other 161 games on their schedule.

"I look at all of them as important," manager Davey Johnson said after yesterday's loss. "I don't have them weighted any more important than the others. ... Tomorrow's another big one. They're all big from here on out."

"You don't want to get swept anywhere, especially against the team behind you, so it's a big game," Adam LaRoche added. "I think they're all pretty big from here on out. But we've got a chance to really gain some ground against these guys. Had two close ones, lost 'em. Come out tomorrow, hopefully take one."

As Jayson Werth said two nights ago, this is why teams work so hard all season to build up big leads in the standings over their division opponents. That separation is valuable because it allows you to go through a couple rough days without stressing too much.

We knew going into this series that the Nats' cushion in the division allowed them to leave Atlanta with at worst a 5 1/2 game edge in the NL East. They'd love to see that get bumped back up to 7 1/2 after today's contest, trim their magic numbers by a couple of games and get some mojo back before their upcoming seven-game homestand against the Dodgers and Brewers.

But will another loss tonight inspire mass panic?

If you think so, you haven't been following this team carefully enough this season.

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