Staying cool as the division race heats up

PHILADELPHIA - Things sure have gotten a bit more interesting within the last couple of weeks.

Entering action Sept. 12, fresh off a three-game sweep of the Mets, the Nationals' lead over the Braves in the NL East was 8 1/2 games.

Today, that lead is down to four games, the slimmest the division margin has been since Aug. 28. The Nationals have also now fallen into a tie with the Reds for the top seed in the National League.

There are eight games left in the regular season. If the Nats play .500 ball the rest of the way out, Atlanta would need to go 8-0 to finish in a first-place tie atop the division and earn a one-game tiebreaker to determine which team wins the NL East and which team is a wild card entrant into the postseason.

It's not likely that the Braves scoot in ahead of the Nats and win the division. It's also certainly not impossible.

To answer the question before it's asked, no, the Nats still aren't feeling the pressure yet. They know that they control their own destiny and if they go out there and take care of business, the NL East is theirs.

Guys aren't scoreboard watching in between pitches. They're not going through all the numbers to determine scenarios in which they can back into the division title.

In fact, when shortstop Ian Desmond was asked after last night's loss if he'd seen that the Braves had won about a half-hour earlier on a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth, he responded, "No," before cracking a smile. "That sounds about right," he added.

The focus remains on the next game, the next opponent. That's all the Nats can control. If they start thinking bigger picture or worrying about what the Braves are doing, that's when they could really begin to falter.

"I think the worst thing you can do is look at the standings," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "A loss is a loss. Losses always hurt. You definitely want to win more games than you lose. But it's just one of those games. Put it behind you, look forward to tomorrow and give us a chance to win the series."

Tonight, it'll be John Lannan hoping to get things back on track. Lannan has stepped up and earned a couple of big wins in crucial situations this season, and the Nats could sure use another one of his clutch performances today.

Unfortunately for the Nationals, past results won't be working in their favor today.

Lannan is 2-12 with a 5.79 ERA in his career against the Phillies and, more specifically, 1-5 with a 7.06 ERA in seven starts at Citizens Bank Park. Last year was the first time in Lannan's career that he beat the Phillies in the City of Brotherly Love.

The sky won't come falling down should the Nats drop another game in the standings to Atlanta, but if the margin gets much slimmer in the next day or two, the proverbial collar might get a little tighter.

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