Here come the Braves

The Nationals took full advantage of their soft schedule the last few weeks, going 14-5 during their 19-game stretch against the Marlins, Mets and Phillies.

It was a crucial run of wins, and combined with a few slip-ups from the Reds recently, it's gotten the Nats back on the fringe of the wild card race.

Yesterday's results - an 11-2 Nats beatdown of the Phillies and a dramatic walk-off win by the Brewers over the Reds - have brought Washington 4 1/2 games back of Cincinnati for the final National League wild card spot with 13 games to play. The result in Milwaukee sent cheers throughout the Nats' clubhouse, interrupting interviews with Denard Span and Bryce Harper, both of whom were happy to re-start their responses to reporters after the brief celebrations had died down.

Since I've been updating the playoff odds pretty much daily over the last week or so, I might as well continue that this morning. Baseball Prospectus has now given the Nats a 3.1 percent chance of making the postseason, up from 1.5 percent prior to yesterday's action.

Now that the season series with the Mets and Phillies are wrapped up, the Nats' schedule gets a lot tougher from here. They have three games against the Braves starting tonight at Nats Park, host the Marlins for four and then head on the road to face the Cardinals for three and the Diamondbacks for three. The Marlins are the only one of those four teams with a sub-.500 record.

In the eyes of a few Nationals, this series with Atlanta is big for multiple reasons.

First, after being pushed around by the Braves for much of the season, it gives the Nats a chance to fight back a little bit. Atlanta has the National League East title all but locked up, but after going just 4-12 against the Braves to this point, the Nats are eager to show that the gap between these two teams is not nearly as vast as it might seem based on the records.

"The difference really in the year is we didn't hold our own with Atlanta," manager Davey Johnson said after yesterday's win. "We played them a lot of close games, but we didn't hold our own with 'em. And we need to at least send a message to them these next three days that we're better than them."

I followed up that comment by asking Johnson if he still feels the Nats are better than the Braves, despite what the head-to-head record and the standings say.

"I always believed we're better than them," Johnson responded.

Then there's the issue of the Braves being able to clinch the division title at Nats Park.

Atlanta's magic number to lock up the NL East is four, meaning if they win two of the three games during this series, they'll get to use the field and the visitors' clubhouse at Nats Park as their own personal playhouse, popping bottles of champagne and toasting to their division dominance this season.

And they'd get to do it with one of their chief division rivals having to watch them storm the field.

"We don't want that," Johnson said.

He's not alone. It's not like the Nats needed any extra motivation during these next three games - their pursuit of a playoff spot should be enough - but the last thing they want is to have the Braves celebrate right in front of them.

"You never want to see that," Denard Span said. "Yeah, I hate seeing any type of celebration, especially on our field. I've seen that a couple times in my career, see teams jump up and down, and that's something that we definitely don't want to have that here.

"Hopefully we can take care of business and have them celebrate somewhere else."

On a different note, a few people, both on the blog and on Twitter, asked me if I could link to my story that aired on yesterday's pregame show about Richard and Kent Wilson, the father and son who bonded over the Nationals in recent years and made the team a big part of their daily life even as Richard battled an incurable case of liver cancer.

Here is the story, which I was very happy to pass along, with the help of Nats Xtra producers John Harvey and Joey Matusek and editor Steve Penczek. Hope you all enjoy.

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