Back on the road with a jolt of momentum

MILWAUKEE - The Nationals wake up this morning in first place in the National League East, 1 1/2 games up on the Braves, right where they were prior to the four-game set with Atlanta over the last handful of days.

Looking at the standings, it’s as if those four games with the Braves never happened. But they did, and while the Nats just earned a split, it felt like more than that.

They had been pushed around by Atlanta over the last couple of seasons, including the first two games of that series. But to close things out by winning the last two games, getting strong starts from Doug Fister (who went eight tremendous innings on Saturday) and Tanner Roark (who worked his way through 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball on Sunday), the Nats walked onto the team plane last night feeling pretty good about how they’d been able to turn the tables on the Braves.

zimmerman-catch-outfield-white-sidebar.jpg“That’s obviously a really good team over there that has had our number last year and a half, two years,” Ryan Zimmerman said after the game. “This is a step in the right direction.”

Now, we’ll see what the Nats can muster on a seven-game road trip that takes place in two cities over six days.

Three games await here in Milwaukee against a Brewers team that’s a whopping 17 games over .500, has a surprising 5 1/2 game lead over the Cardinals in the National League Central and has the best record in the NL.

It’s been one test after another for the Nats the last couple of weeks, and this series certainly will tell us something about how this team stacks up against a red-hot Brewers squad that has solid pitching and can hit the heck out of the ball.

Milwaukee has scored the fourth-most runs in the majors (averaging 4.56 per game) and has the second-best team average and slugging percentage in the NL. Their outfielders have plenty of pop (Khris Davis, Carlos Gomez and Ryan Braun all have double-digit homers) and only two of their regular position players rate below-average in OPS-plus, the catch-all offensive metric that’s adjusted to the player’s ballpark.

After this three-game set in Milwaukee, the Nats head to Chicago for four games in three days. (The two teams have a rare scheduled doubleheader on Saturday due to a scheduling quirk.)

If you look at the standings, you might assume the Nats will be able to roll through the Cubs, but Chicago’s record doesn’t tell the full story.

The Cubs are 18-15 since May 17, and are starting to put things together. Those four games at Wrigley Field won’t be a walk in the park.

There’s no doubt that the Nats go into this road trip riding a bit of momentum. It was only two games, but picking up those two wins over Atlanta allowed the Nationals to forget about the head-to-head issues with the Braves for a bit and relocate their swagger.

They’ve gone 13-8 in their last 21 ballgames, still hold that 1 1/2 game lead in the division and are ready for this latest test on the road over the next week.

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