There's nothing inaccurate about saying the Nationals' series with the Braves this weekend is the biggest one they've played since 2005. They're at .500 at their latest juncture in the season since their first year in Washington, and they head into Atlanta this weekend with 12 games left on their schedule against the team currently leading them by eight games in the National League Wild Card standings.
It's a bit silly to place so much weight on a series two weeks from the end of July, but that says more than anything about how long it's been since the Nationals have been anywhere near this point. They've got a chance to catch the Braves - a team they've played reasonably well against in the last two years - but there's little margin for error if they're serious about doing it.
"I think a lot of guys on our team needed the All-Star break to kind of regroup. I think everyone does," reliever Tyler Clippard said on Tuesday at the All-Star Game in Phoenix. "Mentally, it's a long year. The All-Star break was huge for a lot of guys. So, to come in and face a division rival, a team that we're shooting to catch, and play them right out of the gates like that, it's a very important series. We're excited about it."
The last time the Nationals were in Atlanta, they took two out of three - and would have swept the Braves if they hadn't blown a late lead and faltered in extra innings when then-manager Jim Riggleman sent Doug Slaten out for a third inning for the first time in his career instead of using Henry Rodriguez. But if they took two out of three again this weekend, they'd only make up a game on the Braves, who are 24-12 since June 1 and have an identical 28-18 record to the Nationals at home.
What the Nationals need is another tear like the one they had a month ago, when they won eight straight games, and they probably need it to happen against teams in front of them in the Wild-Card race. They've set up their pitching rotation to throw their best at Atlanta this weekend, using both of their left-handed starters (John Lannan and Tom Gorzelanny) to neutralize the Braves' lefty-heavy lineup.
If they're serious about any kind of playoff run, it begins now. Forty of their last 70 games are against teams in their division. The opportunity is there, but the Nationals will have to seize it quickly.
"In the second half, we're going to get a chance to play within our division a lot more than we did over the last month and a half," Clippard said at the All-Star Game. "If we can go on a run like we did a month ago (winning eight in a row) in our division, you can pick up four games in four days."