WASHINGTON — Ever since dethroning the Philadelphia Phillies at the top of the NL East in 2012, the Washington Nationals have had two primary nemeses: the Atlanta Braves and themselves.
The Nats went 6-13 against Atlanta in 2013, ceding seven games directly to the rival to whom they lost the division by 10 games. This year, Washington is just 3-7 against the Braves, meaning the Nationals have dropped 20 of the 29 matchups between the teams since capturing their lone division crown.
But this weekend, the Nationals head into the lion’s den of Turner Field with, unbelievably, the largest division lead in the National League (only the Orioles’ 5-game advantage in the AL East is greater). Thanks to a 13th-inning walk-off home run by Bryce Harper on Thursday, Washington sits 4.5 games ahead of the Braves with 50 games to play (48 for the Braves).
A day after the non-controversy controversy of Bryce-Harper-to-the-minors — stirred up by manager Matt Williams’ comments on the radio that morning, then his admonishment of the media for reporting on them — Harper broke out of an 18-game homerless streak by dropping a grooved 1-0 fastball from Mets reliever Carlos Torres into the fifth row of the left-field bleachers, a couple seats off the right edge of the visitor’s bullpen at Nationals Park.
The blast ended more than just a personal streak, though — the win was the first extra-inning home victory for the Nationals since Sept. 8, 2012, snapping a string of nine straight losses in such situations.
The Braves, meanwhile, had a much-needed off day Thursday after going 0-for-the- road trip on an eight-game swing through Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle. They begin a 10-game homestand Friday, but every game of that stand is against a division leader. After the Nats, Atlanta gets the Dodgers for four and the Oakland Athletics for three, before taking to the road again to face playoff hopefuls in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
That makes this three-game showdown with Washington that much bigger. If the Nationals can win two or all three of the matchups, they can extend their lead to either 5.5 or 7.5 games heading into Atlanta’s toughest stretch of the season. The Braves also enter the weekend a full three games out of the final Wild Card spot, meaning the Nationals could go a long ways toward pushing them out of playoff contention entirely.
The teams will meet twice more, for six total games, in a 10-day span in mid- September, but this weekend’s series may very well serve as the swing point in both teams’ seasons. And the Nationals will get another chance to clear a mental hurdle on Friday night, as they send Stephen Strasburg to the hill.
In six career starts at Turner Field, Strasburg has been ejected as many times as he’s won (once each), and lost twice while posting a 5.79 ERA. That’s the worst mark of any ballpark he’s pitched in more than once in his career. He’s left one start with an injury, another with heat exhaustion.
As much as the Braves have been the Nats’ tormentors, Turner Field has been Strasburg’s personal house of horrors. A win in the series opener, with Atlanta searching for answers, grappling to stay within shouting distance in every postseason race, would be an enormous hurdle to clear. After a rough start to the season, Strasburg’s best set of back-to-back outings have come in his last two starts, in which he has allowed a single run on just seven hits, walking three and fanning 14 over 14 innings.
After Braves tamer Tanner Roark on Saturday, the Nats will turn to Gio Gonzalez in the series finale. Gonzalez has also struggled with Atlanta, as his seven losses in 10 starts against the Braves are the most against any opponent in his seven-year big-league career.
If there has ever been a time to clear the mental hurdle, this is it. A series win would lift an enormous pressure off the Nationals’ shoulders for the stretch run, putting it squarely on the Braves. A sweep would be golden.