PHOENIX -- A 10-game road trip is a challenge for any club, owners of the best record in baseball or not. And when the final leg of that trip comes against the toughest opponent of the stretch, the challenge becomes all the more daunting.
So the Nationals, fresh off a four-game sweep in Houston and then a two-out-of-three series victory in Arizona, now prepare for one of their tougher tasks this season: a three-game set in San Francisco against the NL West-leading Giants.
It's a task the Nats realize they need to take head-on as they prepare for the stretch run and the first pennant race by a D.C. ballclub in 67 years.
"To go and play teams like this, it's the kind of teams we're going to have to beat to get to where we need to go," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "It's going to be a tough, three-game series, but we look forward to it."
The Nationals have already established their ability to topple the Giants, having swept a three-game series in the District last month. This, however, is a much different opponent at AT&T Park than it is away from the Bay.
San Francisco owns a 34-24 record at home, the seventh-best mark in the majors. More importantly, the cool Northern California air and spacious outfield gaps make this one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball.
Just look at the staggering difference in the Giants' home vs. road splits. At home, their pitching staff has produced a sparkling 2.76 ERA; on the road, that number skyrockets to 4.45.
At the same time, the Giants' lineup becomes far less imposing at AT&T than it is away from the friendly confines. They've hit a grand total of only 19 home runs in 58 home games this season.
So with the likes of Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Vogelsong, Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum scheduled to pitch over the next three days, slugfests don't appear too plausible.
"They've got some very good pitching. We've got some really good pitching," Zimmerman said. "So I doubt they're going to be high-scoring games. Hopefully we'll score a lot of runs. I don't know if they will."
San Francisco may be among National Leaguers' favorite road cities each season, but the locals aren't exactly a welcoming bunch. Despite the laid-back reputation of California sports fans, Giants backers are no pushovers. And AT&T Park remains a hostile environment for visiting clubs.
"It's definitely a rowdy place," said catcher Kurt Suzuki, who played his share of interleague games in San Francisco while with the rival Athletics. "The Giants do play well at home. When I was in Oakland, we played them this past year. It gets rowdy out there, and the team plays well."
The Nationals might want to get used to the idea of playing important games in unwelcome settings. These are the type of road games they can expect to be playing in September and beyond.
In fact, they very well could find themselves back in San Francisco at some point in October, making this week's series a valuable learning experience for those players who have yet to participate in a pennant race.
"I think it's valuable anytime we can go on the road and get into atmospheres like the one in San Francisco," Zimmerman said. "We've all played in it before, so it's not a huge deal or a thing we need to be exposed to, because if you've been in the big leagues, you've played in front of crowds. But on the road in kind of a hostile environment is always good for any of us to experience and get ready for."