One big series down, a bigger one to come

One big series down, a bigger one to come
May 25, 2012, 1:16 pm
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Yes, this week's series in Philadelphia was important for the Nationals, who took two of three from the Phillies and made another statement about the shifting balance of power in the NL East.

But all along, there's been an even bigger series on the horizon, one that opens tonight in Atlanta when the Nationals face a Braves club that has spent the last two weeks swapping spots with them atop the division.

Even Davey Johnson recognized this when he insisted Ryan Zimmerman sit out Tuesday's game at Citizens Bank Park with a sore shoulder.

"We can lose this battle, but I need you for three games in Atlanta," the manager told his star third baseman. "They're the ones on top, and we need to put our best foot forward down there."

So buckle up for should be an intriguing weekend of baseball in the deep South, the first meeting this season between Nationals and Braves clubs that should each be in the thick of the division race all summer.

Washington enters the series feeling good about itself after taking care of business in Philly. Atlanta, on the other hand, is reeling from a four-game sweep in Cincinnati.

There were some extenuating circumstances. Catcher Brian McCann missed three games with flu-like symptoms. Third baseman Chipper Jones, meanwhile, hasn't started a game in a week due to a badly bruised calf. How important is Jones (in his final season) to the Braves' fortunes? They're now 19-5 when he starts, 7-15 when he sits.

Put that all together, and the Nationals enter the weekend holding a slim, one-game lead in the division. They will, however, have to face Atlanta's best during this series.

Ace Tim Hudson starts tonight's series opener against Ross Detwiler; Hudson is merely 13-3 with a 2.09 ERA in his career against the Nationals.

The matchup does tilt back in Washington's favor tomorrow when Stephen Strasburg goes for his fifth win against left-hander Mike Minor and his 6.96 ERA.

And that sets up a fantastic showdown for Sunday night's nationally televised finale: Gio Gonzalez (6-1, 1.98) vs. Brandon Beachy (5-1, 1.77).

Is this a make-or-break weekend for the Nationals? No. The NL East won't be decided over the next three games.

But this will serve as yet another key test for the upstarts of the division, who must again prove it's ready to overtake yet another traditional powerhouse.