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Nationals quickly closing in the top seed in the National League

Nationals quickly closing in the top seed in the National League

Don’t look now, but the once far off, no hope in catching them, Los Angeles Dodgers are within striking range of the Washington Nationals.

On August 25, the Nationals were an astounding 14.5 games behind the Dodgers for the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage for the National League playoffs. Today, September 12, the Nationals are merely 3.5 games behind.

RELATED: LOOK INSIDE THE LOCKER ROOM ONCE THE NATS CLINCHED

Losers of 11 straight and 16 of their last 17 games, the Dodgers have completely fallen apart. In those 17 games, they have been outscored 99-43. Los Angeles’ starting pitching, which was supposed to take them straight to a World Series title cannot put together a good string of innings.

The newly acquired Yu Darvish has struggled with 13 earned runs in his last three starts, equating to a 9.48 ERA during the losing stretch. The supporting cast has not been much better and the offense is nearly non-existent.

The only saving grace for the Dodgers is Clayton Kershaw who just got back from the disabled list on September 1. He only has started two games since being back, winning one, and holding a 3.72 ERA with 14 strikeouts across those two starts.

During that same stretch of 17 games, the Nationals are 12-5. Since August 25, the team has gotten healthier, activating Trea Turner, Jayson Werth, and Max Scherzer back into the line-up.  Earlier this week, Washington solidified their slot in the playoffs by claiming the East Division title for the fourth time in six years.

For the first time since mid-July, the starting rotation of Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Tanner Roark is fully intact.

All a great sign for the Nationals especially while the squad is waiting for the face of their franchise, Bryce Harper, to heal his left knee on the disabled list.

This weekend the Dodgers visit Nationals Park for a three-game series that will be a huge factor in the push for the post-season. Not only are the Nationals now threatening for the top seed in the National League, the Dodgers have yet to lock up a playoff spot. Although the Arizona Diamondbacks are nine games back, but are the second hottest team in the majors going 13-3 since the Dodgers started stumbling.

If the Nationals get past Los Angeles, it might not only be for seeding in the playoffs. It may lead way to a battle for the top record in the MLB and guaranteed home-filed throughout the World Series. 

MORE NATS: TREA TRUNER SHOWS OFF BASEBALL IQ AFTER GETTING CALLED OUT

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When will Bryce Harper return to the Nationals' lineup?

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USA TODAY Sports

When will Bryce Harper return to the Nationals' lineup?

Bryce Harper hasn't seen the baseball diamond since August 12 and if you follow him on social media, you know the wait is nearly killing him.

In the past week however, he has been making positive steps in his road to recovery.

Before Thursday's game against the Braves, Harper was seen running foul pole to foul pole at Nats Park.

RELATED: NAT'S DANIEL MURPHY AND SON ATTEND CAPS PRACTICE

And prior to Sunday's game against the Dodgers, Harper took batting practice.

Then, on Tuesday, Harper batted in a simulated game prior to the team's road game against the Braves. He even ran around the bases to test out his injured knee.

These are all great signs, but when can we really expect him to return?

There have been rumors that it could be as soon as this week, so the Sports Junkies took matters into their own hands and ask general manager Mike Rizzo about it on their show Wednesday morning.

"Bryce had a very productive day yesterday, a very busy day," Rizzo said.

"He had a lot of work to put in yesterday. Harp came out looking good. The anchor leg, his left leg, which is Harp's back leg, his power leg, came through it fine. We'll see how he feels today, which will be very very important and see where we take it from there. He ran bases yesterday which was good and threw from the outfield, so he's slowly and cautiously getting back into a routine. Depending on how he progresses, we'll see where we take it from there. Hopefully, he can get a couple of games of live at bat under his belt before we have that four day break before the playoffs start."

RELATED: NATS FIRST MLB TEAM TO CLINCH PLAYOFF SPOT

So what exactly is Harper doing in a "simulated game?"

"It was just a hitting game for him. We brought up two minor league pitchers for him to see live stuff. What he and Steven Drew hitting, they probably had a total of about 10 or so at bats. 10 or 12 real at bats where four balls, three strikes type of thing, you hit a base hit you're out, that type of thing."

"You could do whatever you want in those games. So, we simulated with men on base, without men on base. The hitter did not know what the pitcher was going to throw and that was kind of the key to it, where you're recognizing spins and velocity and that type of thing. It's well beyond the batting practice that he's been getting recently. We'll continue to do this. We'll filter in some minor league pitchers as we go along and he'll get some time in that way until he can participating in game activities which we hope is sooner rather than later."

The magic date for Bryce Harper and the Nats is Friday, Oct. 6th when the National League Division series start and so does the Nats World Series run.

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Max Scherzer bounces back from last week's rough start against Atlanta

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USA Today Sports

Max Scherzer bounces back from last week's rough start against Atlanta

ATLANTA -- Max Scherzer allowed five hits in seven innings, and the Washington Nationals tuned up for the playoffs with a 4-2 victory over Atlanta Braves on Tuesday night.

Scherzer (15-6) bounced back from his worst start of the season, also against the Braves last week, when he walked six and was roughed up for seven runs in an 8-2 loss.

This time, Scherzer struck out seven and walked only one while throwing 83 of 112 pitches for strikes.

Ryan Madson pitched around trouble in the eighth and Sean Doolittle finished with a perfect for his 22nd save, his 19th in as many chances since the Nationals acquired him from Oakland on July 16.

Ryan Zimmerman had three hits and drove in a pair of runs for the NL East champion Nationals.

Rookie left-hander Luiz Gohara (1-2) surrendered four runs and 11 hits in 6 1/3 innings.

Washington took a 2-0 lead in the third, sparked by Matt Wieters' leadoff double. Trea Turner and Zimmerman had run-scoring singles..

Scherzer retired the first 11 Atlanta hitters before Freddie Freeman reached on a bloop single to right in the fourth. Kurt Suzuki dumped a 3-2 pitch in front of left fielder Howie Kendrick to bring home Atlanta's first run.

Zimmerman added another RBI single in the fifth and Washington finished Gohara in the seventh. Rendon ripped a double just inside the third-base bag to drive in Turner.

Dansby Swanson's fifth-inning double provided Atlanta's other run.

TRAINING ROOM

Nationals: 2B Daniel Murphy was scratched from the lineup shortly before the first pitch because of hamstring tightness. He was replaced by Wilmer Difo.

Braves: CF Ender Inciarte left after the fourth inning with a sore left thumb. It's been a lingering problem for the speedy outfielder, who was listed as day to day. Lane Adams moved from left field to center after Inciarte departedt, while Jace Peterson took over leadoff spot in the order.

UP NEXT

Nationals: LH Gio Gonzalez (14-7) gets the nod in the second game of the series Wednesday night. He is 0-2 with a 6.48 ERA in three starts against Atlanta this season, which includes his most recent appearance last week in Washington when he surrendered seven hits and five runs in five innings of an 8-0 loss.

Braves: RH Lucas Sims (2-5) will fill in for Mike Foltynewicz, who was forced to skip his scheduled start after lacerating his right middle finger in his last appearance. Sims has made his last four relief appearances since starting the first seven games of his big league career.