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Nats have chance to KO Braves

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Nats have chance to KO Braves

It has loomed on the schedule for weeks, a mid-September showdown with the only team that still had a chance to overtake the Nationals in the NL East. But then the Nationals kept winning, the Braves started losing and now the two teams enter this weekend series in Atlanta with 8 12 games separating themselves.

And that unexpected turn could leave the Nationals in a really unexpected position by the time they leave town late Sunday night: having all but clinched the franchise's first division title.

Even in a worst-case scenario, the Nationals will end the weekend holding a still-comfortable, 5 12-game lead with 16 to play. If they win just once at Turner Field, they'll maintain a 7 12-game lead. If they take two of three, that lead jumps to 9 12 games. And if, by some chance, they happen to sweep ... well an 11 12-game lead with 16 to go is mighty tough to surrender.

Not that anyone in the clubhouse is speaking in those terms, at least not in public.

"Obviously, we have a big series coming up these next three days," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We need to go down there and just try to win a series, like we've done all year. That's really been our goal every time: To go in and try to win two out of three. If you get the extra one, great. And if you don't win the first two, try and salvage the third one."

The Nationals have put themselves in this advantageous position in large part because of their ability to take care of business against their chief division rival. They've gone 10-5 against the Braves this season, with victories in four of their last five head-to-head encounters.

This week's sweep of the Mets -- and more importantly the Brewers' sweep of the Braves -- also turned what looked like a tenuous, 5 12-game lead into the current 8 12-game spread.

Thus, the Nationals recognize what kind of opportunity they've been presented, beginning tonight.

"We're looking to go in there and make a statement," reliever Sean Burnett said.

A stranglehold on the NL East title isn't the only thing at stake this weekend. The continued meltdown of several other NL playoff contenders -- most notably the Cardinals and Pirates -- leaves the Nationals with a 14 12-game lead for the league's final wild card berth.

With the magic number in that race down to four, the Nationals conceivably could clinch their first playoff berth by the end of the weekend.

"We've been playing good, clean baseball games all year long, and we've just got to keep on doing our thing," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We're not worried about anybody else in the division, any other numbers, anything like that. If we go out and play good baseball, we believe in ourselves and we feel like we can go anywhere."

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Bryce Harper knows why he didn't play well, but he won't specify why

Bryce Harper knows why he didn't play well, but he won't specify why

Bryce Harper struggled by his standards in 2016 and he says he know why it happened last year. While it was rumored last season that he was playing through injuries, Harper never really missed significant time, nor did he really say that his injuries were the reason for his disappointing numbers. 

Speaking with the media today at spring training, Harper hinted at his injuries from last season as he said he was just trying to stay in the lineup every day.  

Although Harper's statistics dropped off dramatically from his MVP season in 2015, his numbers weren't entirely awful last year. He still hit 24 homers, drove in 86 runs and he had an .814 OPS. 

With a full offseason to heal up, Harper will be a prime bounce-back candidate as he looks to help the Nationals win their third NL East title in the last four years. 

Related: Sorry D.C. sports fans, Bryce Harper is a Dallas Cowboys fan

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Nationals' Max Scherzer says he may not be ready for season opener

Nationals' Max Scherzer says he may not be ready for season opener

The Nationals aren't certain to have ace Max Scherzer ready to pitch for Opening Day. Scherzer, 32, was unable to compete in the World Baseball Classic this summer due to a stress fracture in his right ring finger. 

When he spoke to the media today at the first bullpen session of spring training, he said that the fracture has healed but the symptoms continue. 

Scherzer also said he'd just started throwing again this week. Manager Dusty Baker confimed that the Nationals don't know whether Scherzer will be ready to start the season. 

Any time a team's star pitcher suffers an unusual hand injury, it's cause for concern for the club and fans. 

Scherzer won the NL Cy Young Award last season and posted a 20-7 record as a starter. He also led the MLB with 284 strikeouts. 

Scherzer is an especially vital part of the Nationals rotation considering the injury history of Stephen Strasburg, who landed on the DL twice last season, once with soreness in the elbow that needed Tommy John surgery in 2010. 

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