The Washington Times - September 23, 2011, 10:24AM

One of the hottest teams in baseball will welcome a divisional rival to their home stadium tonight for a three game serious with significant playoff implications. Sounds exciting, right?

Sure, the Nationals playing the role of potential spoiler to the Atlanta Braves playoff hopes isn’t exactly the way they or their fans would like to see their team involved in a playoff race. But this is what they’ve got: three games. Stephen Strasburg vs. Tim Hudson tonight, Chien-Ming Wang vs. Brandon Beach on Saturday and Ross Detwiler vs. Mike Minor on Sunday.

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With the Braves clinging to a two-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Wild Card race, the Nationals will have a direct impact on who makes the playoffs this season and who doesn’t. If Nationals manager Davey Johnson has his way, the Braves won’t be securing anything on his watch. 

“Who’d have thought they’d be fighting for their life coming down to the end?” Johnson said Thursday. “They’re in for a dogfight. We’re going to try to make it as tough on them as we can.

“I want to be at full strength going against Atlanta. It’s going to be a fun series this weekend.”

Johnson has been talking about playing the spoiler to the Braves playoff hopes all week. Their most recent series against the Phillies, the first sweep of Philadelphia in Nationals history, was all well and good but both sides knew what was really at stake: nothing. This is different.

“I think a lot of guys in the clubhouse are looking at that as a big series for us,” said left fielder Michael Morse. 

There are a lot of positive vibes flowing around the Nationals lately. They — amazingly — still have a shot at finishing over .500 this season (they’d need to go 5-1 to close it down) and they’ve won 10 of their last 12 games, including eight straight on the road.

But the games and the opponents have to be kept in perspective, too. They beat a fourth-place Mets team that hit perhaps its lowest point against Washington and needed a public rant from its manager to reel off some victories against playoff teams after the Nationals left town. They then took four straight from Philadelphia when the Phillies, as Ian Desmond put it Thursday night, “Didn’t have their full lineup out there one game.”

This is not meant to downgrade the Nationals recent victories or the phenomenal performances they’ve been getting from their young pitchers and their young talent up and down the lineup — because it has been impressive. But this weekend will be an excellent test for all of those positive signs.

“You want to compete with teams in your division,” Johnson said after his team took the season series from the Phillies, 10-8, for the first time since 2006. “You put the bullseyse on their backs. Every team I’ve ever managed, you pick out the best team that you’ve got to beat. When I was with the Orioles it was the Yankees, got to beat the Yankees. Over here you’re going to have to go by the Braves and the Phillies. We took a step in that direction.”

“We’re going to try and win every game we can,” said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo “Be it the Braves and the Marlins. We like to be spoilers. We’re happy to play well (in Philadelphia), obviously and we’re going to play as well as we can against the Braves. I think it’s going to be a good weekend series.”

– In a housekeeping note, rain is predicted for much of Friday and Saturday but, as you may have gathered from the crux of this blog post, these games certainly matter so you can be assured that the Nationals will do anything they can to get them in. 

It’s also the final homestand of the season for the Nationals and there are lots of fan-focused things going on at the park all weekend, starting tonight with post-game fireworks and half-priced beer. Saturday they’re giving away a team photo and 2012 schedule and on Sunday the first 10,000 fans will receive “Strasburg Strikes Again” t-shirts.