The Washington Times - August 23, 2012, 09:07AM

Amid the Washington Nationals’ series against the Atlanta Braves this week, manager Davey Johnson pointed out that with Major League Baseball’s new rule adding a second wild card in each league for a one-game playoff, it’s not just about getting to October anymore.

“There’s really more pressure on you to win your division. There’s 10 times more pressure,” Johnson said. “The Braves know it. Getting the wild card before, you’re in the playoffs. Now you get the wild card and you’ve got a one-game playoff and that puts you really behind the eight-ball because you’ll probably use your best pitcher in that one-game playoff.”

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It’s Aug. 23 and the Nationals are six games up on the Braves for first place in the National League East. That’s the catbird seat if there ever was one.

But shortstop Ian Desmond hasn’t spent any time wondering about the importance of capturing the division.

“I haven’t. Apparently Davey has though,” Desmond said with a wry smile. “We’re worried about today’s game. I think that’s what’s been our saving grace all year long is that we haven’t really looked ahead too much.”

Desmond credited veteran leadership for keeping that kind of tunnel vision. But the fact remains, it’s no secret that an NL East pennant is far more different in 2012 than reaching the playoffs as a wild card.

“I think everybody knows the advantages of winning the division. Winning the wild card isn’t in our minds,” Chad Tracy said. “We’re here to win this thing and I don’t think anybody in here’s probably even thought about being a wild-card team. We’re here to win this thing, and that’s what we plan on doing.”

Reliever Ryan Mattheus called it a “good goal to have in mind.” But the theme is that players aren’t dwelling on even the short-term future.

“I don’t think we sit here and think about how many games up or how many games out or whatever it’s going to take to win the division. But I think that’s just our goal,” Mattheus said. “At the end of the season we want to be at the top of the NL East. So, yeah, that’s what we’re striving for.”

The Nationals have had at least a share of first place in the division since May 22. The Braves are the only real competition in that race.

Having that kind of long-term advantage can sometimes lead to complacency, or let thoughts creep in about winning the division. Not to Tracy.

“I think we’re wired to think one day at a time because it gets too cluttered in your mind if you start thinking about what could happen, if you’re looking ahead,” he said. “We try to keep everything simple around here, and when the time comes you look up and hope you’re in first place.”

With 38 games left, the Nationals’ magic number to clinch the division stands at 33 (a combination of wins and Braves losses). If they hit that mark sometime in mid-to-late September, it’ll be the kind of celebration most of these players have only been able to dream of.

“I think we all know what it would be like. That’s what we sign up to play this game for; that’s what we’re in it for: Those champagne showers and stuff like that,” Mattheus said. “But we can’t get caught up in that celebration right now. We still got to win ballgames to win the division.”

And, if they wrap up the division and are able to hang that pennant at Nationals Park, they’ll then have to win games in the playoffs to bring about more champagne. If they finish with the best record in the NL and face the wild-card playoff winner, they could have the advantage of seeing a No. 2 starter in Game 1 of the division series and a tired team overall.

“That’s just the advantage of winning the division,” Mattheus said. “If we take care of that goal, then we’ll have the perks of being division champs.”