The Washington Times - August 5, 2013, 12:00PM

The Atlanta Braves come to Washington Monday night riding a 10-game win streak and sitting on a 12.5 game lead in the National League East.

At its core, it’s a matchup the Nationals know is important.

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Their hopes of winning the division might be dimming, but one of the main things keeping that flame alight is the fact that they play the Braves nine more times before the end of the season, starting Monday night. If they’re ever to gain ground and make it more interesting, this is the time to do it.

“They’re getting to be all important at this point,” said right fielder Jayson Werth. “But any time you play the team in front of you, especially when you’re behind, they’re games we need to win.”

But at the same time, the Nationals, who are 6.5 games back in the Wild Card, have played too poorly and lost too many times for them to put that type of added weight on this series, or the one that will begin next week in Atlanta. The Braves being on a torrid winning streak hasn’t helped them, but that’s out of the Nationals’ control. 

Instead, they must focus first on bringing their level of play up, consistently, to where they expect it.

Then perhaps they can refocus on the division and Wild Card races.

“We can’t think about anything. We’ve got to just think about trying to win games,” said center fielder Denard Span. “We’ve just got to keep battling. You don’t quit trying to win the division until you’re mathematically out of it.”

The Nationals entered the season feeling as though they were the more talented team between the NL East’s top two clubs a season ago.

They won 98 games, kept the Braves at bay in the division all season and watched as their division rivals were sent packing in the one-game wild card playoff. They know how important it is to the Braves to hold their current lead.

And while some of the bravado they maintained after an early-season sweep by the Braves has faded, the Nationals admit it’s a shock that the distance between the two teams has grown as large as it has.

“It’s surprising,” Werth said. “It’s really tough to pinpoint one thing. Probably a lot of reasons why we’re here. But you know, I still have hope. I still haven’t given up. I never will. But, yeah, it’s surprising.”

“They’ve obviously been playing good baseball and even with us winning the last (two games before Sunday), they’ve been winning as well,” Span added. “This’ll be our first opportunity in a while to gain some ground by winning some games.”

So that is how the Nationals must look at this upcoming series.

While it may not be the type of divisional showdown it once could’ve been, it is still an opportunity for the Nationals — an opportunity to see a minor reward if they can play up to the level they expect. 

There are 51 games remaining in this season. The Nationals need to view all of them that way.

“We’re just trying to win games,” said catcher Kurt Suzuki. “Our goal is to get to the playoffs, whether we win the division or get the wild card, we just need to start winning games, that’s the bottom line.

“You definitely want to gain some ground. (But we) try right now, at this point, to take your mind away from the standings, just try to win some ballgames and get back in the hunt.”