The Washington Times - September 16, 2013, 09:27AM

The Washington Nationals haven’t exactly steamrolled their way through their divisional opponents this season, but by-and-large they’ve taken care of their business. Here they are, with 13 games remaining in the season, carrying winning records against the Phillies, Mets and Marlins.

And then there’s the Braves — against whom the Nationals have won just four games all year for an obviously inadequate 4-12 record. The Braves have swept the Nationals twice at Nationals Park and, really, while many of the games have been competitive, have had the upper hand all season.

SEE RELATED:


When they arrive in Washington on Monday and prepare for their final three games at Nationals Park this season, the Braves have a chance to emphasize that dominance. Their magic number to clinch the division is four. If the Nationals lose twice in the series, the Braves will be popping champagne right in front of them.

That is not a fact that has been lost on manager Davey Johnson.

“The difference, really, in the year, is that we didn’t hold our own with Atlanta,” Johnson said Sunday after his team completed a 19-game stretch against losing teams with a 14-5 record. “We played them a lot of close games, but we didn’t hold our own with ‘em.

“And we need to at least send a message to them these next three days that we’re better than them.”

Now, this is not a new line of thinking.

Back in April, second baseman Danny Espinosa made headlines when, after the Braves swept the Nationals in their first meeting of the season, he reiterated what many of the Nationals had thought all spring: that the Braves were not “better” than them.

“I still don’t think they’re better than us,” Espinosa said at the time, the same day Paul Maholm fractured his right wrist with a pitch. “They’re hot right now. They’ve come back on people. They’re playing well. It doesn’t last forever. I’m not worried about it… I’m going to be real confident going into these next 16 games.”

Espinosa’s bravado, particularly so early in the season, was not misplaced. While the second baseman’s season devolved from that point and he did not play in the major leagues after June 4, there were few in the Nationals’ clubhouse who expected their team to underachieve as much as they did throughout the season’s first four months. 

As Johnson said on Sunday, “I always believed we were better than (the Braves).”

So here they are, with a chance to not only send a symbolic message but to keep themselves in playoff position by beating their biggest foe.

The Nationals need to win almost all of their remaining 13 games if they have designs on the final wild card spot. But with the Reds up 4.5 games at the start of play on Monday — and now lucky enough to play the Houston Astros for the next three games — the race could be over by Thursday if the Nationals cannot get over the hump and beat the Braves. 

Then there is the more emotional wrinkle. The Nationals have no interest in watching the division crown they sealed just more than a year ago being celebrated on their turf by the Braves. 

“We know going into Washington, we win the series, we win the division,” said Braves third baseman Chris Johnson. “So, that’s pretty cool. Go in there and win some games and see if we can get this thing over with.”

“You never want to see that,” said Nationals center fielder Denard Span. “I hate seeing any type of celebration, especially on our field. I’ve seen that a couple times in my career, see teams jump up and down, and that’s something that we definitely don’t want to have here. Hopefully we can take care of business and have them celebrate somewhere else.”

If the Nationals can take the series from the Braves and keep pace in the wild card race, then things get even more interesting as they welcome the Marlins to Nationals Park for four and the Reds travel to Pittsburgh.