- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2012

NEW YORK — Davey Johnson has said the phrase so many times this season even he has to offer a wry smile. His managerial motto is that he focuses on today with an eye on tomorrow.

So while the calendar points to this weekend for the Washington Nationals’ final showdown with the Atlanta Braves, a three-game series at Turner Field, Johnson’s focus remains on the New York Mets.

“This is the only game I’m concerned about,” Johnson said Monday afternoon from the dugout at Citi Field.

In some respects, the three-game series the Nationals began with the Mets on Monday night carries more weight. The drama of Stephen Strasburg’s final start has been removed from the equation, his shutdown coming one start earlier than planned. But what they do here, and if there’s any change in their division lead, will determine just how important their weekend in Atlanta will be.

“[The Mets] got three good pitchers going against us, a couple young guys that have promising futures,” Johnson said of Colin McHugh, R.A. Dickey and Matt Harvey, though the Mets have been swept in four of their seven home series since the All-Star break. “They’re trying to get something positive going. They’d like nothing more than to beat us.

“We know it’s a big series coming up this weekend, but we’ll deal with that when it comes up.”

In the clubhouse Monday, there was no sense of urgency. The Nationals are aware that the Braves, who entered the opener of their series with Milwaukee trailing by 5½ games in the National League East, just swept the Mets. They also know that New York has long been a playoff afterthought.

But they’ve found comfort they’ve atop the standings, and they also know that it will take them playing worse than they have at any point in this charmed season to be pressured.

“We don’t need to watch what [the Braves] are doing,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche on Sunday evening as the Nationals prepared for arguably their most important final stretch of road games. “We’re not relying on them to melt down. We’re relying on ourselves to continue doing what we’ve done all year. And if we don’t do that, it won’t matter if those guys stay hot as they are now.

“This isn’t a ‘sit and wait for Atlanta to fall apart.’ I don’t think guys care what they do. When they lost it, [we] pick up a game. Great. But we need to get locked in and be focused going into October.”

The Nationals will go into their weekend series without altering a starting rotation that has undergone few changes. Strasburg’s absence, of course, changes things. But John Lannan will take his spot Wednesday in New York, and the Nationals will send Edwin Jackson, Ross Detwiler and Gio Gonzalez to the mound in Atlanta. The Braves will counter with Kris Medlen, Tommy Hanson and Mike Minor if they stay on-turn.

Just don’t tell any of the Nationals that just yet.

“I think with LaRoche and [Ryan Zimmerman] and [Jayson] Werth, their leadership on this ballclub, they don’t look ahead just like I don’t look ahead,” Johnson said. “They’re keeping everybody focused on the job at hand.”

Notes: Reliever Sean Burnett threw a bullpen Monday, testing his sore right elbow off a mound for the first time since taking more than a week off to rest. Burnett said the session went well, and the Nationals hope to have him available by Wednesday for the series finale, if not Tuesday.

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