When the Washington Nationals harbored hopes just a few weeks back of catching first-place Atlanta in the National League East standings, seven games against the Braves in the final month of the season seemed like a blessing.
Now, with the Nationals slumping and the division title all but out of reach, games against the dominant Braves look more like a curse — one that could even derail Washington’s designs on a wild-card berth in the MLB playoffs.
Washington begins a three-game series at home Friday with the Braves, who took three of four from the Nationals last weekend in Atlanta. Ace Max Scherzer (10-5, 2.56) is slated to make start on Friday night, which is Anthony Rendon bobblehead night.
The Nationals entered Thursday’s contest at Minnesota with an 80-64 record. The Nationals are ahead in the wild-card race and, if they stay there, would host a one-game playoff Oct. 1.
But Washington has one of the most difficult schedules down the stretch of any playoff contender, with 14 of their last 17 games against teams with winning records. That begins Friday against the Braves, who were 91-56 before Thursday’s game in Philadelphia. Atlanta, which won the division last season, was 9½ games ahead of the Nationals before Thursday.
The Braves’ offense is paced by first baseman Freddie Freeman (38 homers through Wednesday), third baseman Josh Donaldson (37) and outfielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. (38).
On the mound, young pitchers such as Mike Soroka (11-4, 2.67) and Max Fried (16-5, 4.02) have been vital cogs, while Atlanta reliever Chris Martin had an immaculate inning in the seventh Wednesday at Philadelphia, fanning three Phillies batters on nine pitches.
Reliever Shane Greene, acquired from the Detroit Tigers in late July, pitched a scoreless eighth and new closer Mark Melancon pitched the ninth in the 3-1 victory.
That combination of Martin, Greene and former Nationals closer Melancon could be used in the playoffs.
“That’s the formula,” analyst Tim Kurkjian said during the ESPN telecast Wednesday.
Atlanta had a 4.34 bullpen ERA through Wednesday to rank sixth in the National League, while the Nationals were last of 15 teams at 5.77. The Nationals are 7-9 this year against the Braves.
Other wild-card contenders in the National League hoping to catch Washington are:
⦁ Chicago Cubs (77-68 through Wednesday): Standout shortstop Javier Baez is injured and is expected to miss the rest of regular-season play. The Cubs begin a series at home Friday with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
⦁ Milwaukee Brewers (77-68): Outfielder Christian Yelich, last year’s MVP, is done for the season after fouling a ball off his kneecap Tuesday. But the Brewers won their sixth in a row Wednesday, as closer Josh Hader recorded his 30th save. Hader is a native of Millersville, Maryland. The Brewers begin a series Friday at the St. Louis Cardinals.
⦁ Philadelphia Phillies (75-70): The Phillies host the Boston Red Sox this weekend and play five games in Washington the last week of the season.
⦁ New York Mets (75-70): The Mets had won six of 10 after beating Arizona on Wednesday. New York hosts the Dodgers, who have clinched the National League West, this weekend.
⦁ Arizona Diamondbacks (75-71): The Diamondbacks had one of the easier schedules down the stretch among contenders but lost for the fourth game in a row Wednesday.