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Braves ready for potential playoff preview with Nats

ATLANTA -- One year after experiencing an epic late-season collapse, the Braves entered this week with a legitimate hope to erase the sizable deficit that separated them from the first-place Nationals in the National League East race.

Three days and sweeps in two different series later, the Nats have all but locked up the division crown.

Atlanta, meanwhile, is simply happy to know that despite the troubles it experienced in Milwaukee this week, the club will enter this weekend's series against Washington with a still-comfortable lead in the NL Wild Card standings.

"[The Nationals] played awfully consistently all year, and with only a couple weeks left, it's going to be tough to catch them," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "Not to say that we're going to stop trying, but right now, I'll just take a win on Friday and go from there."

After completing a three-game sweep of the Mets last weekend, the Braves were 5 1/2 games behind the Nationals. If Atlanta was able to at least keep things equal over the past few days in Milwaukee, it could have returned home this weekend with the hopes of completing a sweep that would have forced Washington to begin sweating.

But that was before the Braves were swept by the red-hot Brewers and the Nats claimed their own three-game sweep of the Mets.

Now when the Nationals arrive at Turner Field to begin a three-game series on Friday night, they will possess an 8 1/2-game lead and the desire to put the finishing touches on clinching the division title.

With just 18 games to play, the Braves will spend this weekend looking to strengthen their 5 1/2-game lead in the Wild Card scramble. Along the way, Atlanta will attempt to make one last statement against this Washington club that it would likely face if it proves fortunate enough to advance to the NL Division Series.

"If you gotta win, you gotta win," right fielder Jason Heyward said. "You got to beat whoever's across the field from us. It definitely doesn't change anything. We've got to win the baseball game, bottom line."

The Nats have won 10 of the first 15 games played in the season series this year. The Braves do not have to look back too far to see how the tide can be altered, courtesy of the results of a late-season series.

The Cardinals lost eight of the first 11 games played against the Brewers last year before taking six of the final seven games of the season series. That helped them overtake the Braves in the Wild Card race and eventually put them in position to eliminate the Brewers in the NL Championship Series in six games.

"Yeah, absolutely," Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "There's a -- for the lack of a better word -- a statement or something, that we need to go out and win that series."

When this month began, there was some concern that the Braves might be heading toward a repeat of last year, when they blew the 9 1/2-game lead they carried into September. Those fears were put to rest on Sept. 2 when Chipper Jones' walk-off home run against the Phillies capped a five-run ninth inning and marked the first of seven wins within an eight-game span.

After the sweep of the Mets was completed last week, the Braves were already within their win total from last September, when they went 9-18 and saw their postseason hopes crushed by a 13-inning loss to the Phils on the regular season's final day.

This year's postseason hopes were strengthened by the fact that the three teams -- the Cards, Dodgers and Pirates -- directly behind them in the Wild Card standings were also swept in three-game series this week. So Atlanta will actually enter this weekend's series with a cushion of at least six games to secure one of the two available Wild Card entries.

"We've got to win some ballgames," Gonzalez said while pointing out that the Braves must first worry about themselves before focusing on what the other Wild Card hopefuls are doing.

As the Braves began preparing for this stretch run, their primary concerns centered around what has been a struggling offense over the past month.

In winning just 11 of its past 25 games, Atlanta has batted .224 and averaged 3.1 runs per game. The club has hit .152 (30-for-198) with runners in scoring position during that span.

Much has been made about the scoring opportunities that have been squandered lately. But after combining for 32 at-bats with runners in scoring position in the final two games of last weekend's series against the Mets, the Braves totaled just nine at-bats with runners in scoring position during this week's series in Milwaukee.

That is not exactly encouraging news as the Braves prepare to face a Nationals pitching staff that has limited them to a .239 batting average this year. They will not have to face the recently shut down Stephen Strasburg. But they will likely still have their hands full facing Ross Detwiler, Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez.

"Whether we face Strasburg or not, they're still a very good team," Heyward said. "Very sound defensively, got good pitching from start to finish, and they've got a good lineup. A tough lineup to pitch against. We've battled them, and I feel like we've gotten better against them gradually as the season has gone on. And we'll try and see what we can do this weekend."

Atlanta Braves, Chipper Jones