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Elfin: Are The Washington Nationals For Real? This Weekend Will Be Telling

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Jesus Flores of the Washington Nationals rounds second after hitting a solo homer in the fourth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on June 29, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Jesus Flores of the Washington Nationals rounds second after hitting a solo homer in the fourth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on June 29, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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We’re just 90 games (five ninths) into the 162-game baseball season, but the four-game series with the Atlanta Braves that starts tonight at Nats Park could be very telling for the Washington Nationals.

As well as the Nats have played this year, they’re just 15-14 since they began a series with the American League-leading New York Yankees five weeks ago tonight.

The once-impregnable bullpen looked all too human in three of the last four home games as Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Craig Stammen were all lit up for long balls. But as this magical season has gone for manager Davey Johnson and Co., star 2011 closer Drew Storen is back just in time to face the Braves.

All-Star starting pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez have both been bombed during the past couple of weeks, but No. 3 starter Jordan Zimmermann has responded with a string of strong outings. Zimmermann has allowed just three runs over 32 innings over his last five starts, four of which he won. He’s fourth in the league with a 2.35 ERA despite his 7-6 record.

Washington’s other Zimmerman, third baseman Ryan, has been on a tear of his own since getting a cortisone shot in the right shoulder that sidelined him for 13 games early this season. Zimmerman’s first inning homer in yesterday’s 9-5 loss to the New Mets – Washington’s only run until it trailed by eight – and his third inning single maintained a 21-game surge that has rocketed his batting average from .218 to .259. During that span, the 2009 All Star has smacked eight homers and eight doubles with 22 RBI and 19 runs.

What’s more, Storen isn’t the only addition to Johnson’s arsenal for the weekend. The guy who usually plays next to Zimmerman, All Star shortstop Ian Desmond will be back in the lineup tonight after missing six days with a strained oblique that also kept him from playing in last Tuesday’s Midsummer Classic in Kansas City.

Of course, the best new of all for the Nats as they prepare to face the Braves is that the home team leads the visitors by three and a half games in the NL East race and has been alone atop the division every day going back to June 5. In fact, Washington’s 53-37 record is the best in the entire league. The Nats have won six of eight games with the Braves, including both home contests (the third was rained out prompting tomorrow’s doubleheader).

Washington and Atlanta split their 18 meetings last year, but as the Nats turned the corner after years of irrelevance with a 14-5 closing kick, the Braves collapsed and lost the battle for the NL wild card with a 5-13 finish. The powerhouse that won 11 straight NL East titles hasn’t finished first since 2005, the Nats’ first season, and has been in the playoffs just once during that stretch.

“We had our sights on the (five-time defending division champion Philadelphia) Phillies and Braves at the start of the year,” Johnson said. “The Phillies have kinda faded a little bit (ahem, Davey, 13 and a half games back is more than kinda faded), but Atlanta’s got a fine ballclub. It’s gonna be a fun four games.”

Indeed. Gonzalez and Braves ace Tim Hudson won’t pitch because they were on the mound yesterday and the teams meet again in Washington on Aug. 20-22 and in Atlanta on Sept. 14-16, but this series is baseball’s biggest in the nation’s capital probably since the Senators were last in the AL race way back in 1945.

No one involved in the games this weekend knows more about the fun and the pressure of a pennant race than the 69-year-old Johnson, the second baseman on two World Series winners and four AL champions with the Baltimore Orioles and the manager of a World Series winner with the Mets and four division champions with New York, Baltimore and the Cincinnati Reds.

“I think we match up pretty good,” said Johnson, whose young roster includes just three players with postseason experience: first baseman Adam LaRoche, No. 4 starter Edwin Jackson and utility man Mark DeRosa. “I like my ballclub and I like the position we’re in going into that series. The guys are looking forward to it.”

As should we all.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin

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