by David Elfin

When the Nationals last prepared to face the Braves, Washington trailed Atlanta by five and a half games in the National League East race. When the teams open a three-game series tonight on South Capitol Street, the gap between them has mushroomed to 12 and a half games with just 51 games left in the season for the defending division champion Nats.

How desperate is their situation? Even if they are somehow able to sweep the Braves the next three nights and again when the teams meet in Atlanta from Aug. 16-18, Washington would still be six and a half games behind (its current deficit to Cincinnati in the battle for the NL’s last playoff spot), barring any other gain in the standings during the intervening eight days. Don’t forget that the Braves have won seven of the 10 matchups a year after the Nats took the season series 10-8.

What’s more, Washington actually fell four games further behind Atlanta while winning six of its past 10 because the Braves (67-45) are the hottest team in the majors with 10 straight victories after finishing off a sweep of third-place Philadelphia last night.

And as has been the case throughout this very disappointing season, the Nats (54-57) failed to hang onto whatever momentum they had built from winning at Milwaukee this past Friday and Saturday by allowing five mostly hard-luck runs while blowing a three-run lead in the sixth inning of Sunday’s 8-5 loss to the also-ran Brewers.

The schedule has broken perfectly so that Washington manager Davey Johnson can send his trio of aces, Stephen Strasburg (5-9, 3.04 earned run average), Gio Gonzalez (7-4, 3.57) and Jordan Zimmermann (13-6, 3.06), to the mound the next three nights. However, Strasburg surrendered a decisive grand slam in losing his last start at Detroit while fellow 2012 All-Star Gonzalez was pounded by the Tigers the next day. Zimmermann held the Brewers scoreless through six innings the day after that but hadn’t pitched well in his two previous starts since representing Washington in the July 14 All-Star Game.

With reliable veteran Tim Hudson on the disabled list, Atlanta will counter with Mike Minor (11-5, 2.75), Julio Teheran (8-5, 3.02) and Kris Medlen (8-10, 3.85). The Nats have the bigger names, but the Braves’ trio has been more effective this season.

As for Washington’s hitters, floundering first baseman Adam LaRoche (1-for-26 before Saturday) came alive with home runs in each of the past two games. Second baseman Anthony Rendon, who had also been mired in a horrible slump (5-for-45 before Saturday), went deep yesterday, too. However, right fielder Jayson Werth (.317), the oldest Nat at 34, is the only one hitting better than .275 other than part-time catcher Wilson Ramos (.286).

Meanwhile, the Braves regained the services of center fielder B.J. Upton from the disabled list this past Saturday. Catcher Brian McCann, first baseman Freddie Freeman and third baseman Chris Johnson are each hitting at least .286, making up for the underachieving performance of Upton, his brother Justin, and Jason Heyward in what was supposed to be a superb outfield.

Atlanta has simply hit better, pitched better and fielded better than Washington this season a year after the Nats had a clear advantage in the first two aspects of the game and were very close in the third.

After these six games over the next two weeks, Washington and Atlanta don’t meet again until a final three-game set beginning on Sept. 16 at Nationals Park. If the guys with the curly W’s on their caps don’t gain significant ground on the Braves during the current fortnight, they don’t figure to be playing those late-summer games don’t figure for anything more than a wild card berth. Or more likely, just for pride.

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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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