Upcoming series vs. NL East foes loom large

If the Nationals are to earn their first National League East title since moving to Washington in 2005, they are going to have to win it by beating teams inside the division.

That is obvious with this weekend's huge series against the second-place Atlanta Braves, who used a strong week to gain some ground in recent days. But it remains no less true against the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies -- even if those teams have long been out of contention.

- Brian McNally

Up next
Nationals at Mets
J. Zimmermann (10-8, 2.99 ERA) vs. R.A. Dickey (18-4, 2.64 ERA)
When » Tuesday, 7:10 p.m.
Where » Citi Field, New York
Radio » 106.7 The Fan,
WFED 1500, WHFS 1580
Two of the best pitchers in the National League square off Tuesday in Queens as the Nats and Mets continue their three-game series. Jordan Zimmermann didn't look quite himself from the start of August to Sept. 1 as his ERA rose from 2.28 to 3.01 in six starts. But he looked better Saturday against St. Louis with two runs allowed in seven innings and nine strikeouts. And Dickey continues his remarkable season at age 37. The knuckleballer has allowed four earned runs in his last 292Ú3 innings over four starts. This is his fourth start against Washington this season (2-1, 3.05 ERA).

The Nats found that out this weekend when they lost two of three games to the last-place Miami Marlins. Despite trading star third baseman Hanley Ramirez in July along with established veterans Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez, the remaining Marlins have given Washington fits. The Nats went 7-6 against Miami in the second half but were drubbed 9-0 on Aug. 28 there and 8-0 on Sunday here. The Marlins didn't lay down just because there was little to play for in the standings.

"We play a lot of the rest of the games in the division, and I think we've got the Dodgers and the Cardinals somewhere in there, too," outfielder Jayson Werth said. "So it's no easy task. We've got a long, hard stretch ahead of us, and we've got to play good baseball. We just need to keep being the same team we've been all year."

The Mets have fallen apart in the second half but still throw National League Cy Young candidate R.A. Dickey against Washington on Tuesday, and one of their top pitching prospects, Matt Harvey (3-4, 3.04 ERA), has been solid since a late July promotion. He pitches against the Nats on Wednesday.

Philadelphia has actually put itself on the cusp of playoff contention. Despite trading outfielder Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence at the July 31 deadline, the Phillies are 25-14 since then and with 21 games still left were 51Ú2 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals, who hold the second and final NL wild-card berth. That successful stretch for Philadelphia includes a 5-1 record vs. Washington with six more games on tap.

If the five-time defending division champions are going to relinquish their crown, they don't plan on doing so quietly. And before even seeing the Phillies, the series at Atlanta looms for the Nats. The Braves entered this week's series at Milwaukee after reeling off seven wins in eight games to keep the pressure on Washington. In a few days neither team will have to scoreboard watch. It will all be in front of them on the field.

"We're not relying on them to melt down. We're relying on ourselves to continue to do what we've done all year," Nats first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "And if we do that, it won't matter if those guys stay as 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 lose it, pick up a game, great, but we need to get locked in and be focused going into October."