Atlanta hasn't gained ground in second half

Despite their loss to the Mets on Sunday night, the Atlanta Braves remained one of the hottest teams in baseball. They had gone 20-9 in the second half of the season, a .690 winning percentage during that stretch. And yet night after night the Braves have stared at the out-of-town scoreboard in frustration.

That's because until Sunday they couldn't get the first-place Nationals to lose. An eight-game winning streak finally ended with Sunday's 7-4 loss at Arizona. But Atlanta couldn't take advantage when its ninth-inning rally fell short in New York and remained 4? games out. Since leaving the District with a disappointing four-game split against the Nats on July 22, the Braves have gained no ground at all. In fact, they have fallen back; they were 3? games out after losing the final two games of that series.

- Brian McNally

Nationals at Giants
Gio Gonzalez (14-6, 3.32 ERA) vs. Ryan Vogelsong (10-5, 2.27 ERA)
When » Monday, 10:15 p.m.
Where » AT&T Park,
San Francisco
Radio » 106.7 The Fan, WFED 1500, WHFS 1580
Pitching matchups don't get much better than this. The Nationals travel to San Francisco to finish off their 10-game road trip against the National League West leader. Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg all start for Washington. The Giants counter with Ryan Vogelsong, Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum, who has started to turn around a miserable season with five solid starts in his last six outings. That's four of the 11 lowest ERAs in the National League -- and that doesn't even include San Francisco's Matt Cain (2.99), who will miss this series. Vogelsong and Zimmermann rank first and second in the NL.

And that could spell trouble for Atlanta, which on Friday began a stretch of 20 games in a row that could test its depth and patchwork pitching rotation. The Braves will get six more head-to-head meetings with Washington, so their fate isn't out of their own hands. But that 20-game stretch is only part of a grueling 33 games in 34 days. The only day off is Aug. 30. Next week Atlanta has to play a night game at Nationals Park and immediately fly to San Francisco without benefit of rest to continue a 10-game road trip.

Meanwhile, the Nats have three days off before the end of the month to both set their pitching rotation and rest their position players. The eight-game winning streak is over, but Washington is still 22-10 since the All-Star break -- a .688 winning percentage. With 47 games left, it could go 23-24 and still win 94 games. And just as an added bit of insurance: Even if the Braves continue their red-hot streak and overtake Washington in the NL East standings, the club remains nine games ahead of St. Louis and the Los Angeles Dodgers, the two teams just off the playoff bubble with identical 62-53 records.