Washington clinches playoff spot with two wins vs. L.A.

It was never going to be as easy as it looked for the Nationals.

A runaway win in the National League East looked possible heading into a weekend series with the second-place Atlanta Braves. Instead, Washington was dropped three tight ballgames and had its lead trimmed to five games after the Braves defeated the Miami Marlins 7-5 on Monday night. The Nats returned home to lick their wounds in anticipation of this week's seven-game homestand against the Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers.

And those wounds are far from just mental. Already without slugging left fielder Michael Morse (bone bruise, torn sheath in his left wrist), they will also be without second baseman Danny Espinosa, who endured a miserable series in Atlanta and has a sore left shoulder. Espinosa went 0-for-11 and struck out nine times against the Braves before undergoing an MRI on Monday. There is some concern the injury could be a serious one, but team officials won't disclose the diagnosis until prior to Tuesday's series opener against the Dodgers.

Up Next
Nationals vs. Dodgers
Jordan Zimmermann (10-8, 3.01 ERA) vs. Aaron Harang (9-9, 3.79 ERA)
When » Tuesday, 7:05 p.m.
Where » Nationals Park
Radio » 106.7 The Fan, WFED 1500, WHFS 1580
Closing in on a playoff berth -- if not quite yet a National League East title -- the Nationals have a chance to clinch this week beginning with a series at home against the Dodgers. It's been a rough go for Los Angeles, which is waiting for word on lefty ace Clayton Kershaw (hip). It is already without starters Ted Lilly (shoulder) and Chad Billingsley (elbow). Washington turns again to Jordan Zimmermann, who has allowed just four earned runs in his two recent starts. But he needed 104 pitches to make it through five innings against the Mets last Tuesday in an eventual 5-3 victory.

In Espinosa's place will be utility man Steve Lombardozzi, who has seen plenty of at-bats this season at second base, third base and in left field. But while he has a better batting average than Espinosa (.279 to .250), Lombardozzi features far less power. His slugging percentage of .355 is over .50 points lower than Espinosa's (.407) and his on-base percentage is only marginally better (.323 to .315).

With or without Espinosa, Washington (89-57) has a chance to clinch its first playoff berth since moving to the District in 2005 from Montreal. The magic number to secure a spot in the postseason is down to three games. And it just so happens that the Dodgers (76-71) are one of the final teams the Nats need to eliminate to do so. Two wins against them will do it. Both clubs were off on Monday.

Los Angeles, which swept the Nats during a three-game series in May, and Milwaukee are both still in the hunt for the second National League wild-card berth. The Dodgers were one game behind St. Louis for that spot while Milwaukee had used a 12-4 run dating from Aug. 30 to close within 2? games of the Cardinals. Washington will definitely miss Los Angeles ace left-handed pitcher Clayton Kershaw, who visited a specialist in New York on Monday to determine if he needs season-ending hip surgery.