As the Washington Nationals return home following three straight losses in Atlanta, fans say they aren't losing faith in their National League East-leading team -- yet.

"Historically, the Nats have had a difficult time," said Tia Goodson, who was taking a lunch break in Farragut Square on Monday. "It's going to be tooth and nail."

The team held a 5 1/2-game lead over Atlanta going into the Braves' Monday night game at Miami. But after the Nats' weekend sweep in Atlanta, and two epic, late-season collapses by first-place teams fresh in baseball memory -- the Boston Red Sox in 2011 and the New York Mets in 2007 -- nothing's guaranteed with 16 games left in the season.

Last 10 home games
Sept. 18-20 vs. Dodgers
Sept. 21-24 vs Brewers
Oct. 1-3 vs. Phillies

"Those things do happen, so it's not without possibility," said Capitol Hill resident Darren Flusche. "But my sense is the Nats have a good clubhouse, that they're not going to let that happen.

"But you never know."

Woodley Park resident Bill Coe said the Nationals, who face the Los Angeles Dodgers at home on Tuesday, have rebounded before.

"There were some concerns when they were swept by the [New York] Yankees so badly earlier this season and they came out of that and really kicked the tail out of everybody else," Coe said. "So I'm not too concerned."

And the fact that Washingtonians are still talking about the Nationals in September is something most fans are grateful for as the team previously has only had a winning record once since it moved here from Montreal in 2005.

"Whether or not they make it to the World Series, people are going to be happy that they've gotten this far," Goodson said. "D.C. residents, they have nothing to complain about. It's been a great year."

Most fans say they're confident the Nats will notch a playoff berth, a faith buoyed by the fact that 2012 marks the first year of Major League Baseball's expanded playoffs with a second wild-card team added to both the American and National Leagues.

But the road from a wild-card slot is dicier now as those two teams from each league play each other in a one-game playoff. The winner then goes on to play its league's top-ranked team in a traditional best-of-five-game series.

Still, most Nats fans say they aren't worried about that yet. The bigger question for them is how far a young squad can go in uncharted territory without pitching ace Stephen Strasburg, who was benched this month after reaching his maximum inning count for the season. This year marked Strasburg's return to the mound after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his pitching elbow in 2010.

"Strasburg is everything, he's 'the man,' " said Zach Rodham. "I am nervous about going through without our ace."