Time: Friend or Enemy
The biggest question the Nationals face right now is if time is on their side or not. After splitting a series at home against the Braves July 20-22 the Braves left town 3.5 games back of the Nationals. It could have and perhaps should have been 4.5 back, but the Nationals blew a 9-0 lead allowing the Braves to gain an extra game in the standings. Since that series ended the Braves have gone 10-3 and the Nationals have gone 10-4 causing the Braves to gain a half game.
Because of how well the Braves have played over this stretch it feels like they are breathing down the necks of the Nationals, but think about this from the other prospective. No matter how hard and how well the Braves have played all they have managed to gain is a half game. The Braves have played .769 baseball since the series against the Nationals, and it is extremely unlikely that they can keep this up for the final two months of the season. The Nationals .714 winning percentage is equally unsustainable, but the question is now whose side is time on.
If the Braves were to play at their current pace for the rest of the season they would go 103-59 while at the Nationals current pace they would finish with an equal record of 103-59. The Braves would catch the Nationals but only enough to force a one game play-off with the loser then having to play in the Wild Card game the very next day. The truth of this is that a winning percentage of over .700 is very difficult to maintain. The Braves best winning percentage in a month was the .692 they put up in July while the Nationals best was .654 also in July. Those two winning percentages are much more realistic for the two teams to play down the stretch and if they both played to those percentages the Braves would finish 99-63 while the Nationals would finish 100-62 winning the division by one game.
The good news for both teams is that they have six games remaining against each other. The Braves do have yet to win a series against the Nationals, but that seems like something that shouldn't happen in a season between two evenly matched teams. With one series being at Turner Field and another at Nationals Park the most likely outcome is that those games end up split. Of course those are the greatest opportunities the Braves have to catch the Nats and the greatest chance the Nats have to bury the Braves. If the Nationals play to their current pace against the Braves then they should win four of those six games which would give them a bit of breathing room in the division, but the Braves will be ready for those games and need them far more than the Nationals.
Need and want don't win games and the Nationals have been able to deal with the Braves so far this season, but it is hard to imagine the Braves not winning a single series against the Nationals in 2012. Especially with one remaining home series against the Nationals. That series will be the most important one for the Braves and if they can sweep they can completely erase the Nationals three game division lead, but it is only in those two remaining series that the Braves have direct control over their division standings.
Once the final series with the Braves wraps up on September 16 the Braves are going to have to hope the Dodgers, Brewers, Phillies, and Cardinals can help them to either catch the Nationals or hold them off. For now it appears that time is on the Nationals side, and as long as they can take care of their own business the Braves are going to have to play at least.667 ball to catch them.