The Washington Nationals have been in sole possession of first place since July 21 and have taken control of the NL East in September, largely due to the Atlanta Braves' slide that is threatening to drop them out of the playoff race completely.
Washington can clinch its second division title in three years by winning in Atlanta on Tuesday night, but starter Aaron Harang seems to be the perfect person to help the Braves delay that celebration for at least another day.The Nationals (86-63) have gained 5 1/2 games on Atlanta this month, bringing their magic number to two with Monday's 4-2 victory -- their seventh in nine games.Prior to winning the division in 2012, the franchise's only playoff appearance came in the strike-shortened 1981 season as the Montreal Expos."It's not just one win (Tuesday)," said Monday's winning pitcher Stephen Strasburg. "It might be to go to the playoffs, but that's not our ultimate goal. We've got to keep playing good baseball."Atlanta (75-75), which won the East last season, has lost four straight and is 3-10 since entering the month six games back of the division lead. It has been outscored 62-33 while hitting .207 with 104 strikeouts in September.The Braves dropped to .500 for the first time since being 1-1 and fell 4 1/2 games behind Pittsburgh for the second wild card."We're all collectively -- and I'm talking about our coaches to our front office staff to our players, to our fans -- we want to win," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "Anything short of us getting in some kind of playoff game or play-in game, it's not acceptable."Atlanta's only victory in its last eight games came when Harang (11-10, 3.72 ERA) allowed an unearned run while striking out nine in seven innings of a 6-2 win over the Nationals on Wednesday.The right-hander, who had lost his previous three starts while posting a 7.98 ERA, is 2-0 with a 0.90 ERA in three starts against Washington this season."Aaron just kept us in the ballgame," Gonzalez said. "I thought that might have been one of the best outings he's given us in a long time."Harang is 0-2 with a 3.30 ERA while receiving four runs of support in his last five home starts, and he'll oppose Tanner Roark as he seeks to build on a solid outing.Roark (13-10, 2.96) ended a three-start skid by allowing two runs in 6 1/3 innings of Thursday's 6-2 win over the Mets. He's pitched at least into the sixth in 15 straight starts, beginning when he allowed one run in 5 1/3 innings of a 4-1 win over the Braves on June 22.The right-hander is 2-0 with a 2.63 ERA in four starts against Atlanta, including three this season. He allowed one run and struck out six in seven innings of a 4-1 victory Aug. 9.Roark has had some trouble with Freddie Freeman, who is 5 for 12 with two doubles in their matchups. Freeman is batting .350 during an 11-game hitting streak he extended Monday before being ejected after striking out in the sixth.Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper left in the fourth inning after feeling light-headed, and his status for this game is unclear. Manager Matt Williams said Harper may have caught an illness that has gone around the clubhouse.