There's a certain luxury in locking up a division title with 12 games remaining in the regular season, most notably a chance for rest and to let nagging injuries heal.
Still, the Washington Nationals have plenty left to play for.After clinching their second NL East crown in three years with a win at Atlanta on Tuesday, the Nationals' quest to secure home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs begins when they go for a three-game sweep of the Braves on Wednesday night.Washington (87-63), which also won the East in 2012, surged to the division title with eight victories over its last ten games. Second-place Atlanta (75-76), the East champion last season, didn't put up much of a fight in that span by losing eight of ten."Nice to have it done," said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who began his career with the Braves. "The sooner, the better."Now the Nationals can focus on the NL's other division leaders, St. Louis and the Los Angeles Dodgers, in an extremely close race for home-field rights that would end in a World Series appearance because of the AL's All-Star game victory.Pittsburgh and San Francisco could also be in that mix if the Cardinals and Dodgers stumble in the closing weeks of the season."It's just one step. There's a long, hard road ahead of us," Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth said. "But we're going to enjoy the moment for now."The Braves, meanwhile, are dangerously close to falling out of the wild-card race and have dropped below .500 for the first time since a season-opening loss. Atlanta stands 5 1/2 games back of the Pirates for the second wild-card spot."We've still got a chance," Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "Now we've got to set our sights on a winning streak and maybe we can come in with a second wild card."Gio Gonzalez (8-10, 3.79 ERA) takes the mound for Washington on Wednesday looking for his third win in four starts. Gonzalez had gone 0-5 with a 4.38 ERA from July 10-Aug. 26 before posting a 2-1 record and 3.38 ERA in his three September outings.In his most recent start, he went 6 2/3 innings and allowed four runs and six hits in Friday's 4-3 defeat at the New York Mets.Atlanta has had Gonzalez's number for most of the left-hander's time in the NL East. He won two of his first three starts against the Braves in 2012 but has gone 0-7 with a 5.32 ERA over his last nine against them, a losing streak dating back exactly two years.Gonzalez is 0-2 this season against Atlanta, allowing eight runs over 10 2/3 innings.Alex Wood (10-10, 2.83) will look to extend his streak of quality starts to 10 for Atlanta. Wood is 3-2 with a 1.88 ERA over his last nine outings, working at least seven innings seven times. The left-hander gave up one run and four hits over seven innings at Texas on Friday, but failed to earn a decision in a 2-1 loss.Wood has been outstanding against the Nationals in his two seasons with the Braves, going 2-1 over five starts with a 1.48 ERA. The lefty-swinging LaRoche has gone 1 for 15 with a whopping 10 strikeouts against him in that time.Wood and Gonzalez started opposite each other Aug. 10 in Atlanta and it was the Braves' young lefty who came out on top, pitching 7 1/3 innings of five-hit ball and allowing one run with a career high-tying 12 strikeouts in a 3-1 victory.Gonzalez lasted 4 2/3 innings and gave up two runs and six hits with eight strikeouts.
The Braves have a .556 OPS in plate appearances to end in a curveball this season, which is 26 points below the league average. Gio Gonzalez has thrown his curveball 17.1 percent of the time this season, which is 5.4 percentage points more often than the league average among pitchers with at least 20 starts.