Nationals vs. Braves: Washington has chance to all but close NL East race

Bryce Harper and the Nationals are inching closer to their first playoff berth since 1981. Photo: Associated Press

This could be the weekend that the Washington Nationals begin to put the final touches on the franchise's first division title since moving to the District.

The Nationals begin a three-game series at Turner Field against the Atlanta Braves on Friday night. Atlanta, despite being in one of the National League's two Wild Card spots, trail the Nationals by 8.5 games in the NL East. Washington's magic number - the combined number of wins and Braves losses needed to clinch the division championship - is at 11 entering Friday.

"It's time to be looking at magic numbers," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "I've been looking at them for a while now."

Meanwhile, the Nationals magic number to simply clinch a playoff spot sits at five, meaning the team has a chance to assure at least a spot in the playoffs by the end of this weekend.

As it stands entering Friday, the Nationals carry the National League's best record and would play the winner of the NL Wild Card game in the first round; a match-up that would currently see the Braves play the St. Louis Cardinals for a spot in a National League Division Series.

Washington is looking to continue a charge that saw them increase their NL East lead over Atlanta by a full three games over the past week, a number that was buoyed by a three-game sweep of the New York Mets.

"We needed to drive the nail in their coffin and come into Atlanta with a good frame of mind," Johnson told the Washington Post.

The Nationals will send Ross Detweiler to the hill to face Kris Medlen on Friday night. Gio Gonzalez, the team's 19-game winner and Cy Young Award candidate, is also expected to get a start on Sunday. One more victory would make Gonzalez the franchise's first 20-game winner since 1978, when Ross Grimsley went 20-11 for the Montreal Expos.

Hypothetically, if the Nationals were to sweep the Braves this weekend, their magic number would be reduced to 5. That would set up the chance for Washington to clinch the NL East title during a six-game homestand at Nationals Park between Sept. 18-23, when the team hosts the Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers.

Date Time WSH starter ATL starter Sept. 14 7:35 p.m. Ross Detweiler (9-6) Kris Medlen (8-1) Sept. 15 4:05 p.m. Edwin Jackson (9-10) Tommy Hanson (12-8) Sept. 16 8:00 p.m. Gio Gonzalez (19-7) Mike Minor (8-10)

The Associated Press contributed to this story.