It has loomed on the schedule for weeks, a mid-September showdown with the only team that still had a chance to overtake the Nationals in the NL East. But then the Nationals kept winning, the Braves started losing and now the two teams enter this weekend series in Atlanta with 8 12 games separating themselves.
And that unexpected turn could leave the Nationals in a really unexpected position by the time they leave town late Sunday night: having all but clinched the franchise's first division title.
Even in a worst-case scenario, the Nationals will end the weekend holding a still-comfortable, 5 12-game lead with 16 to play. If they win just once at Turner Field, they'll maintain a 7 12-game lead. If they take two of three, that lead jumps to 9 12 games. And if, by some chance, they happen to sweep ... well an 11 12-game lead with 16 to go is mighty tough to surrender.
Not that anyone in the clubhouse is speaking in those terms, at least not in public.
"Obviously, we have a big series coming up these next three days," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We need to go down there and just try to win a series, like we've done all year. That's really been our goal every time: To go in and try to win two out of three. If you get the extra one, great. And if you don't win the first two, try and salvage the third one."
The Nationals have put themselves in this advantageous position in large part because of their ability to take care of business against their chief division rival. They've gone 10-5 against the Braves this season, with victories in four of their last five head-to-head encounters.
This week's sweep of the Mets -- and more importantly the Brewers' sweep of the Braves -- also turned what looked like a tenuous, 5 12-game lead into the current 8 12-game spread.
Thus, the Nationals recognize what kind of opportunity they've been presented, beginning tonight.
"We're looking to go in there and make a statement," reliever Sean Burnett said.
A stranglehold on the NL East title isn't the only thing at stake this weekend. The continued meltdown of several other NL playoff contenders -- most notably the Cardinals and Pirates -- leaves the Nationals with a 14 12-game lead for the league's final wild card berth.
With the magic number in that race down to four, the Nationals conceivably could clinch their first playoff berth by the end of the weekend.
"We've been playing good, clean baseball games all year long, and we've just got to keep on doing our thing," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We're not worried about anybody else in the division, any other numbers, anything like that. If we go out and play good baseball, we believe in ourselves and we feel like we can go anywhere."