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Nats have chance to KO Braves

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Nats have chance to KO Braves

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."

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Whoa. Dusty Baker not returning as Nationals' manager. What comes next?

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Whoa. Dusty Baker not returning as Nationals' manager. What comes next?

The Washington Nationals announced Friday Dusty Baker will not return as manager of the club in 2018. 

Baker led the team to the first back-to-back division titles in franchise history, and the Nationals were 192-132 under Baker, but they failed to make it to an NLCS.

Baker is 14th in MLB history with 1,863 career wins.

The next Nationals' manager will be their seventh since they arrived in DC.

Only the Marlins have had as many.

"I'm surprised and disappointed," Baker told USA TODAY Sports. "They told me they would get back to me and I told them I was leaving town yesterday and they waited 10 days to tell me."

"I really thought this was my best year. We won at least 95 games each year and won the division back to back years but they said they wanted to go a different direction. It's hard to understand." 

The team also announced the contracts for the Major League coaching staff have also expired, and the search for a new manager will begin immediately.

RELATED: BRYCE HARPER THANKS NATIONALS' FANS FOR SUPPORT

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Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy undergoes successful knee surgery

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Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy undergoes successful knee surgery

While Nats fans were still digesting the news that Dusty Baker will not return as manager next year, the team released some more surprising news. 

Second baseman Daniel Murphy underwent knee surgery today, per an official team report. 

Washington Post reporter Chelsea Janes reported that the surgery is considered significant and the team won't put a timeline on the recovery process:

"The procedure, according to the statement released by the team, repaired articular cartilage in Murphy’s right knee. For those interested in the details, it was a debridement and microfracture surgery, and orthopedic surgeon Timothy Kremchek performed it."

"For those concerned with the implications of the procedure, those are still unclear. The statement clarified that Murphy’s rehab “will progress throughout the offseason,” as one would hope, and did not include a timetable.

RELATED: HARPER THANKS FANS FOR SUPPORT