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Washington Nationals’ big test vs Atlanta Braves: Nats face NL East’s second place team, four games in three days

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Washington’s Nationals start their four-game set with the Atlanta Braves 5-7 against their NL East rivals in 2018.

Cincinnati Reds v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

They’re 9-6 out of the All-Star Break, 5-1 in their last six, with wins in eight of the last 11, but Washington’s Nationals have only gone from 6.5 back on July 20th to 6.0 games back after Sunday afternoon’s win over the Cincinnati Reds in the nation’s capital.

Philadelphia’s Phillies (63-48) still lead the NL East, and the Atlanta Braves (60-48) are 1.5-games back, in second, heading into their four-game set with the third-place Nationals this week in D.C.

Talking to 106.7 the FAN’s Sports Junkies on the day after the non-waiver trade deadline last Wednesday, GM Mike Rizzo said the Nats can’t worry about what other teams in the division are doing.

“I’ve said this before, I worry about how we play,” Rizzo explained. “You can’t control what the other teams are doing unless you’re playing against them. We’ve got a lot of games left against the teams we’re chasing, which is fortunate for us, so we’ll concentrate on those guys at that time. We’ve got to concentrate on ourselves, and like I said, if we play up to our capabilities, that’s all we can worry about, and that’s all we can control and if we play like we’re supposed to play, I’ll take my chances.”

The Nationals are just 5-7 against the Braves this season, heading into this week’s matchup.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

They have six with the Philadelphia Phillies coming up in the next few weeks as well, after going just 4-6 against the current division leaders thus far.

These games could go a long way in determining whether the decision to stand pat, more or less, at the non-waiver trade deadline was a good one.

As Rizzo described it last week, they did have discussions with other teams before deciding that the deals just weren’t right, and it wasn’t worth it to blow everything up and focus on a plan to reload for 2019.

“We had ideas and discussions about five or six players,” he told the Junkies, “and yes there was a scenario that if everything went well, we would have gone in that direction, but like I said, it had to be such a circumstance where we felt that the risk of abandoning the season was so worth the future in ‘19 and beyond that we were going to blow it up, but it never got to that point.”

Bryce Harper was a part of those discussions, though Rizzo told the 25-year-old outfielder the night before the deadline that he wasn’t going anywhere in spite of the rumors.

What would it have taken to consider a deal for the 2010 No. 1 overall pick, who’s set to hit free agency this winter if he and the Nationals don’t work something out between now and the end of the season?

“What you have to get in these packages for a player such as [Harper],” Rizzo explained, “you have to get 1-2 anchor players, what we call anchor players, and then some auxiliary players that go along with it, and the anchor player was never there when we talked about any of the deals with Bryce Harper.”

Since the All-Star Break, Harper, who’s put up a .234/.380/.495 line with 20 doubles and 26 home runs in 476 plate appearances overall this season, has a .367/.484/.673 line, with six of his doubles and three home runs over that stretch, and eight hits in 17 ABs since the non-waiver deadline passed.

The Nats, who’ve gotten a combined .185/.274/.272 line from their catchers thus far this season, were rumored to be in the market for a backstop as well, namely Miami Marlins’ catcher J.T. Realmuto, with reports out there that Rizzo and Co. in the front office in D.C. were at one point willing to include top prospect Victor Robles in a deal.

Were those reports accurate or inaccurate?

“Inaccurate,” Rizzo said, “and I’ve seen reports that we offered Victor Robles plus more than that for Realmuto, but we never made an official offer for Realmuto other than discussions that [Miami’s President of Baseball Operations] Michael Hill and I have had in the past.”

Matt Wieters, who has a .197/.293/.320 line in 39 games and 141 plate appearances, missed significant time with a hamstring injury, but homered in the Nationals’ win over the Reds on Sunday afternoon, connecting for his first home run since late April, and Davey Martinez said he’s seen signs of progress from the veteran backstop, who’ll share duties behind the plate with Spencer Kieboom unless the Nats make a post-non-waiver deadline deal for a catcher.

“He swung the bat well today, he did,” Martinez said.

“He’s going to get it. The injury he had was substantial. He’s getting back, he feels good, the biggest thing with him is handling our pitching staff and he’s done a great job with that.”

Wieters’ homer accounted for one of the two runs the Nationals scored in the finale with the Reds, as they won, 2-1, earning a one-run win for just the 11th time in 29 games decided by a run this season, which Martinez said was another positive sign as they head into this week’s series with the Braves, in what should be a playoff-like atmosphere in Washington.

“That’s a huge win,” he said, “and to be able to play, like I said, a clean baseball game, offensively, defensively, get the pitching we got, our bullpen comes in, [Ryan] Madson eight, [Kelvin Herrera] nine, and play a clean game, it’s huge.

“And to win the series, that’s really big for them too, and I’m proud of the boys. They’re fighting, they’re hitting, they’re pitching, they’re doing everything right, so let’s keep it going.”