Nationals set to defend division lead against Braves

Nationals set to defend division lead against Braves

WASHINGTON -- After the Braves lost to the Phillies and the Marlins fell to the Cubs on Wednesday afternoon, the Nationals will be guaranteed an outright lead of the National League East heading into their four-game set with Atlanta, which starts Thursday night.

It's still early in the season, and Washington will have nine more regular-season games against the Braves after this weekend's series. Nonetheless, Nationals players understand the importance of this key divisional matchup.

"That's your opportunity to separate yourself or gain ground," Denard Span said.

Pennants can often be decided by one game when the regular season wraps up in the fall. Even so, Ryan Zimmerman said it's difficult to grasp the importance of division games in April, May and June, but players must do their best to approach the contests with focus.

"Those games count just as much as those in September," Zimmerman said. "So you've got to, as much as you can, try to put that in your mind and treat them like it was a game in September when the finish line is a little closer."

The Nationals are 1-5 against the Braves so far in 2014.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats. Daniel Popper is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.