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Braves vs. Nationals: Potential Playoff Preview Hits Atlanta This Weekend

If the Braves lose one game this weekend to the Nationals, the race for the National League East is (probably) over.

Atlanta currently trails the Nats by 8.5 games in the standings, and there are just 18 games left to be played. A sweep brings the Bravos to 5.5 back with 15 games to play, which at least gives them hope as the final two weeks of the regular season arrive. Anything less than a sweep and it's tough to imagine the Braves winning anything other than a wild card spot in 2012.

This all being said, this weekend's series could be a playoff preview. The new rules dictate that the team with the best record, which would be the Nationals as of today, can play the winner of the wild card play-in game even if they hail from the same division. In recent years that was prohibited, but MLB figured they'd test it out this year.

As for the Nationals, they're just about the same team they've been all year. Stephen Strasburg may be done, but that doesn't take much away from what is a very good ball club that ranks near the top of the league in offense and pitching. Ryan Zimmerman continues to punish baseballs in the second half, Bryce Harper is heating up and Jayson Werth keeps getting on base at the top of the lineup.

Here are the pitching matchups and start times for this weekend:

Friday, 7:35 p.m. ET - Kris Medlen (8-1, 1.64 ERA) vs. Ross Detwiler (9-6, 3.23 ERA)

Saturday, 4:05 p.m. - Tommy Hanson (12-8, 4.35 ERA) vs. Edwin Jackson (9-10, 3.85 ERA)

Sunday, 8:05 p.m. - Mike Minor (8-10, 4.42 ERA) vs. Gio Gonzalez (19-7, 2.93 ERA)

For updates, stay tuned to SB Nation Atlanta. For more in-depth coverage, head over to Braves blog Talking Chop. And for more news, notes and analysis from around the league, visit Baseball Nation.

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Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.