Nats face Mets, Braves coming off a huge road trip

Let the pennant race begin.

It has been difficult to gauge local reaction to the Nationals' recent hot streak. The team left town Aug. 5 for a 10-game road trip that included plenty of late nights, including two lengthy extra-inning games in Houston and series in both Phoenix and San Francisco that taxed East Coast television viewers.

Nationals vs. Mets
Ross Detwiler (6-5, 3.18 ERA) vs. Johan Santana (6-8, 4.58 ERA)
When » Friday, 7:05 p.m.
Where » Nationals Park
Radio » 106.7 the Fan, WFED 1500, WHFS 1580
Nationals manager Davey Johnson is in the midst of setting his rotation for the postseason. He wouldn't exactly put it that way, but it's clear he wants to split left-handed pitchers Ross Detwiler and Gio Gonzalez as soon as possible. Thursday's off-day cleared the way for that. Detwiler was flipped with Edwin Jackson and now will go Friday night in the series opener against the Mets. Jackson will pitch Saturday. No word yet on when Gonzalez will pitch -- though it would make sense to have Jordan Zimmermann go on normal rest Sunday and hold Gonzalez for Monday to face the left-handed heavy Braves lineup.

But 12 days later the Nats finally return home Friday night for a six-game homestand against the New York Mets and then the Atlanta Braves, who sit in second place in the NL East. There are just 44 games left in the regular season, and Washington (73-45) entered play Thursday 8? games clear of the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, who were tied for the second and final wild-card berth. That's a serious cushion this late in the season.

Since leaving town, the Nats have taken over the best record in baseball. They went 8-2 on the road trip, winning all three series, and are 20-6 since July 21. Their lead went from three games over the Braves to 4? despite Atlanta's own stellar play. Now comes the hard part: finishing off the final quarter of the season without getting distracted by thoughts of the postseason.

But the Nats do have some advantages, including 27 of their final 44 games at home and only one road series outside of the division and the Eastern time zone -- the second-to-last of the season in St. Louis. Otherwise they travel twice to Philadelphia and once each to New York, Atlanta and Miami. Washington also has two more days off in August and four total between now and Sept. ?18 to earn some much-needed rest, especially for its bullpen. And 28 of the remaining games are against teams that sit below .500.

This hot streak has helped the Nats fend off Atlanta, which was 16-5 since July 24 before finishing a series at home against the woeful San Diego Padres on Thursday. The Braves are expected to throw Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm and Kris Medlen against Washington starting Monday. The Nats likely will counter with Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg and Ross Detwiler.