The stage was set last week as soon as the probable starting pitchers were confirmed for the Braves' three-game series against the Nationals that begins Monday night in Washington. With each team's three most proven starters set to take the ball, whichever team comes away with the series win will make an important statement about the final two months of the National League East race.
After building upon a perfect seven-game homestand with a series sweep in Philadelphia over the weekend, the Braves, who have won a current MLB-best 10 games in a row, can all but lock up the division crown if they stay hot against the Nationals, who are 12 1/2 games back of first place and clawing their way back toward .500 after a draining six-game losing streak coming out of the All-Star break.
Since their figurative backs were pressed against the wall midway through a doubleheader after an 11-0 drubbing at the hands of the Mets on July 26, the Nationals have been playing solid baseball, but the team they're chasing in the East has cranked up its offense in response.
"You are not going to give up on winning the division," first baseman Adam LaRoche said on Sunday, before an 8-5 loss deprived the Nationals of a weekend sweep of the Brewers. "But ... when you lose ground, it makes it harder. It's getting down to the point where  games are a lot. We do have some ball left, but it's going to take some really good ball."
Mike Minor and Stephen Strasburg square off on Monday in the first of this series' three compelling pitching matchups. Strasburg has run hot and cold in July and is looking to snap a four-start winless streak in which he has posted a 5.63 ERA and received no more than three runs of support each time out.
Meanwhile, Minor has helped anchor the Atlanta rotation in the aftermath of a season-ending injury to veteran Tim Hudson, allowing one run and no walks over 14 innings in his two most recent starts, both Atlanta victories. Minor was on cruise control in the Braves' 9-0 win over the Rockies on Wednesday, allowing just two hits in seven strong innings.
"Mike did a nice job, because it's hard sometimes to pitch with that type of lead," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "There was a lot of delay with us scoring some runs and them changing pitchers, and he did a nice job keeping the edge going. That's something that sometimes young pitchers can't handle, and he did it."
Though the Braves may hold the largest division lead in baseball, Minor will need similar focus to keep the Nationals from a confidence-building win in Monday's series opener.
"It doesn't matter what your record is," Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "You want to go in there and beat those guys. You want to go in there and show a division rival that we're better than them. They're going to show us that they're not out of it. They're going to play us as hard as they can. It's going to be a tough series."
Braves: Upton back in everyday lineup after adductor strain
Center fielder B.J. Upton went 1-for-5 with a walk and a pair of strikeouts against the Phillies on Saturday afternoon in his return from a right adductor strain and racked up two more hits Sunday, including a double, and scored a run. These are promising signs from the prized free-agent acquisition, who stumbled out of the gate to a .177 batting average before sustaining the injury on July 12.
Upton cited the time off as a chance to adjust his swing and return to the approach he exhibited in his early years with the Rays.
"Early in my career, I hit the ball the other way so well that I had to learn how to pull," he said on Saturday. "I think over the years, I learned how to pull and lost what got me there. So, hopefully now that I've learned how to pull and I'm starting to hit the ball the other way, it can only get better for me."
Nationals: Cedeno called up as Ohlendorf rests on DL
• Left-hander Xavier Cedeno was recalled from Triple-A Syracuse on Sunday to shore up a bullpen that will be without long reliever Ross Ohlendorf for at least another week and a half.
Ohlendorf was placed on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to Aug. 1 with right shoulder inflammation after his arm was slow in recovering from the emergency start he made on July 26. He threw a season-high 114 pitches against the Mets, but saw his fastball velocity dip considerably in his next appearance five days later in Detroit.
"It's nothing that I'm really worried about," Ohlendorf said. "I wish that I didn't need to go on the DL. I think this will work out best for everybody. It would be tough to have six guys in the bullpen while they are waiting for me to be ready."
• Right fielder Jayson Werth was back in the lineup on Sunday in Milwaukee after exiting Saturday's game in the sixth inning with a minor groin injury. Werth went 2-for-3 and scored the first run of the game after he was hit by a pitch to lead off the second inning.
• Strasburg has posted a 1.68 ERA in 11 starts at home this season with a stellar 6-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio at Nationals Park.
• Minor's 1.01 WHIP this season ranks sixth among all qualifying starters.
Eric Single is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.