Currently trailing by 5 1/2 games in their division, the Nationals have one more chance over the next two months to gain ground directly on the Braves. That comes on Sunday afternoon at Turner Field, when Washington and Atlanta close out a three-game set before parting ways until they meet Aug. 5 in the nation's capital.
The Nationals took Friday's opener, but the Braves earned a 2-1, walk-off win in 10 innings on Saturday. That gives Atlanta a 6-3 edge in the season series heading into Sunday's rubber game.
"Our head-to-head record against these guys is probably going to determine who takes our division between us, them and the Phillies," Braves pitcher Tim Hudson said after Saturday's game. "They have a good ballclub over there. You can't take anything away from them."
Hudson recognizes that now is a prime opportunity for the Braves to build their lead, with the Nationals missing the likes of Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos and Jayson Werth because of injuries. Washington will turn to rookie right-hander Nathan Karns for Sunday's start, with Ross Detwiler on the disabled list with an oblique problem.
"We need to take advantage of a time when they are battling injuries," Hudson said. "We have had our fair share of those throughout the season. Now is the time for us to take advantage of some other people having problems."
Karns will be making his second Major League start after coming up from Double-A Harrisburg to take the ball Tuesday against the Orioles. Karns got through 4 1/3 innings, giving up three runs on five hits and two walks while striking out three.
With Detwiler still not ready, manager Davey Johnson said the 25-year-old earned another outing.
"It's pretty cool," Karns said of Tuesday's start. "After the first couple innings, I started slowing it down, but it was still a little bit fast for me. I kind of figured it would be in my first start. But you take that and build off of that and try to improve in the second start and keep my cool out there."
Karns said he doesn't want to spend too much time reflecting on the first game, but he will go back and watch some tape.
"I'm not really working on anything except just trying to find my pace again," he said. "Being my second start, I'm probably going to be amped up again -- I don't think I'll never be amped up for a big league game -- but just trying to remember to slow it down, find my pace and start to get a little bit more comfortable out there. I just feel like everything else will become better once that happens. Instead of throwing 100 mph out there, I need to slow it down and get a grip on everything."
The Braves will counter with Paul Maholm (6-4, 3.74 ERA), who has given the Nationals fits this season. In two starts (1-1) against Washington, the lefty has given up two runs on seven hits over 15 2/3 innings, striking out 11 and walking three.
Maholm surrendered a season-high 10 hits along with five runs over six innings on Tuesday at Toronto. But now he returns to Turner Field, where he owns a 1.33 ERA in four outings, compared with 5.36 in seven road games.
Nationals: Davis ready for debut
Washington called up right-hander Erik Davis from Triple-A Syracuse on Saturday, when the club placed Harper on the disabled list. Davis did not appear in Saturday's game and still is awaiting his first big league appearance.
The 26-year-old was 1-2 with a 3.00 ERA across 24 relief innings at Syracuse, although he has past experience as a starter. The Nationals needed a fresh arm in the bullpen after Stephen Strasburg exited with an injury after two innings on Friday.
"I'm ready to do whatever they need," Davis said. "I've done everything in my career, from starting to closing. I probably won't do either of those two. I can do anything in between."
Braves: A turning point for B.J.?
Center fielder B.J. Upton had been out of the starting lineup five times in the Braves' past seven games before returning on Saturday, in the No. 8 spot. He rewarded manager Fredi Gonzalez's decision with a 2-for-4 effort that included the game-winning RBI single in the 10th inning. Upton had been 0-for-11 with eight strikeouts over his previous four games and had two multi-hit games since April 18.
During his time off, Atlanta's big free-agent acquisition took extra swings in an effort to fix some mechanical flaws. He'll hope that Saturday's key hit gets him untracked.
"It's weird," Upton said before the game. "I feel great in [batting practice] and in the [batting] cage and then I get out to the game and it's not there. I've got to take what I'm doing in BP and the cage out to the game. Right now, it's not happening."
• Since getting his average to the .200 mark on May 8, Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa is 6-for-61 (.098) with one extra-base hit, one walk and 24 strikeouts.
• The Nationals have yet to score more than four runs in nine games against the Braves this season. They have scored two or fewer runs six times.