ATLANTA -- As the Braves exited the All-Star break tied with the Nationals atop the National League East standings, there was reason to look at the 10-game homestand that begins on Friday and wonder if it would be the one that defines this season.
There's no longer reason to wonder. Like it or not, Atlanta will enter the most daunting stretch of its schedule in the midst of an eight-game losing streak. By the time the Braves hit the road again on Aug. 18, there is a good chance they will know whether they are legitimate postseason contenders.
As miserable as this past week has been for the Braves, they are quite fortunate that their skid has coincided with a 5-5 stretch for the first-place Nats, who will arrive at Turner Field on Friday with a 4 1/2 game lead in the division standings. While Atlanta would love to sweep Washington for the fourth time since the start of 2013, the Braves simply have to hope to win this series. If they don't, they'll either be 5 1/2 or 7 1/2 games out of first place with the brutal homestand just 30 percent complete.
"We can be really far out of it or [get] back in it this weekend," Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman said.
The Braves have won 20 of 29 against the Nationals dating back to last year, and they will not have to deal with Doug Fister, Washington's most reliable starter, this weekend. Instead, they will oppose Stephen Strasburg, who has posted a 3.90 ERA in his past seven starts against Atlanta, and Gio Gonzalez, who owns a 5.75 ERA over his past six matchups with the Braves.
Once the Braves bid adieu to the Nats, they will host the Dodgers for a four-game set and then welcome the A's for three games. In summation, over the next 10 days, Turner Field will welcome the club with the AL's top record and the two clubs that own the NL's top two winning percentages.
When the Braves lost seven straight to the Marlins and Giants (April 29-May 3), they bounced back to win 11 of their next 18 games. But among the teams they beat in a series during that rebound stretch, the Brewers are the one that currently owns a winning record.
Given the level of competiton, this next bounce-back bid will certainly prove even more challenging for a young Atlanta club that counts two backups -- Gerald Laird and Ryan Doumit -- and two starting pitchers -- Aaron Harang and Ervin Santana -- as its only players above 30 years old (on the 25-man roster).
While Laird and Chris Johnson have proven to be capable leaders in a clubhouse that was once filled with them, this might be the time for some of the younger everyday players to step up and assume more of a leadership role. Jason Heyward and Justin Upton stand as the most likely candidates.
"We've had so many opportunities to take leads and blow games open, and we're not doing it," Laird said. "It seems like we're putting ourselves in good situations to score. We're just not getting that big hit when we need to."
Offensive woes continue to be the primary concern for the Braves, who rank 13th in the NL in OPS since the All-Star break. Five times during their eight-game skid, they had a pitcher last at least six innings and allow two earned runs or less.
Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez has taken B.J. Upton out of the leadoff spot the past two games and replaced him with Emilio Bonifacio. It will be interesting to see if Bonifacio continues in that role or if he might share it with Heyward, whose struggles against left-handed pitchers stand as the one concern about him filling the lineup's top spot.
Sources have said that the Braves' front office has not pressured Gonzalez to continue playing B.J. Upton, who still has another three seasons remaining on his five-year, $75.25 million contract. If Wednesday's lineup is any indication, Gonzalez might continue to play Upton in center field and use him lower in the lineup.
"We've got to play better," Laird said. "This is a big stretch for us here. It ainít going to get any easier."