Tim Hudson will start for the Braves against Jordan Zimmermann and the Nationals in Monday night's opener. Although Atlanta leads the National League Wild Card race, it trails Washington by five games in the East and is 4-8 in the season series. After this set, the teams will meet only once more, Sept. 14-16 at Turner Field.
"Everybody is looking for a great series and an intense series," Braves left fielder Martin Prado said.
"We've got to deal with a good team, one of the best teams in the league right now. We're looking forward to a good series. Everybody is excited to play. I'm just hoping the stadium is going to be packed and that there will be a lot of intense emotional stuff. If we win the series there, it will be super huge for us and give us even more confidence in our team."
The Nationals enter the series with the best record in the Major Leagues, having won 12 of their last 15 and two of three on their current homestand.
"We have played important series all year long," Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We just understand we have to go out and play our type of baseball. If we play good, clean baseball, we should be able to take care of business, whether it's the most important series of the year or the least most important series of the year."
Although the Braves lost to the Dodgers, 5-0, on Sunday to lose ground in the division race, they still have taken 18 of their last 25. Atlanta has split six games this season at Nationals Park.
"The Braves do things the right way," Desmond said. "They are built for the future. They have great pitching and a strong offense from top to bottom. They have some good young guys like we do. We expected to be in the dog fight with them and the rest of the division all year long."
The Braves have remained in contention all season but have not led the division since May 21. They haven't come closer than two games out since June 9.
"We have the opportunity to take advantage because it seems like every time we win, they win and they don't lose very often," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "So this is our time to try to take control of things and get a little closer."
Braves: Hudson has stuck to winning side
Since Hudson lost to the Nationals on July 1, the Braves have won all eight of his starts, with the veteran right-hander posting a 3.12 ERA in that span.
Hudson is 12-4 with a 3.59 ERA for the year, although he has allowed 12 earned runs in 12 2/3 innings against Washington this season. This time, he said he hopes to set the tone for the series.
"The first game of any series is a big game," Hudson said. "If you can win that game then you're sitting in the driver's seat for the next couple. I'm just going to go out there and do what I always do and that's be prepared and give us a good chance to win. Hopefully if I go out there and I'm on top of my game and I'm doing my job, then we should win."
Hudson took a no-hitter into the fifth inning on Tuesday against the Padres and ultimately tossed 6 1/3 scoreless frames. That prompted San Diego manager Bud Black to say Hudson was "as good as I've ever seen him."
Nationals: ERA leader takes the ball
Zimmermann suffered his first loss since June 22 when he gave up two runs in 5 2/3 innings to the Giants on Tuesday, dropping to 9-7 for the season. The righty still carries a Major League-best 2.38 ERA into Monday's game, as he will try to maintain a slim lead on the Rays' David Price.
Zimmermann, who will take on the Braves for the first time this season, has been a model of consistency. In 24 starts, he has given up two or fewer earned runs 18 times and three or fewer 21 times while never surrendering more than four.
He has struggled slightly in three August starts, coming up short of six innings pitched for the first two times all season.
"I'd like to at least go six or into the seventh, but they're a good hitting team," Zimmermann said of the Giants after Tuesday's game. "They battled pretty well tonight. I just didn't have the best stuff."
Hudson has held Ryan Zimmerman to a .226 average (12-for-53) with one home run, but Jayson Werth has touched him up for a .364 mark (12-for-33) with three homers.
Braves center fielder Michael Bourn is riding a nine-game hitting streak.