PHILADELPHIA — On the afternoon of July 31, the Atlanta Braves beat the Washington Nationals in a noontime matinee, then repaired to the visitors’ clubhouse at Nationals Park and, like much of the baseball-watching public, spent the 3 o’clock hour watching MLB Network and refreshing Twitter on their phones. Within minutes, as the trade deadline approached, came the news the Braves were awaiting. They packed up and headed to the airport as teammates of three new relievers.

“All of a sudden,” Manager Brian Snitker recalled, “we had three guys fall out of the sky and join us.”

It’s difficult to remember now, but that was the week the Braves/Nationals matchup felt most like a race for the National League East title. As they arrived in Washington in late July, the Braves had just lost lineup stalwarts Nick Markakis and Dansby Swanson to injuries. Their pitching was a mess. A loss to the Nationals in the opener of that three-game series dropped their first-place lead over Washington to 4 1/2 games.

But as the Braves return to Washington this weekend for the final head-to-head meeting of the regular season with the Nationals, everything has changed. The Braves’ lead in the East, which has stretched as high as 10 games, is now 8 1/2 with just more than two weeks left. They are back to something resembling full strength because Swanson returned in late August and Markakis due back this weekend.

Barring one of the most shocking collapses in recent history, the question for the Braves is no longer whether they can hold off the Nationals for the division title but whether they can catch the Los Angeles Dodgers for the league’s top overall seed and home-field advantage in the NL playoffs.

They entered the weekend trailing the Dodgers by four games but could make a strong case that they have been at least the Dodgers’ equals for months, with a superior second-half record (37-20 vs. 35-21) and since the trade deadline (27-12 vs. 24-14), all while playing in an appreciably tougher division. It’s no secret the Braves now have their sights firmly trained on the Dodgers, especially having been bounced from the playoffs by them in the 2018 division series.

“Last year we lined up with them and they were better than us, and it showed,” veteran utilityman Charlie Culberson said. “This year we know we’re a better team overall, and whoever we play, we’ll go out there prepared to win that series. And if we wind up meeting up with the Dodgers again, we’ll try to do the same thing. We know how good they are but we know we belong, too.”

Thanks largely to the trade deadline pickups of relievers Shane Greene, Chris Martin and Mark Melancon, the Braves have as deep and functional a bullpen as anyone in the league, if not the majors. After a rocky start, those three, entering this weekend, combined for a 1.91 ERA and 35 strikeouts against just four walks in 33 innings since Aug. 17.

Another midseason pickup, left-handed starter Dallas Keuchel likewise has stabilized the Braves’ rotation. Signed to a one-year free-agent contract in June, Keuchel, the 2015 American League Cy Young winner and a veteran of three postseason campaigns with the Houston Astros, is 5-0 with a 0.97 ERA in his past six starts.

Rather than go all-in to catch the Dodgers for the NL’s top seed, the Braves, who own the league’s best road record (44-29), seem inclined to ease off after – technically, “if” – they clinch the East, resting many of their top performers ahead of the division series. Should they capture the No. 2 seed in the NL, they would host the NL Central champion, currently the St. Louis Cardinals, in Game 1 on Oct. 3 at Atlanta’s SunTrust Park.

By some estimations that might be a more favorable matchup for the Braves than a potential first-round series against the Nationals, even if the Nationals had to use ace Max Scherzer to survive the wild-card game. The Braves went 4-2 against the Cardinals this season and were 9-7 against the Nationals entering this weekend’s series.

“Common sense plays a big part” in how you proceed after clinching, veteran catcher Brian McCann said Thursday. “You see where you’re at. Maybe some guys need a (breather). That’s the luxury of having a big lead. But I can tell you this: The guys in here want to play.”

Among the Braves’ players who probably won’t rest much: 21-year-old phenom outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. With a home run and two stolen bases Thursday against the Phillies, Acuna, the 2018 NL rookie of the year, has 39 of the former and 36 of the latter this season as he closes in on becoming just the fifth player to record a 40-40 season.

A year ago the Braves, surprise champions of the East, clinched with a week to spare, then went 2-4 on a season-ending trip to the Mets and Philadelphia before getting trounced by an aggregate score of 20-8 in their four-game loss to the Dodgers. The Braves still haven’t won a playoff series since the 2001 division series.

But if these six weeks since the trade deadline have proven anything, it’s that the 2019 Braves targets have changed. This week they surpassed their win total from a year ago. Next week they could clinch the NL East. And beyond lies the Cardinals, the Dodgers and – who knows? – whatever comes after that.

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