Any Major League manager will tell you every game is important, that his team is focusing squarely on the game or series or opponent at hand. Those clichés could be especially true, though, for the Braves and Nationals this weekend.
The National League East rivals, who are both at or near the top of a very tight division, will square off for the first of four games at Nationals Park on Thursday.
"[It's] very important," said right-hander Gavin Floyd, Atlanta's starter on Thursday. "Those are the teams that you need to beat. Those are the teams you hopefully have a good record against."
It's a good thing, then, that the Braves are 15-12 against NL East opponents, including a 5-1 mark against the Nationals. Those all came in the first two weekends of the season, when Atlanta took two of three at Nationals Park., then three in a row at home. The Braves outscored Washington by a 32-16 margin across those six games.
That success comes after Atlanta went 13-6 against Washington in 2013. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez acknowledged that "maybe subconsciously" his team plays up to the Nationals more than against other teams.
"I don't know [the reason for the success]," Gonzalez said. "I'm worried about 2014. We'll see what happens this year. I can't say that we do anything differently.
"It's a good rivalry. It really is. ... I can't answer that question. I'm glad it's happened, but I don't know why. I couldn't tell you."
Floyd will get the ball for Atlanta opposite righty Jordan Zimmermann. Floyd will look to rebound from his worst outing as a Brave, against the Angels on Saturday, when he allowed four runs on seven hits in 6 1/3 innings.
It was the first time Floyd had given up more than three runs this season. In eight starts overall, Floyd has a 2.98 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP, having struck out more than three batters for every one he walks in his return from Tommy John surgery.
Zimmermann has been typically great. In three June starts, he's yielded just one earned run in 25 innings (0.36 ERA) while posting a 10.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In his only start against the Braves this season, Zimmermann limited Atlanta to one run in five innings while striking out nine. He threw only 81 pitches in the 2-1 Braves win.
In his last start out, he lost a 1-0 game to the Cardinals despite only allowing three hits over eight innings.
"I'm trying to go out and just do my job and not worry about how many runs we score," said Zimmermann. "Obviously, I want to win, but I want to go deep into the game and give the team a chance to win. I felt like I did my job, that's just the way baseball is."
Braves: A homecoming for Floyd
As if the division standings weren't enough motivation, Floyd will have a little extra incentive to succeed on Thursday: Plenty of friends and family will be in the stands.
Floyd is from Annapolis, Md., which is about 45 minutes from Nationals Park. In his two "hometown" parks -- Nationals Park and Camden Yards in Baltimore -- Floyd is 3-1 with a 2.85 ERA over six starts.
"Any time we're close to the area, I get to see my family, which is nice," Floyd said. "It's 45 minutes away, so it's not too bad."
Nationals: Harper's upcoming return to bring lineup decisions
Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper (torn thumb ligament) is slowly but surely approaching his return to the field.
On Tuesday, Harper swung a bat with both hands for the first time when he took soft toss in the cage. On Wednesday, Harper put his left hand into a glove and went through a full outfield workout with first-base coach Tony Tarasco, which included catching balls, agility exercises and barehand drills, manager Matt Williams said.
When Harper does come back, the Nationals will need to make room in the lineup.
Currently, left fielder Ryan Zimmerman, center fielder Denard Span and right fielder Jayson Werth make up the starting outfield. But Williams said when Harper is cleared, Zimmerman would likely move around and play three different positions: first base, left field and third base. Meanwhile, Anthony Rendon will switch between third base and second base.
Williams said his day-to-day decisions with the lineup when Harper returns will rely heavily on pitching matchups and which players need rest. Because of that, Harper could play all three outfield positions when Werth or Span need a day off.
"The good thing about our club is they have experience," Williams said. "Bryce has experience playing center field and he has experience playing right field. It's not something that's foreign to him because he's done it. Anthony can play third and second. Zimm can play left and first, we've seen that. And he certainly has hardware to prove he can play third. So it's not like it's something foreign."
• Evan Gattis stretched his hitting streak to 17 games with a two-run homer in the Braves' first inning of Wednesday's 10-5 loss to Philadelphia. That's the longest active streak in the Majors.
• The Braves are stretching out Alex Wood to be a starter. The lefty made his second Minor League start on Wednesday for Triple-A Gwinnett, tossing five innings of one-run ball, scattering five hits and two walks while fanning three. He threw 48 of his 73 pitches for strikes.
Tim Healey is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.