Series preview: Nationals at Dodgers

LOS ANGELES -- The three game-series against the Washington Nationals that starts Monday stands out starkly on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ September schedule.

Aside from that and the six games against the second-place San Francisco Giants, the Dodgers play nothing but sub-.500 teams this month.

So, in a way the Nationals are a squad to be endured. But to Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, it’s also a welcome opportunity: The teams certainly could meet again in October.

“They’ve got a talented club. It’s probably as talented as anybody,” he said. “They’re leading the division, and you like playing those teams. They’re games we have to win. I think they look at them as games they’re going to have to win. It should be good, pennant-race baseball.

“Every day, you find out your toughness as a team; you find out who you are. It’s great for me as a manager to be able to watch our guys and see who’s going to be able to respond and who doesn’t.”

The two division leaders are facing different threat levels at the moment.

The Dodgers led the NL West by six games as recently as Aug. 12. With the Giants on a bit of a tear, that lead is down to 2½. The Nationals started August with a 1½-game led, but they had a 10-game winning streak in the month and the Atlanta Braves have faded. Washington opens September with a six-game cushion, the widest in the league.

The Nationals took two of three from the Dodgers the last time the teams met, back in May in D.C., and they’re a lot healthier now. Bryce Harper, who was out all of May, ripped two home runs Sunday in the Nats’ 5-3 loss to the Seattle Mariners.

The Dodgers are at a bit of a disadvantage with the pitching matchups. They pushed back one of their hottest starting pitchers, Dan Haren, two extra days to give the veteran a little more rest. Wednesday’s day game now likely will be pitched by Carlos Frias, who will be brought up from Triple-A Albuquerque to face Jordan Zimmerman (10-5, 2.93 ERA).

On Monday, the Dodgers go with Roberto Hernandez, who has been up and down since the Dodgers landed him from the Philadelphia Phillies, while Washington goes with Gio Gonzalez (6-9, 3.86), who hasn’t won since July 5 and is 0-5 with a 4.38 ERA in his last nine starts.

Tuesday will yield the best matchup of the series, with Clayton Kershaw (16-3, 1.73) attempting to cement his MVP credentials and Doug Fister (12-5, 2.55) trying to continue his strong season.