WASHINGTON -- With starting center fielder Nate McLouth out of the lineup with a strained left hamstring, the Braves went 4-1 and crept back up into serious National League East contention, as they are now just two games behind the Phillies and Marlins, who are tied for first place.

McLouth joked that if the Braves lose Friday against the Nationals he's to blame. That's because the 27-year-old is back in the lineup, in the leadoff spot for manager Bobby Cox's club.

McLouth injured the hamstring on June 26 against the Red Sox. He had been a day-to-day case since.

"I didn't want to rush him," Cox said, defending his decision to hold out McLouth until the series opener. "[If it was the] seventh game of the World Series, I would have taken a chance on him, because there's no game tomorrow."

When asked if he convinced Cox that he was ready to play again, McLouth said, "I must have."

"It's one of those things that, you can't come back until its ready, otherwise it could turn into a long-term type of thing," McLouth said.

For rehab, the center fielder stretched and strengthened the injured tendons.

"It feels great," McLouth said Friday afternoon.

Cox believes McLouth is now close to 100 percent.

Gregor Blanco had been playing center field in McLouth's absence, but Blanco is back on the bench.

McLouth, acquired from Pittsburgh on June 4, is hitting .259 with 12 home runs and 45 RBIs this season. The Braves are 8-13 with him in the lineup.