NEW YORK -- Many of the Nationals' key position players have fought tooth and nail with manager Davey Johnson this season, resisting days off. To avoid any more conflict, Johnson figures he'll keep all his regulars happy and in the starting lineup the rest of the way.

"I've got some guys that are just iron men out there," Johnson said. "The middle of my diamond, the center fielder, the second baseman, the shortstop, they don't want to come out. They fight me. They hate me when I take them out."

The Nationals entered Monday's series opener against the Mets with a 5 1/2-game National League East lead on the second-place Braves, with a three-game series in Atlanta looming this weekend. The Nats have had a comfortable lead in the division since taking two of three from the Braves in late August, but don't figure to be taking their foot off the gas.

Johnson has noted that outfielder Bryce Harper hates getting a day off, and the same goes for infielder Danny Espinosa. The Nationals also are operating with their full complement of healthy players, which has not been the case most of the season.

"I don't think Espinosa's forgiven me for giving him a day off, and I love that," Johnson said. "I never wanted to come out of the lineup, even if I had a broken hand. I wanted to be in that lineup, especially this time of year, going into this last 20 games."

Burnett on cusp of return to Nats' bullpen

NEW YORK -- Nationals reliever Sean Burnett threw a short bullpen session on Monday and said his left arm felt better and that he hopes to be ready to pitch in game action as soon as Tuesday night.

Burnett said he expects to play catch Tuesday afternoon after tossing 15-18 pitches on Monday, and manager Davey Johnson did not rule out the possibility that Burnett could pitch in the second game of the series at Citi Field.

"No pain," Burnett said. "I mean, it's September, so it's not going to be 100 percent. But it's better. There's movement. It was just more typical ball flight that I'm used to seeing, and movement. It probably hadn't been like that in two to three weeks."

The lefty leads the Nationals pitching staff in appearances (61) though he has not pitched in a game since Sept. 2. Following a rocky outing that day against the Cardinals, the Nationals discovered Burnett had been suffering from nerve irritation in his throwing elbow.

He threw Saturday for the first time since being held out of games for almost a week.

"Normally coming back from something bothering him, I give him a day of rest to regroup, and then I go," Johnson said. "But I would expect he'd want to be in tomorrow night."

Burnett has been one of the team's most reliable bullpen pieces, owning a 2.49 ERA through 50 2/3 innings while striking out 50. He figures to be an important piece down the stretch run, and the Nationals would rather be without him in early September than in October.

"They had to convince me of that," Burnett said. "That was hard for me. It feels like it's been a month for me. But it got to a point where it wasn't fair for me, it wasn't fair to my teammates to go out there not 100 percent, in a pennant race, and put stuff in jeopardy. It wasn't right to my teammates. But I felt like a week off would freshen me up a little bit and hopefully get back with no pain. And today it was better. It seemed like the action on the ball was back."

Davey sticking with Nats' rotation order on road trip

NEW YORK -- Even with an important series against the second-place Braves on the horizon, Nationals manager Davey Johnson is sticking to the pitching rotation he has in place.

John Lannan will step in for Stephen Strasburg the rest of the way, but Johnson said he has every intention of keeping his starters in line as it currently stands.

"I like all my starters, I haven't really tweaked," Johnson said. "You set it up from the get-go on how you want to go. I've been pretty consistent about not dropping anybody from the rotation, missing a turn. We're going to continue with that path."

Lannan will take the ball Wednesday in a game that was scheduled to be Strasburg's final outing of the season. But the Nationals announced Saturday that the ace's Friday start was his last of the year.

Johnson said he's had conversations with pitching coach Steve McCatty, and they like the way things line up the rest of the way. The last serious re-shuffling came out of the All-Star break, and even a three-game weekend set in Atlanta following an off-day won't get Johnson to mix things up.

"I met today with McCatty," Johnson said. "We've been talking for two or three days. I like the way our rotation sets up for this series and the next series."