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Another impressive Nats rally

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Another impressive Nats rally

As the ball struck Adam LaRoche's bat and began its trek straight toward Giants second baseman Ryan Theriot, the Nationals dugout tried to maintain some positive thoughts and believe LaRoche could get down the line and prevent a tailor-made double play that would send this game into extra innings.

"Hopefully Adam's fast enough," teammate Ryan Zimmerman thought before correcting himself. "Actually, I know he's not fast enough. Hopefully they mess it up."

Prayers answered. The Nationals didn't pull off a wild, 6-5 win because of LaRoche's legs. (Even the veteran's 9-year-old son, Drake, later told his dad: "You got lucky.") They pulled it off because San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford's throw to first bounced and Brandon Belt couldn't make the short-hop scoop.

Not that the Nationals were any less thrilled to win this game via the opposition's mistake. The way things are going for them these days, they just assumed they'd win this one eventually, whether in regulation or extra innings.

"Those are the things that have happened to us this year," Zimmerman said. "We got some opportunities, we've caught some breaks, and more importantly, we've taken advantage of those breaks. Good teams do that."

At 48-32, the Nationals are better than good right now. They're the best team in the NL, they just swept the team that owned the league's second-best record when it arrived in town Tuesday and they've earned the respect of the entire sport.

"We've played Texas, and we've played Anaheim. That's two really good teams," Theriot said, citing a pair of American League powers. "In my opinion, these guys are right up there."

If nothing else, the Giants can attest to the Nationals' resiliency during this series. They beat up on Tim Lincecum Tuesday night in a 9-3 victory. They rebounded from an early three-run hole Wednesday morning to win 9-4. And Thursday night they spotted All-Star Matt Cain a 5-1 lead through six innings and still stormed back to win in dramatic fashion.

All the more remarkable: Prior to Wednesday, the Giants were 74-1 over the last two seasons when they led any game by at least three runs. They're now 74-3.

"There's no quit in this ballclub," manager Davey Johnson said. "There's a lot of character on this ballclub."

On Turn Back the Clock Night -- with both clubs wearing replica 1924 uniforms to commemorate that year's World Series between the Senators and Giants -- the Nationals waited until the seventh inning to finally get their gears cranked up. Stifled all evening by Cain, they eventually got to the right-hander when Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa clubbed back-to-back homers, trimming a 5-1 deficit to 5-3.

After Desmond launched his solo shot (his 15th in 80 games this season), Bryce Harper turned to LaRoche in the dugout.

"We're going to win this game," the 19-year-old told his veteran teammate. "Just be ready for it."

"Yeah," LaRoche said, confirming the exchange. "He was feeling pretty good about it."

Harper played a key role in completing this comeback, starting with his two-out, RBI double later in the seventh. That clutch hit came seconds after he was called for a check-swing by third base umpire Jerry Meals on a 2-0 pitch despite barely moving his bat into the strike zone.

"If it was a 1-1 count and he got me 1-2, I would've been kind of fired up," Harper said. "But it was still in my favor, so I wasn't that upset. I got a pitch I could handle a little bit and flicked it off for a base hit."

The crowd of 29,819 -- which in the throwback spirit of the evening was treated to minimal in-game entertainment and music -- roared with approval. Those fans stayed fired up throughout the game's final three innings, culminating with the Nationals' winning rally in the bottom of the ninth.

That rally was ignited by Tyler Moore, another rookie who managed to turn on an 0-2 slider from Giants closer Santiago Casilla and drill a leadoff double to left-center.

"Last year, I'd go up there and just hack 0-2," said Moore, now hitting .328. "I'm just trying to cut down your swing once you get two strikes, take it the other way. It's just something I've been working on."

Steve Lombardozzi, yet another rookie in the Nationals lineup, then dropped a sacrifice bunt attempt that Casilla couldn't handle, leaving runners on the corners with nobody out and Harper at the plate with a chance to deliver in the clutch again.

Harper did just that, sending a 3-1 pitch from Casilla into right field to bring Moore home with the tying run.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy elected to intentionally walk Zimmerman, loading the bases with nobody out for cleanup hitter Michael Morse, but creating a potential force out at any base. That move paid off when Morse rapped a grounder to second, with Theriot firing to the plate to get Lombardozzi for the inning's first out.

Theriot got another chance moments later when he fielded a tailor-made, double-play grounder off the bat of LaRoche, who had only one thought as he made contact.

"Run as fast as I can -- which isn't very fast -- and put a little pressure on them," he said.

Whether it was LaRoche's blazing speed, the pressure of the moment or some other cosmic force, Crawford and Belt couldn't complete the 4-6-3 double play. LaRoche saw the ball hit the dirt, pumped his fist in celebration and then was mobbed by teammates.

Hundreds of miles away in the clubhouse at Turner Field, members of the Atlanta Braves (who had just won their game) were watching on television and reacted with a loud exclamation and a few inappropriate words.

That may be the prevailing sentiment across the National League right now as 15 other teams wonder what, if anything, can be done to derail Washington's juggernaut of a ballclub.

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Whoa. Dusty Baker not returning as Nationals' manager. What comes next?

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Whoa. Dusty Baker not returning as Nationals' manager. What comes next?

The Washington Nationals announced Friday Dusty Baker will not return as manager of the club in 2018. 

Baker led the team to the first back-to-back division titles in franchise history, and the Nationals were 192-132 under Baker, but they failed to make it to an NLCS.

Baker is 14th in MLB history with 1,863 career wins.

The next Nationals' manager will be their seventh since they arrived in DC.

Only the Marlins have had as many.

"I'm surprised and disappointed," Baker told USA TODAY Sports. "They told me they would get back to me and I told them I was leaving town yesterday and they waited 10 days to tell me."

"I really thought this was my best year. We won at least 95 games each year and won the division back to back years but they said they wanted to go a different direction. It's hard to understand." 

The team also announced the contracts for the Major League coaching staff have also expired, and the search for a new manager will begin immediately.

RELATED: BRYCE HARPER THANKS NATIONALS' FANS FOR SUPPORT

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Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy undergoes successful knee surgery

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Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy undergoes successful knee surgery

While Nats fans were still digesting the news that Dusty Baker will not return as manager next year, the team released some more surprising news. 

Second baseman Daniel Murphy underwent knee surgery today, per an official team report. 

Washington Post reporter Chelsea Janes reported that the surgery is considered significant and the team won't put a timeline on the recovery process:

"The procedure, according to the statement released by the team, repaired articular cartilage in Murphy’s right knee. For those interested in the details, it was a debridement and microfracture surgery, and orthopedic surgeon Timothy Kremchek performed it."

"For those concerned with the implications of the procedure, those are still unclear. The statement clarified that Murphy’s rehab “will progress throughout the offseason,” as one would hope, and did not include a timetable.

RELATED: HARPER THANKS FANS FOR SUPPORT