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Bench delivers for the Nats in season's first half

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Bench delivers for the Nats in season's first half

BALTIMORE — The key rally in Sunday's 3-2 victory over the Orioles may have aptly encapsulated much of what the first half of the Nationals' season has been about.  

Thanks to three consecutive two-out base hits from Clint Robinson, Dan Uggla and Tyler Moore -- none of whom were intended to be regulars before the year began -- the Nats drove in all the runs runs they would need in the fourth inning to give Max Scherzer some breathing room to seal a win. 

There's no denying that the 2015 season has been headlined thus far by the Herculean efforts of All-Stars Scherzer and Bryce Harper. But it's also been highlighted by who hasn't been on the field; Sunday's lineup was without four preseason projected starters in Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Denard Span because of various injuries. For most teams with championship aspirations, that's a death knell. But for the Nats, it's given the bench players a chance to show that they're good enough to keep the club afloat. 

"Just because they aren't everyday guys, doesn't mean they can't play," Uggla said of his fellow reserves. "When they get an opportunity, they're going to rake. It's always fun watching those guys."

The fill-ins are a confluence of fascinating (and unlikely) stories. Uggla, for example, was fighting for a roster spot in spring training before barely making the team and eventually notching arguably the biggest hit of the season so far. Robinson was essentially a career minor leaguer before he made his first prolonged stint in the big leagues this year at age 30; now he's hitting near the middle of the order. Danny Espinosa's bounce back campaign has exceeded Nats fans' expectations by miles. Rookie Michael A. Taylor is trying to prove he's ready to be an everyday outfielder in 2016 and beyond.  

The tales go on and on, but the bottom line is that collectively, the reserves have sent a strong message about what they're capable of. 

"It says something for our everyday guys, too," Moore said. "We're kind of giving them some help and taking some of the pressure off those guys."

All of it has helped add up to a two-game lead in the NL East as the club heads to the All-Star break. And as Moore mentioned, the bench has given the regulars high hopes for the season's second half. 

"Having those [bench] guys just excites you for the postseason even more," said Bryce Harper. "You have those guys on the bench and hopefully we're going to get the guys back that we need to get back and our bench is going to be stronger than ever."

"It's awesome," added Ian Desmond. "To see the work they put in on a daily basis, kind of their patience and perseverance pays off. They're grinding every day and we've got a special group of guys coming off the bench for us."

As the second half of the season begins, all of the Nats' preseason goals are still there for the taking. Sure, the road to get to this point has been fraught with far more trials and tribulations than most baseball pundits would have expected. But thanks to its motley crew of contributors, the club can still dream big once play resumes Friday. 

"Every team's going to go through [injuries]. But it's how you handle the adversity when you go through the marathon. We've had guys step up," said closer Drew Storen. "Everybody's happy with where we're at. We're going to pretty much get a good team back when guys come off the DL, so it's going to be exciting."

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Nationals fall after Mets score 9 runs in 8th inning

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Nationals fall after Mets score 9 runs in 8th inning

NEW YORK -- Yoenis Cespedes launched a grand slam during a nine-run outburst in the eighth inning that rallied the New York Mets past the Washington Nationals 11-5 on Wednesday night, preventing a three-game sweep.

Todd Frazier tied it at 4 with a two-run single and pinch-hitter Juan Lagares put New York ahead for the first time with a two-run double off ineffective setup man Ryan Madson (0-2).

Shut down by Tanner Roark for seven innings, the first-place Mets broke loose in the eighth and improved to 13-4 with a stirring victory against their NL East rivals.

Ryan Zimmerman homered twice, tripled and drove in four runs for the Nationals, who pulled off their own big comeback in the eighth inning of the series opener.

Two nights later, New York returned the favor.

Roark limited the Mets to two hits and left leading 4-2. Michael Conforto, Cespedes and Asdrubal Cabrera singled off Madson to load the bases with nobody out in the eighth. Jay Bruce fouled out before Frazier smacked a two-run single up the middle and advanced to second on the throw home.

After an intentional walk to Adrian Gonzalez loaded the bases again, pinch-hitter Wilmer Flores struck out. Lagares then lined a two-run double the other way, just inside the right-field line at the outer edge of the infield grass, to put the Mets up 6-4.

Sammy Solis walked Amed Rosario and Conforto to force in a run. Cespedes connected for his sixth career slam -- the third by the Mets already this season -- off A.J. Cole, sending fans into a frenzy.

Both of Cespedes' hits in the inning came on 0-2 pitches.

AJ Ramos (1-1) worked a perfect inning for his first win with the Mets since being acquired from Miami last July.

Howie Kendrick reached on an infield single for Washington in the first and Bryce Harper drew his 24th walk, most in the majors. Zimmerman, batting .121 at that point and struggling to make opponents pay for bypassing Harper, came through with a drive to left-center off Steven Matz for his second home run of the season.

Matz steadied himself after a 33-pitch first inning and retired his final 10 batters. He was pulled for a pinch hitter in the fourth after throwing 74 pitches.

Cabrera doubled to open the fourth and scored on Gonzalez's single. Zimmerman had a chance to start an inning-ending double play, but his throwing error from first base allowed another run to score on Jose Lobaton's RBI grounder as the Mets cut it to 3-2.

After Mets pitchers retired 16 in a row, Zimmerman's leadoff triple in the seventh got past a diving Bruce in right field, and Moises Sierra followed with a sacrifice fly to make it 4-2.

Zimmerman also hit a solo homer in the ninth.

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Gonzalez dominant at Citi Field again, Nationals beat Mets 5-2

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Gonzalez dominant at Citi Field again, Nationals beat Mets 5-2

NEW YORK  -- Gio Gonzalez has kidded about what makes him so successful at Citi Field -- the Latin cuisine in the clubhouse, the jets that fly overhead, the odd angles and neat architecture.

His career record at the New York Mets' home is no joke: 11-1 with a 1.78 ERA.

Gonzalez won again at his home away from home, Trea Turner kept Washington in gear all game and the Nationals beat the Mets 5-2 Tuesday night.

"Food, I don't know, airplanes," Gonzalez said. "It's a beautiful ballpark."

A day after topping the Mets with an eighth-inning rally from a five-run deficit, the Nationals never trailed. Bryce Harper put them ahead early with a sacrifice fly and slumping Ryan Zimmerman hit a late RBI single for insurance.

"You always want to keep the momentum," Gonzalez said.

The Nationals seem to like Citi Field, too, and are now a whopping 51-19 at the park since 2011.

The Mets, whose 12-3 start had matched the best in team history, lost back-to-back games for the first time under new manager Mickey Callaway.

"We had a few opportunities. We were one swing away a few times. We just didn't get it done," Callaway said.

The disappointing defeat the previous night seemed to leave many Mets fans in a panic, as if the charmed start was somehow a mirage. Before this game, Callaway said that kind of passion "makes it fun, actually."

Turner doubled twice, singled and walked, scoring two runs and stealing his major league-leading eighth base. He helped the two-time NL East champion Nationals get back to .500 after an extended rough patch.

"When he starts doing that, he's fun to watch," manager Dave Martinez said.

Gonzalez (2-1) was the only player on the field in short sleeves on a chilly, breezy night. He allowed two runs in 5 1/3 innings, avoiding big trouble despite eight hits and two walks.

Gonzalez also managed to knock down Wilmer Flores' line-drive single without it causing any damage, though it caught a piece of his glove hand.

Juan Lagares remained a nemesis for Gonzalez. Lagares went 2 for 2 with a walk and raised his career average against the lefty to .413 -- Lagares' 19 hits are the most Gonzalez has given up to any batter.

Zack Wheeler (1-1) gave up three runs in six innings in his second start of the season. Hit hard by the Nationals in his final two spring training outings, he began in the year in the minors.

"I thought I did OK," he said.

Wheeler did his part at the plate, getting two hits off Gonzalez.

"He got a little frustrated because he couldn't get the pitcher out," Martinez said.

The expressive Gonzalez made sure his displeasure wasn't misinterpreted, however. He had a quick talk with the plate umpire before taking the mound in the fifth, telling the ump any adverse reactions weren't personally directed at him.

"That was on me," Gonzalez said.

The Mets threatened late, but relievers Sammy Solis, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler escaped jams. Sean Doolittle closed for his third save.