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Benches clear twice as Nats sweep Cubs

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Benches clear twice as Nats sweep Cubs

It had only been 48 days since the Nationals carried a nine-run lead into the sixth inning of a crucial game against the Braves and watched it all crumble away in horrifying fashion. So when they entered the fifth inning Thursday night against the Cubs, leading this time by five runs, they weren't about to ease off the gas pedal.

Thus, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa each stole second base off Chicago rookie reliever Lendy Castillo. And later, Jayson Werth was given the green light to swing away at a 3-0 pitch with the bases loaded.

It all seemed fairly innocuous, just another example of the Nationals steamrolling the Cubs during what wound up a 9-2 victory and a four-game sweep by a combined score of 31-9. Except for Jamie Quirk, Chicago's normally mild-mannered bench coach, who started jawing at Werth and third base coach Bo Porter and in the process prompted both clubs' benches and bullpens twice to empty and engage in a mild fracas that resulted in the ejections of Quirk and three players.

"I mean, if they get mad at my guys in the fifth inning swinging 3-0 or running, they better get used to it," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said.

Just like that, a four-game series that otherwise would have been notable for the beating the 85-52 Nationals put on the 51-85 Cubs ended with a bang, a war of words, hot tempers and a debate on proper baseball etiquette.

"I think I'd be pretty pissed off if I was getting my teeth kicked in all weekend, too, but you can't lay down," said rookie Bryce Harper, who figured prominently in the incident. "The Braves series, they came back after we were up 9-0. So you can't lay low. You've got to keep going, keep grinding, keep coming."

By the time the fifth inning arrived Thursday night, the Nationals led 7-2, having scored 27 runs over their last 20 offensive innings. They kept the pressure up, with Johnson allowing both Desmond and Espinosa to steal second base and later letting Werth swing away on a 3-0 count.

During an ensuing delay while Chicago catcher Steve Clevenger sought a new mitt, Quirk began yelling at Porter, who wound up approaching the visitors' dugout and nearly entering it to engage with his coaching counterpart as both benches and bullpens emptied.

Porter wouldn't reveal details of what Quirk said -- or what he said back -- but defended his strong response.

"When it comes to our players, I'm very passionate."

Quirk wound up getting ejected, with Porter allowed to remain in the game but told in no uncertain terms he needed to return to the coaching box and not leave it again.

"He got very close to being out of order himself," crew chief Jerry Layne told a pool reporter. "Had he got into the dugout and started a fracas, he would have been ejected. But I thought this was all stemming from what Jamie Quirk did, and he started it. So I got the person that started it."

Order was quickly restored and the game continued without incident until the bottom of the sixth opened with Castillo throwing his first pitch well inside and just missing Harper's right hip. Harper took a step toward the mound and said a few words to Castillo, causing both benches and bullpen to empty again.

"Going up in that situation, I thought something was going to happen, because of what happened before," Harper said. "That's just baseball, I guess."

Said Chicago manager Dale Sveum: "Castillo's a Rule 5 kid that's thrown a lot of those pitches today. There was no intention to hit Bryce Harper."

Order appeared to be restored again, and players were beginning to retreat to their respective dugouts and bullpens when another tussle began near first base. By the time everything was cleared, Clevenger (who aggressively shoved Nationals left fielder Michael Morse), Cubs reliever Manny Corpas and Nationals reliever Michael Gonzalez were all ejected.

"You don't come into our house, and you can't mess with our kid brother," Gonzalez said. "That's how we see it."

Through the entire scene, Harper remained on the fray, veteran teammate Ryan Zimmerman by his side and making sure the 19-year-old didn't get let his emotions get the best of him.

"I wasn't going to do anything stupid," Harper said. "I'm just trying to check off everything on my list. I've gotten thrown at, gotten hit, stole home, we're winning, homers, everything that's going on. Just checking it off the list. That's one of them. Just trying to stay calm in that situation and not do anything stupid."

That was the prevailing sentiment for everyone on the Nationals' side: Don't do anything that might jeopardize your ability to appear in the final 25 games of a pennant race by taking the bait from a team playing out the string of a miserable season.

"We got a lot more to lose," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "I think that's why Nationals coaches were trying to get everybody back and say: 'Listen, if one of us does something, it's going to cost us a lot more than one of their guys at this point in the year.' I think for the most part, guys kept their head on their shoulders. It didn't get too out of control. That's not what we need this time of year."

Thus, Jordan Zimmermann took the mound for the top of the seventh and went back to work, striking out a pair of batters to complete one of his best starts in a month and secure his 10th win of the season. Relievers Tom Gorzelanny and Christian Garcia then finished it off, completing a four-game sweep that leaves the Nationals 33 games over .500 and still holding a 7 12-game lead over the Braves in the NL East.

Over in the visitors' clubhouse, the Cubs were again left dazed and demoralized by what the best team in baseball had done to them over the last four nights.

"It's probably one of the biggest butt-whuppings I've ever gotten in my career, as a coach or player," Sveum said. "I don't remember getting manhandled that bad in any kind of series I've ever been a part of."

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Williamson homers again, Giants top Nationals 4-3

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USA TODAY Sports

Williamson homers again, Giants top Nationals 4-3

SAN FRANCISCO -- Mac Williamson had to dust himself off after crashing into a low padded wall near the stands in left field while chasing a foul ball.

More frustrated than hurt, Williamson took it out on Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark a few moments later after undergoing a series of concussion tests in the dugout.

Williamson homered for the second straight night and third in five games, hitting a tiebreaking shot in the sixth inning to lead San Francisco to a 4-3 victory over Washington on Tuesday night.

"I got pretty lucky," Williamson said. "I felt fine then and I feel fine now. I'm sure once the adrenalin wears off later tonight, tomorrow we'll see how the body feels. I'm sure I'll be a little sore."

Brandon Belt hit his fifth home run in six games, Joe Panik added three hits and scored twice, and the Giants won their third straight and fourth in the last five.

One night after hitting a 464-foot homer in the series opener, Williamson hit a first-pitch solo shot to center off Roark with two outs in the sixth inning that bounced off the top of the wall and broke a 3-all tie. It wasn't as far as Monday's clout -- this one went 423 feet -- but was just as pivotal for the Giants.

"We've talked about what a shot in the arm he's been and he's more than that," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "He came through again tonight. Good for him because he's worked hard at it."

Williamson's deciding home run came one inning after he stumbled over the bullpen mound in foul territory and crashed into a low wall near the stands while trying to chase down Bryce Harper's foul ball. Williamson stayed down briefly as team trainers rushed out before getting to his feet.

"I tried to roll my neck a little bit and my head down a little bit when I started going down," Williamson said. "I think that helped break my fall. I was just a little frustrated I didn't come up with the play. I had it in my glove and it came out."

Belt hit a two-run shot off Roark (1-2) in the third.

Michael Taylor had a three-run homer for Washington, which has lost four straight and 14 of 20 since opening the season 4-0.

"It seems like that sixth inning's been biting us in the rear as of late," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "We're swinging the bats. We just can't get the big hit with people on base."

Reyes Moronta (1-0) retired six batters for his first career win. Sam Dyson pitched one inning and Hunter Strickland worked the ninth for his fifth save.

The Giants got a run off Roark in the first but left the bases loaded when Evan Longoria struck out looking to end the inning. Belt homered on a 3-2 pitch from Roark in the second to make it 3-0.

Washington tied it on Taylor's three-run homer off starter Ty Blach in the third. Ryan Zimmerman walked and Moises Sierra singled before Taylor's deep drive into the right-field stands.

Roark went into the game 6-0 in seven career games against San Francisco but couldn't find a rhythm this time. He allowed four runs on six hits, walked two and hit a batter and threw a pair of wild pitches.

WHERE DID IT GO?

Panik hit a soft comebacker to Roark in the fifth that glanced off the pitcher's glove then bounced up on the top of his cap before falling to the turf. Roark initially couldn't locate the ball but found it in time to throw to first for the out.

AILING BLACH

Blach allowed three runs and four hits in five innings. After the game, Bochy said the left-hander suffered from food poisoning last week and was given an IV on Monday. "That was a really gutty effort that he gave us," Bochy said.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: Placed RHP Shawn Kelley on the 10-disabled list with ulnar nerve irritation in his right elbow. Infielder/outfielder Matt Reynolds was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse and outfielder Rafael Bautista and infielder Adrian Sanchez were called up.

UP NEXT

Nationals RHP Max Scherzer (4-1, 1.36 ERA) and Giants RHP Jeff Samardzija (1-0, 0.00) take to the mound for the series finale at AT&T Park on Wednesday. Samardzija is making his second start after beginning the season on the disabled list.

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Inside Baseball: The Nationals' bullpen is currently bad and potentially great

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USA TODAY

Inside Baseball: The Nationals' bullpen is currently bad and potentially great

Welcome to Inside Baseball. Here, we're taking a quick peek at what's going on ... inside ... baseball. 

We're almost a month into the MLB season, and that sweet noise you hear is the sound of sample sizes starting to become reliable! So far, the Red Sox are very good except for the nights they're getting no-hit, Derek Jeter's Marlins and their .227 winning percentage "aren't accepting a losing culture," and Mike Trout is well on his way to another historically-great 3rd place finish in the MVP race. 

AT NATS PARK

As it stands today, the Nationals are sitting in 4th in the NL East. It's early, they haven't been healthy, etc. etc., whatever. It hasn't been great. Their pitching staff features the best rotation in baseball paired alongside one of the worst bullpens in baseball. No bullpen in baseball has a higher homerun/flyball percentage (18%) than the Nationals. Only two teams - the Rockies and the Royals - strand runners on base at a lower clip than the Nationals (64.0 LOB%). If you really want to get into the weeds, their Win Probabilty and Clutch numbers tell a grim story too. 

Don't smash that panic button yet, though (maybe just lightly rest your hand on it?). There are a few reasons to believe that maybe the bullpen isn't actually as bad as they've been the first month.  They're striking out hitters at an elite level so far - only the Brewers and the Yankees have better K/9 and K% numbers than the Nats.  If you take take a look back at which bullpens led the league in strikeout numbers over the last handful of years, you'll see a *lot* of playoff teams. In the three-true-outcome era, having a bullpen that gets swings-and-misses is inarguably valuable. The Nats have that. 

Taking a look at their individual numbers, it's clear there's an excellent backend hidden somewhere in the bullpen right now. Sammy Solis' ERA is almost four runs higher than his FIP (fielding-independent pitching), a clear sign that Solis has pitched well but been a victim of the Nats' shoddy defense. The same goes for Ryan Madson, whose ERA sits at almost seven despite an FIP under three. Assuming that bullpen roles become more established once the data catches up, the Nats' bullpen could look a lot better in a month or two. 

AROUND BASEBALL

What you should know: Manny Machado's half-season showcase is going swimmingly. He's slashing .360/.447/.708 with eight homers through the first month or so of games. He's posted a 208 wRC+, which is a fancy way of saying he's been 108 percent better than league average at the plate so far. He's been the most valuable hitter this season and the second-most valuable player overall. Meanwhile, the Orioles are 6-17 and already 12 games out of first place in the AL East. It hasn't even been a month yet. Is this the year the the MLB trade deadline is exciting?!

What you should watch: Angels @ Astros (4/24-4/25)

Shohei Ohtani is pitching on Tuesday night, so that's reason enough. But, if you need more, there's also Mike Trout, the defending World Series champs, and Justin Verlander pitching on Wednesday. It also happens to be a battle between the best two teams in the AL West, separated by half a game for first place. If there's such a thing as exciting April baseball, it looks like this. 

Player of the week: I know we already talked about him, but no one's been better than Manny Machado over the last seven days. He's hitting .500/.586/1.208 with five homers during that span. After being bit by historically bad luck during the first half of last season, Machado has been putting up monster numbers ever since:

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