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Believe it or not, this is the best team in the NL

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Believe it or not, this is the best team in the NL

From Comcast SportsNet
NEW YORK (AP) -- Adam LaRoche grabbed a different bat and suddenly solved the enigma of R.A. Dickey. LaRoche hit a tiebreaking homer and the Washington Nationals handed Dickey his first loss in three months, beating the sinking New York Mets 5-2 Tuesday night behind Gio Gonzalez's seven crisp innings. At the suggestion of injured teammate Ian Desmond, LaRoche switched bats in the sixth to a lighter model that belonged to speedy outfielder Roger Bernadina. "I've been using a heavier bat and obviously it hasn't been working against Dickey, so I figured it was time to try something new," said LaRoche, who was 2 for 14 against the knuckleballer before his long home run. Gonzalez (13-5) gave up only two singles in a rematch of All-Star pitchers, five days after New York hit him hard to back Dickey during his 13th win. This time, it went the other way. "Just wanted to redeem myself from the last start," Gonzalez said. "You always want to bounce back as a pitcher. You don't want to feel down and out. A lot of these guys came up to me and gave me some positive energy, positive feedback. So the best I wanted to do was return the favor." Dickey (13-2) allowed five consecutive hits in the sixth, ending his 11-game winning streak, as the Mets lost their fifth straight and 11th in 12 games. Their lone victory since July 7 was Dickey's 9-5 win over Gonzalez last Thursday in Washington. In a mini shake-up before the game, New York demoted slumping right fielder Lucas Duda to the minors. "When you're not playing good baseball against teams like this, they exploit you pretty quickly," Mets third baseman David Wright said. "This stretch is not going to define us over the course of the year." Ryan Zimmerman kept up his tear at the plate with three hits and the Nationals won their fourth in a row to improve the NL's best record to 57-39. They are 8-3 against the Mets this season, winning all four series so far, and will go for a three-game sweep Wednesday at noon with ace Stephen Strasburg on the mound against rookie Jeremy Hefner. "I think we're clicking pretty good," LaRoche said. "It can get better, but it's pretty good right now." Sean Burnett got three outs in the eighth and Tyler Clippard fanned two in a perfect ninth, finishing the three-hitter for his 17th save. Gonzalez struck out four, walked two and did not allow an earned run in his longest outing since May 27. "It was a masterpiece," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "He had something to prove." Jordany Valdespin set a Mets record with his fifth pinch-hit homer of the season. The rookie connected off Ryan Mattheus leading off the eighth, breaking a mark he previously shared with Mark Carreon (1989) and Danny Heep (1983). Dickey was 11-0 in his previous 16 starts since getting roughed up in a 14-6 loss April 18 on a rainy day in Atlanta. Trying to become the first 14-game winner in the majors, he was unable to stop New York's nasty slide. He yielded five runs -- four earned -- and eight hits in six innings. The 37-year-old right-hander tossed an inning of relief Saturday against the Dodgers to help an overworked bullpen, only two days after throwing 111 pitches over 7 1-3 innings in Washington. He has a 5.36 ERA in his last seven outings. "I had a good knuckleball," Dickey said. "I should have pitched into the eighth inning. I felt too good for that to happen." Dickey whiffed star rookie Bryce Harper all three times on knuckleballs ranging from 66-81 mph and was in command until the sixth, when he gave up five straight hits with two outs. Michael Morse singled and LaRoche drove a low knuckler into the upper deck in right, snapping a 1-all tie with his 17th homer. Danny Espinosa singled, Bernadina beat out a slow dribbler toward first and Jesus Flores hit an RBI single to left. Jason Bay's wide throw to the plate got away for an error that allowed Bernadina to score, making it 5-1. Espinosa's throwing error at shortstop led to an unearned run in the second. Ronny Cedeno hit an RBI single to right with two outs, giving New York its first lead in 42 innings since last Thursday, but was thrown out by Harper trying to stretch it into a double. Gonzalez retired his next 11 batters and did not permit another hit until Ike Davis' two-out single in the seventh. A switch-hitter, Espinosa batted right-handed against Dickey to get a better look at the knuckleball. The first time up, Espinosa struck out swinging. But in the fourth, his two-out double tied it 1-all after Zimmerman opened the inning with a bloop double. NOTES: Flores (back) was back behind the plate after sitting out two games. ... Washington is 9-1-3 in series against NL East opponents. ... Harper is 0 for 10 against Dickey with six strikeouts. ... New York released RHP Miguel Batista, designated for assignment Sunday.

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Want the Stanley Cup? Five ways the Caps can beat the Golden Knights

Want the Stanley Cup? Five ways the Caps can beat the Golden Knights

The Caps stand just four wins away from winning their first Stanley Cup. To get those four wins, however, they will have to beat the Vegas Golden Knights.

Here are the keys to the series that will give the Caps the win.

Figure out how to beat Marc-Andre Fleury

No player has been as important to his team this postseason as Fleury is to the Golden Knights. He is reason No. 1, 2 and 3 why they have made their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final in the team’s inaugural season.

Fleury’s personal numbers are staggering. Through 15 games, he has a .947 save percentage and has recorded four shutouts.

Vegas has been a middle of the pack team in terms of offense this postseason scoring 2.87 goals per game. They have lost only three playoff games thus far, but, as dominant as they have been, they certainly are not blowing away the competition. Of their 12 wins, ten of them have come with a margin of victory of two goals or less.

This shows you just how important Fleury is to their success. They are not scoring opponents into submission, rather they are relying on Fleury to keep opponents at bay.

Fleury is the absolute key to the Golden Knights’ success. It’s easier said than done, but if the Caps find a way to beat him consistently, Vegas becomes exponentially more beatable.

Win the neutral zone battle

Much of this series will be determined between the blue lines. The Golden Knights are an incredibly fast team.

Just to get to this point, the Caps had to beat two other speedy teams in the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. They did it primarily by slowing down the offense in the neutral zone with a 1-3-1 trap. With so many bodies defending in the neutral zone, opponents have struggled to break the puck cleanly into the Caps’ defensive zone. The Caps are cutting off passing and skating lanes, creating turnovers and generating odd-man breaks in the other direction by catching opponents’ defensemen playing too aggressively on the rush.

As fast as the Penguins and Lightning were, however, the Golden Knights are even faster. Will the trap be as effective against Vegas?

Limit obstruction penalties

When playing against a team with speed, penalties often become a major issue. When trying to defend against fast players, if you get caught flat-footed or out of position, this tends to lead to obstruction penalties like tripping and hooking. When a player realizes he’s been beat, he does everything he can to prevent that from costing his team, leading to those type of penalties.

Vegas’ power play has not been lights out by any means with a success rate of only 17.6-percent this postseason, but you cannot continually give the opposition chances to score by frequently having a player sent to the penalty box.

Positioning is going to make all the difference in the world in this series to make sure a player is not forced into taking an obstruction penalty just to slow down the Golden Knights.

Get off to good starts

Vegas is 10-1 in the postseason when scoring first. Their secret to success is a mix between goaltending and speed.

Fleury has been phenomenal in net and the Golden Knights are a quick breakout team. It is very hard to get much sustained offensive pressure against them because once they get the puck, they are going down the ice at a million miles an hour.

Having to play from behind against a team like Vegas is not a recipe for success. Just getting the puck and keeping up with them is exhausting. Having to then find a way to then beat Fleury when he has a lead to protect is all the more daunting.

Strong starts will be vital to ensuring the Caps are not frequently having to play from behind.

Depth scoring

Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant likes to roll his four lines. It makes sense since there drop-off between his top line and fourth line is not as dramatic as it is on most NHL teams.

Consider how this team was constructed. The expansion draft did not give Vegas access to superstar players, but they also did not have to take any fringe NHL/healthy scratch players to fill the fourth line either. They filled their roster with the best players available to them which gives them four lines of much more comparative strength than most NHL teams.

While this means the Caps have a stronger top six, it also allows Vegas to roll four lines and take advantage of other teams’ bottom six.

You can never take a shift off against Vegas. There is no weak line to exploit. The Golden Knights come at you with four lines and relentless pressure and forecheck for 60 minutes.

Washington will probably get more production from its top six than Vegas will, or at the very least it will be a push. The question is what kind of production will each team get from the bottom six? If the Caps have the edge in depth production as well, they will be in good shape.

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Capitals Faceoff Podcast: What happens in Vegas....

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Capitals Faceoff Podcast: What happens in Vegas....

It's almost here.

After a lengthy break between the conference finals and the Stanley Cup Finals, the Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights are set to meet on Monday for Game 1.

Who will hoist Lord Stanley's Cup?

JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir give their keys to the series and their predictions for the Stanley Cup Final. Plus, JJ speaks with several member from the local media to get their insights and predictions.

Check out their latest episode in the player below or listen on the Capitals Faceoff Podcast page.