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After punches to gut, gut-check time for Nats

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After punches to gut, gut-check time for Nats

Any ballclub that has visions of serious contention is going to have to prove its mettle at various points of the season. It's one thing to play well when everything's falling into place. It's quite another to play well when things are collapsing all around you.

The Nationals are about to face one of those challenges. Considering the injuries they've sustained and the red flags that have been popping up on the field in recent days, there's ample reason to question whether they're capable of hanging on.

Jayson Werth's broken wrist was bad enough. Then Wilson Ramos tore the ACL in his right knee. Combined with the extended losses of Michael Morse, Drew Storen and Brad Lidge, it's a minor miracle the Nationals found themselves in position to sweep the Reds yesterday afternoon.

Yet there they were taking the field for the bottom of the ninth at the end of an interminable day of rain delays, up 6-5 and on the verge of heading home on a four-game winning streak.

And then Henry Rodriguez threw the first of his 15 balls in a 28-pitch inning. Before anyone knew what hit them, Rodriguez left a 2-2 fastball over the plate to Joey Votto and watched in horror as the Reds' 200 million man crushed it to center field for a walk-off grand slam.

And just like that, all those good vibes the Nationals seemed to have stored up for weeks disappeared into thin air. Just like that, they went from a gutsy ballclub that managed to overcome injuries with brilliant pitching and clutch hitting to a broken-down, offensively challenged team with a serious question mark at the back end of their bullpen.

Oh yeah, they also fell out of first place in the NL East for the first time in 33 days.

Is that a fair assessment of Davey Johnson's club? No, not really. The outcome of one pitch may alter the outside perception surrounding a team, but it doesn't truly change who they are.

The Nationals returned home late last night the same club that left town a week ago, aside from the loss of Ramos. But that doesn't mean they haven't reached a critical juncture in their season.

The Nats have every reason to be down on themselves after the events of the last 36 hours. And if ever doubts were going to start trickling their way into players' heads, now would be the time.

But they also have every reason to believe they can continue to enjoy the success they've experienced over the last six weeks. Banged-up lineup or not, this team still has a rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler at its disposal. And that rotation should keep this team in the hunt all summer long.

Which isn't to say there aren't some major obstacles for the Nationals to overcome. They aren't getting any of the prominent injured players back for a while, so they're going to have to find another way to manufacture runs. Several slumping regulars finally showed signs of progress this weekend -- most notably Danny Espinosa -- but this team still squanders far too many golden scoring opportunities.

And even if the lineup does manage to scratch out a few runs in support of its rotation, there's still that pesky ninth inning lurking in the shadows. As much as some would prefer to see Johnson insert someone else into the closer's role, the 69-year-old manager is most likely going to stick with Rodriguez.

The young right-hander has experienced just about every possible high and every possible low in his brief stint as Storen's fill-in closer. There is no middle ground with him, only dizzying highs or terrifying lows.

There's only so much the Nationals can do to try to prevent Rodriguez from experiencing those lows. Ultimately, it's going to be on him to learn how to maintain his composure on the mound, how to continue to thrive even after putting a man on base. We're about to find out what Henry Rodriguez is made of.

We're also going to find out what the Nationals as a whole are made of. Few would fault them for complaining about all the injuries, using that as a perfectly viable excuse when they lose. But they have, to date, exhibited a grit and determination not previously seen in these parts.

Perhaps Ian Desmond put it best eight days ago after Werth broke his wrist.

"I've obviously never been on a championship team, but I'm definitely a fan of baseball," the shortstop said. "And it seems like championship teams overcome things like this."

They do. But whether the Nationals have what it takes to overcome it all remains to be seen.

One way or another, we're about to find out.

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A quick recap of Tuesday's MLB All-Star Game, including how your Nats did

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USA TODAY Sports

A quick recap of Tuesday's MLB All-Star Game, including how your Nats did

Tuesday evening's All-Star game was fairly uneventful until its later innings. The American League triumphed over the National League, 8 - 6, for their sixth straight All-Star game victory.

Despite fears of potential rain and inclement weather delaying the game, there were no unexpected stops in play. 

The AL started very strong offensively, with runs from Aaron Judge and Mike Trout in the top of the second and third innings, respectively. Jean Segura's three-run homer in the top of the eighth made victory look inevitable for the AL by the fifth. 

Max Scherzer, unsurprisingly, was well received among fans at Nationals Park. The Nats starter pitched the first two innings, giving up four hits. One was Judge's second-inning homer, but Scherzer remained unfazed and lighthearted. Four strikeouts made his performance commendable.

Bryce Harper did not get on as well, striking out in both of his at-bats. After Harper's Home Run Derby Win last night, there was chatter of him going for the MVP title as well. 

It didn't work out, but given Harper's consistent presence at the All-Star game, there's always another chance.

Elsewhere in the dugout for the NL, who rallied back from the three-run deficit, the kids were all right. Willson Contreras of the Cubs had a solo homer at the bottom of the third, the Rockies' Trevor Story had one in the seventh, and Christian Yelich added another in the eighth. A two-run homer by Scooter Gennett in the bottom of the ninth brought the game back to a 5-5 tie.

Jesus Aguilar struck out for the NL, and extra innings began.

In the top of the tenth, Alex Bregman and George Springer, both of the Astros, hit home runs almost immediately off of Dodgers pitcher Ross Stipling. Stop us if you've heard that one before.

With no outs, Michael Brantley took a sacrifice flyout to right field, and Jean Segura got in one more run to put the score at 8-5.

Though Joey Votto (Reds) hit one last home run in the bottom of the tenth, the NL couldn't quite make up the deficit.

After a late night, the American League will be going home happy.

MORE ALL-STAR GAME NEWS:

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2018 MLB All-Star Game Live Blog

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USA TODAY Sports

2018 MLB All-Star Game Live Blog

This is the year's most ambitious crossover event in baseball. Dozens of MLB standouts from dozens of teams ally along either the National or American league. The two teams play against each other in a lighthearted frankensquad matchup. It's a welcome change of pace, considering how stressed we are about the Nationals' win percentage.

At the moment, we're keeping our eyes to the sky to monitor incoming rain. Aside from the threat of rain delay, we're excited to see how things unfold.

TOP 10 - Yikes, uh, so that's two solo home runs, and still no outs?

BOT 9 - A lot of people have either Bad Bunny or Post Malone as their walk up music. Also, uh, Scooter did a two-run homer, so now we're going to extra innings.

TOP 9 - Nothing is happening. Yawn.

BOT 8 - Yelich homers! We love one Brewer! It's 5-3 AL.

TOP 8 - Segura hits a three-run homer. Cruz adds it to his Instagram story. The AL is up 5-2. Yikes.

TOP 8 - Blackmon is very charming when mic'd up. He's talking about how lonely the outfield is. In other adjacent boredom news, Mike Trout follows over 145 weather related accounts on twitter. Yes, we went through his 2,400 user long following list to check.

BOT 7 - Bottoms tend to be the most exciting. Arenado knows this. So he tied it with a solo homer.

TOP 7 - Please, we are all so tired, and this pace is so slow. Votto has a nice tag, Yelich loses a ball in the lights but still makes the out. 

BOT 6 - Everybody Hates The National League. Votto, Yelich, and Blackmon all come up short.

INT 6 - Everyone on the internet and the broadcast loses their minds over Manny Machado.

TOP 6 - Nelson Cruz goes up against pitcher Jeremy Jeffress to start the inning. We take a brief pause for another selfie. Isn't it kind of a bad idea to have your phone in your pocket when you're at bat? Anyway. Bregman hits a double, but is immediately outshined as we go to Manny Machado for an interview about how it feels to wear an Orioles uniform for (maybe) the last time. Limor pinch hits for Machado, and doesn't quite get it out of the park. Oh well.

BOT 5 - Contreras gets a hit off Jose Berrios and promptly gets tagged first. Javier Baez looks amazing at the plate, but flies out. Arenado walks. Trout-man catches Molina's almost-homer. NL, do better please.

TOP 5 - Aaron Nola strikes out Brandon Crawford fairly easily and Mookie Betts not so easily. Mike Trout, who looks like he would post pictures with trout and other fish on Instagram, pops up and across the first base line. Sorry AL.

BOT 4 - Bryce Harper faces Blake Snell and strikes out for the second time tonight. Maybe he thought tonight was a Strikeout Derby?

TOP 4 - Machado pops up to the third baseman in what may be his final at-bat wearing an Orioles uniform.

TOP 4 - Matt Kemp deftly avoids tampering charges when the FOX broadcast crew asks him about his selfie with Machado.

BOT 2 - Manny begins acquainting himself with his LA teammates.

BOT 2 - Chris Sale only stuck around for one inning, apparently. It's Luis Severino time in D.C. He allows a double from Matt Kemp to start but then strikes out Bryce Harper. 

TOP 2 - Aaron Judge takes Scherzer deep. 1-0 AL. Sigh.

BOT 1 - AL Starter Chris Sale responds with a scoreless frame of his own. We're on our way to that 3-2 thriller after all!!! 

TOP 1 - Scherzer strikes out Mookie Betts and Jose Altuve before walking Mike Trout (can't blame him) and allowing a hit to J.D. Martinez. No damage done though, and it's 0-0. 

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