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Espinosa delivers in big spot

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Espinosa delivers in big spot

Every ballplayer has his own reaction when an opponent intentionally walks the batter in front of him. Some gear up even more than they normally would. Some don't treat it any differently than any other at-bat.

Danny Espinosa? He gets mad.

"I don't gear up, but I definitely take it personally in the sense that I want to get 'em," he said. "I want to make 'em pay for what they're doing."

Boy, did Espinosa make them pay for it Thursday night. After watching the Rays intentionally walk Adam LaRoche with two outs in the sixth inning of a tie game, the struggling Nationals second baseman stepped into the left-handed batter's box and delivered perhaps his biggest hit of the season: a two-run double that propelled his team to a 5-2 win and another series victory over a tough AL East opponent.

"I know Danny's character enough to know that in that situation he's going to rise up and get the job done," teammate Ian Desmond said.

Desmond may have sensed it, but you couldn't blame the 29,551 in attendance at Nationals Park had they anticipated disaster instead of elation at that moment.

Espinosa's track record from the left side of the plate -- he was hitting .188 this season entering the game, versus .365 from the right side -- certainly wouldn't suggest a favorable matchup for him against Tampa Bay reliever Joel Peralta.

Those who have watched Espinosa closely in recent weeks, though, have seen improvement.

"I thought he's been swinging the bat, really, pretty good from the left side," manager Davey Johnson said. "He's made a few adjustments to where he feels like he's getting to the ball a little quicker. Even when he's bad, he's still a very dangerous hitter. He seems to shine in tough situations."

The Nationals needed Espinosa to come through in a particularly tough spot Thursday in a game that featured several key moments.

The evening nearly began in disastrous fashion for starter Gio Gonzalez, who went to a three-ball count on five of the first six batters he faced and then fell behind 2-0 to Carlos Pena with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the second. But a quick mound visit from pitching coach Steve McCatty, plus some calming gestures from Desmond (who made some exaggerated deep breath motions to his teammate), set Gonzalez back on track. He struck out Pena, the start of a stretch in which he retired 10 of 11 batters.

"When you've got, in my opinion, a leader like that who can go out there and take some deep breaths for you and slow your game down for you, it helps out a lot," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez also needed a big strikeout of pinch-hitter Elliot Johnson to end the sixth, stranding the potential go-ahead run in scoring position. Then he turned things over to his bullpen, which gave Johnson a few heart palpitations during a tense top of the seventh.

"That was a good game," Johnson said, "except for the seventh inning where everybody I brought in it seemed couldn't find the plate."

No, they couldn't. Craig Stammen issued a leadoff walk to Desmond Jennings, then walked Ben Zobrist with two outs to prolong the inning. Left-hander Michael Gonzalez entered to face Hideki Matsui and issued a free pass of his own, loading the bases.

So in came Ryan Mattheus, knowing well the situation at hand against Will Rhymes.

"I had to throw him a strike," Mattheus said. "Sure enough, I throw him two balls right off the bat."

The right-hander did quickly right his ship, though, and with the count full blew a 92 mph fastball past Rhymes to end the inning.

"That's our job: To go out there and leave those runners that are inherited out there stranded," Mattheus said. "It's not so much about your ERA, it's about what you leave out there for other guys as a reliever. That was a big deal."

It was, as were the 1-2-3 innings pitched by bullpen mates Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard to close out this victory.

None of it, however, would have been possible without Espinosa's clutch hit, perhaps his biggest hit of the season.

It's been a tough road for Espinosa, who hasn't boasted a batting average higher than .235 since April 7. Through it all, he's had the unwavering support of his manager.

"Sometimes it just takes a little time, patience," Johnson said. "I know he has the talent and the ability. I just try not to put too much pressure on him, whether from you or me or anybody else. Everybody that ever sees him play realizes what kind of talent he is."

And on this night, Espinosa rewarded his manager for that patience.

"I'm sure a lot of people wouldn't have stuck with me that long," he said. "So it feels awesome to know that Davey's got my back."

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Murphy's big hit helps Nats beat Mets 6-1

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Murphy's big hit helps Nats beat Mets 6-1

Daniel Murphy and Trea Turner each hit a two-run single in Washington's five-run seventh inning, helping the Nationals beat the New York Mets 6-1 on Sunday.

Matt Adams added two hits and scored a run as Washington salvaged a split of its four-game set against New York. A preseason favorite to win the NL East and contend for a World Series championship, the disappointing Nationals hit the All-Star break with a 48-48 record, good for third in the division.

Jeremy Hellickson (4-1) pitched six crisp innings in his second straight win. The veteran right-hander allowed one run and two hits, struck out six and walked two.

Jose Reyes drove in Michael Conforto with a fielder's choice in the second, tying it at 1, but Washington grabbed control in the seventh.

Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon opened the inning with walks against Anthony Swarzak (0-2). Tim Peterson then came in and surrendered singles to Adams and Murphy, who came off the bench to hit for Michael A. Taylor.

Jerry Blevins replaced Peterson with two out and runners on second and third. But he hit Wilmer Difo and Adam Eaton before Turner's single gave Washington a 6-1 lead.

New York wasted a solid start by Corey Oswalt, who allowed two hits in five innings. The Mets got off to a fast start this year, but hit the break last in the division with a 39-55 record, a percentage point behind fourth-place Miami.

WAITING

A steady drizzle delayed the start by 47 minutes.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: RHP Stephen Strasburg (right shoulder inflammation) pitched 5 2/3 innings in a rehab start for Class A Potomac. He allowed three runs, struck out seven and walked one. Strasburg has been on the disabled list since June 10.

Mets: Yoenis Cespedes is scheduled to play five simulated innings in left field at the team's facility in Florida on Monday. Mets manager Mickey Callaway said the 32-year-old outfielder, who has been sidelined by a right hip flexor and strained quadriceps, could return as the designated hitter next weekend against the Yankees If he is able to play on consecutive days.

MAKING MOVES

The Nationals recalled right-hander Trevor Gott from Triple-A Syracuse. Right-hander Austin Voth, who took the loss in his big league debut Saturday, was sent back to Syracuse.

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Taking a look at the numbers behind the Nationals' three All-Stars

Taking a look at the numbers behind the Nationals' three All-Stars

With a win on Sunday afternoon, the Nationals come into the All-Star break at 48-48. 

That's not great! It's certainly an underperformance given all the expectations, but the season hasn't been without some stellar individual performances . 

Take, for starters, Max Scherzer. Scherzer's on pace to have an even better year than his 2017 Cy Young-winning effort, which is mind-boggling. 

An even-more-refined command is what's made him better this season, as his walk rate is down below seven percent again after creeping up to 7.1 last year. It hasn't affected his strikeout rate, either, which has stayed steady at 34 percent. If the season ended today, it'd be the 4th straight year where he set a career-best in that department. 

Of all starting pitchers, he ranks second in WHIP, and K/BB percent. He has the third-lowest average against (.178) and third-best strikeout percentage (34.5). He's got a top-10 ERA and FIP as well. He's been the best pitcher in baseball this season, and will probably be in the conversation for N.L. MVP as well. 

If only the Nats could just go from Scherzer to Doolittle. The closer stopped walking people, too, and already has 22 saves after ending last year with 24. Had he not been put on the D.L. with a toe injury about a week before the All-Star game, he more than likely would have set his career high in saves before the break. 

He's currently on pace to post the second-best year of his career when it comes to strikeouts, too. He's getting Ks 37.1 percent of the time, which would be the highest since he posted a 37.7 in 2014. Same goes for his K/9. He also has a top-10 ERA and FIP. He's been one of the few relief pitchers that have been consistently reliable through the first half, and the Nats will need his toe to get real healthy real quick. 

And lastly there's Bryce Harper, who you've surely heard is not having an All-Star caliber season. His batting average is hovering around .200, he's striking out more than he has in four years, and he's getting eaten alive by the shift. He's also on pace to have one of his best power-hitting seasons ever and finish with close to 40 home runs, so even his bad years still find a way to be impressive. 

Harper also benefits from being one of the faces of baseball playing in front of his home fans. He's one of the most popular players in the league, and All-Star games find a way to get those people in. An All-Star game in D.C. without him would be objectively less enjoyable, so it was in everyone's interest to have him there. Stars just get the calls sometimes. 

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