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Instant analysis: Nats 4, Phillies 2

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Instant analysis: Nats 4, Phillies 2

Game in a nutshell: After clinching the NL East title last night, Davey Johnson decided to rest nearly every regular and fielded a lineup more reminiscent of a split-squad Grapefruit League game than an early October game for a pennant contender. He also sat Gio Gonzalez and turned to his bullpen to churn out nine innings. And you know what? The Nationals still managed to win their 97th game of the season.

That puts them on the precipice of clinching the best record in the NL and the No. 1 seed for the playoffs. If the Reds lose to the Cardinals tonight, that race will be over. Otherwise, the Nationals will merely need to win tomorrow's season finale (or have the Reds lose) to ensure an NLDS showdown with the winner of Friday night's Wild Card game.

Hitting highlight: He's been Mr. Consistent all season for the Nationals, and in possibly his final game of the regular season -- if he's given tomorrow off -- Adam LaRoche delivered once again. The veteran first baseman drew a walk in the second, doubled and scored in the fourth and belted the go-ahead homer in the sixth. That was LaRoche's 33rd home run of the season (his new career-high) and produced his 100th RBI (matching his career-high). That blast drew a curtain call from the crowd of 33,546, which later serenaded LaRoche with chants of "MVP! MVP!" He won't be taking home any hardware this winter, but the mere fact it's mentioned is testament to his importance on this team all season.

Pitching highlight: By choosing to rest Gonzalez in advance of Game 1 of the NLDS, Johnson was left to use Johnny Wholestaff to pitch this game. First up was Tom Gorzelanny, making his first start since July 23, 2011.

The lefty delivered a solid performance, allowing one run over a 3 23 innings while throwing 65 pitches. Gorzelanny probably has the most thankless job on the pitching staff, but he's quietly done yeoman's work, posting a 2.88 ERA in 45 appearances.

His bullpen mates picked up right where he left off, with Christian Garcia, Zach Duke and Ryan Mattheus combining to toss 3 13 scoreless innings and set things up for the back end of the relief corps. Tyler Clippard did serve up a homer to brand-new Nat killer Darin Ruf, but Drew Storen closed out the ninth to cap a collective victory for the Nationals pitching staff.

Key stat: With a fifth-inning base hit to right, Bryce Harper raised his batting average to .270. That's up 22 points over his last 33 games.

Up next: Game 162 tomorrow afternoon starts at 1:05 p.m., with Edwin Jackson squaring off against Cliff Lee. Thus will conclude the Nationals' eighth regular season ... and commence their first-ever postseason.

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Nationals the latest team to extend protective netting in stadium

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Nationals the latest team to extend protective netting in stadium

The Nationals return to the nation’s capital Monday night for their first homestand of the season’s second half. When they do, players and fans may notice a slight change at Nationals Park: extended netting.

The issue of extending protective netting down the lines of baseball stadiums has grown more and more prominent in recent years, especially with the rash of avoidable injuries fans are incurring on foul balls.

As hitters have grown stronger and exit velocities have skyrocketed, it’s become harder for fans in certain sections to protect themselves or their children from these dangerous shots into the crowd.

More and more teams have announced plans to extend the netting at their stadiums all the way down the lines, though it’s come with a little (misguided) controversy.

Monday night marks the debut of the Nationals’ extended netting.

“Throughout Major League Baseball there have been some tragic incidents this year,” Nationals VP of Public Safety and Security Scott Fear explained in a statement priovided by the team. “So we at the Washington Nationals decided to extend the netting to make sure our fans are safe.”

“And that’s what this is all about,” Fear continued. “We want to protect our fans, the children, the adults, everyone that comes to the game, to make sure they have a great time without worrying about being hurt.”

Perhaps in anticipation of some pushback from fans concerned about a diminished view, the Nats were quick to describe the new netting as being nearly see-through.

Plus, with the changes, the Nationals installed retractable netting, allowing it to come down prior to gametime. This will afford fans even more opportunities to interact with players and ask for pregame autographs and pictures.

“This is something we feel is going to be very positive, and our fans will feel safe being here watching the game,” Fear concluded.

Ultimately, safety should be the number one priority of any major franchise, the Nationals included. They are one of the first teams to embrace this change in the name of safety, and they certainly won’t be the last.

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With trade deadline creeping, Nationals’ needs and situation remains the same

With trade deadline creeping, Nationals’ needs and situation remains the same

The Nationals left Atlanta on Sunday in the same place as they entered: 6 ½ games behind the first-place Braves.

A four-game split without Max Scherzer is palatable. A 5-4 overall road run since showing up in Philadelphia after the All-Star break is acceptable, though an easy argument could be made the results should have been better. Chances to sweep both in Philadelphia and Baltimore slipped.

What changed in the first nine games since the break? Nothing for the Nationals. They need bullpen help -- still. They remain in a solid position to make the playoffs -- still. Their health -- outside of a new heel flareup for Ryan Zimmerman -- remains decent. Scherzer’s lobbying to pitch Sunday night failed. However, he’s expected back on the mound Thursday against Colorado, which would put him on turn to face the Braves on July 30.

That Scherzer start would arrive a day before the trade deadline. This year, July 31 is it. No more post-deadline deals, no more scrapping pieces after a couple more weeks of testing the waters for a truer read on outcomes. It’s get it done by July 31.

Like their standing in the National League East, nothing changed over the weekend for the Nationals when it comes to need. They need another reliever. Probably two. And, they need to get in line.

Sunday night, reports began to percolate about Boston being interested in San Diego closer Kirby Yates and Toronto closer Ken Giles. The Red Sox are 11 games out of first place and three games out of the wild card. They, of course, are traditionally a go-for-it organization in such instances. As are the Nationals. The questions will be who else is joining them to drive prices and who will be willing to pay them.

Take Yates. He’s the National League’s best closer this season. He is ultra-low-cost. The salary-tracking site Spotrac pegs him as the best relief bargain in baseball. San Diego has another year of control and expects to improve next year. Is he someone it really trades? If so, how epic is the cost? Would the Nationals ever meet it with a higher-end prospect out of a sagging farm system?

What is San Francisco thinking now? It’s 2 ½ games out of a wild-card spot. It is suddenly -- somehow -- a .500 baseball team with 50 wins. The Giants are 22-10 in one-run games. That typically represents two things: a good bullpen and unsustainable results. The Giants’ bullpen has the seventh-best ERA in baseball. Three of the teams ahead of them currently hold a playoff spot. None of the other three are more than a game out of a playoff spot. The group is legit and seemed to be the basis of a pending sell-off from San Francisco (along with, possibly, Madison Bumgarner). But, now? They have to decide, and everyone waits.

Among the Giants’ would-be trade pieces is closer Will Smith. He has moved from a decent reliever to an excellent one the last two seasons. He knew at the All-Star break what might be ahead for him. Smith was the Giants’ lone member of the National League All-Star team.

“I don’t really pay attention to [trade rumors],” Smith told NBC Sports Washington. “I think that’s a distraction, kind of.... I don’t try to think too much into it, really. I play for the Giants right now. I’m going to play as hard as I can for as long as they want me to. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, oh well, I still get to play baseball. It’s kind of a win-win for me.”

Smith has been traded four times. The first time was as a 21-year-old minor-leaguer. He was stunned and disappointed. 

“I thought I was in trouble,” Smith said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

By now, he’s moved to a more Zen approach.

“Now -- the whole control what you can control, it really applies to this,” Smith said. “There’s nothing you can do about this, so why even try to drive yourself crazy.”

The potential playoff pile has tempered movement. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo acquired reliever Kelvin Herrera on June 18 last year. Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson arrived on July 16, 2017. If he can, Rizzo has shown a willingness to pull in problem-solvers well before the deadline. If pushed to the edge, like he was for Mark Melancon on July 30, 2016, he’ll move then, too. He’s yet to find a bullpen solution this year -- just like everyone else.

Yates, Smith, Giles and Detroit’s Shane Greene are assumed to be destined for new teams.  Four teams are within 2 1/2 games of the National League’s second wild-card spot. Washington holds the top spot by a mere half-game. Demand is high. Stock is low. Going for may get you in. Holding may send you home. In those ways, nothing has changed for the Nationals.

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