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Lannan leads Nats to sweep in New York

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Lannan leads Nats to sweep in New York

NEW YORK -- The storyline, and the comparison, was too obvious to ignore.

Stephen Strasburg was supposed to start Wednesday night's series finale in New York. John Lannan instead took his spot and now will make four starts down the stretch run of a pennant race in place of baseball's most-hyped young pitcher.

Those who try to compare Lannan to Strasburg, though, haven't really been following the Nationals, this year or any previous year. Lannan simply isn't Strasburg. Nor has he ever tried to be.

Truth be told, Lannan isn't like any other member of the Nationals' rotation. He doesn't have Strasburg's dominating repertoire or Jordan Zimmermann's slider or Gio Gonzalez's curveball or Ross Detwiler's fastball or Edwin Jackson's experience. And he knows it.

"This rotation's different," Lannan said. "There's something about it. Every five days when Stephen was in it, it's just different. Day after day, there's no giving up. I go out there and I had to just not try to do what they do. I'm not necessarily that type of pitcher, but I do like to compete. And that's the one thing I did see: them competing. And I can do that."

So that's exactly what Lannan did Wednesday night. He didn't so much dominate the Mets as he navigated his way through their lineup. He threw lots of strikes. He kept the ball down in the zone. He induced a ton of groundballs. And he didn't allow a run over 5 23 innings, paving the way for the Nationals to pull off a 2-0 victory and a series sweep at Citi Field.

And thanks to the Brewers' sweep of the Braves, plus the continued collapse of nearly every NL wild-card contender, the Nationals now boast an 8 12-game lead in the NL East entering this weekend's showdown in Atlanta and a 15-game lead for the league's final playoff berth with only 19 games to go.

"This was a big series," manager Davey Johnson said. "We needed to kinda drive the nail in their coffin here and come into Atlanta with a good frame of mind. And that's what we're doing."

All that angst about the Strasburg shutdown and how the Nats would replace him? Nobody in the visitors clubhouse at the end of the night seemed too worried about that.

"I don't think anybody in here was concerned about what John was going to give us," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We've all seen him enough. ... We don't think he has to prove anything to us. We've seen him pitch. He's done well and he worked his tail off down there in Triple-A, and he comes up and picks up right where he left off, if not better."

Indeed, combined with his back-to-back shutouts in late-August to close out his season with Syracuse, Lannan has now tossed 23 23 consecutive scoreless innings. And in his three big-league starts this year, he's now 3-0 with a 2.41 ERA.

All this from a guy who five months ago was stunningly shipped away to the minors and requested a trade from the only organization he's ever known. Feels like an eternity now, doesn't it?

"If you're not pulling for him, you're not human," reliever Sean Burnett said. "To see what he went through in late March and to deal with what he did and the way he handled it ... he earned a lot of respect in this clubhouse. We're all pulling for him, and a lot of fans are, too."

The Nationals needed Lannan to be as effective as he was Wednesday night, because they weren't offering much support at the plate. Wowed by Mets rookie Matt Harvey, who struck out 10 batters in only five innings, they had to settle for a pair of solo homers and nothing else from what has been the majors' most potent lineup in recent weeks.

Ryan Zimmerman's leadoff blast in the fourth got things started. Desmond's solo shot in the eighth off Jon Rauch provided the insurance.

That still set the stage for a tense bottom of the ninth. With Tyler Clippard unavailable after working the previous two nights, Johnson decided to entrust this lead to Burnett, who hadn't pitched in 10 days due to elbow inflammation.

"I didn't wanna go to Clip or Drew Storen, period," the manager said. "Especially Clip. I wanted to give him a couple days off. If I pitched him today, it would have been four out of five, and I wanted to give him a couple days off and have him fresh for Atlanta."

Turns out Johnson needed Storen to finish this one off after Burnett allowed a two-out single to put men on the corners and bring the potential winning run to the plate.

"Being 10 days and not seeing hitters, that situation -- I was a little geeked up," Burnett said. "But all-in-all, it was alright. Just got a couple balls up."

Storen, who saved 43 games last season as Washington's primary closer but after missing three months following elbow surgery has ceded the job this year to Clippard, wasted little time getting pinch-hitter Daniel Murphy to fly out to center and secure his second save of 2012.

"It's just part of the bullpen life," Storen said. "You just stay on your toes and never assume anything."

That same mentality might apply to Lannan right now. After a surreal year, most of it spent in the minors, he's trying not to assume anything and just live in the moment.

Everyone else can try to compare him to Strasburg. He's just thrilled to have a chance at last to perform for the Nationals in a pennant race.

"Just being on this team right now is incredible," he said. "You can not only see it, but you can kind of feel the chemistry and everything. It's something special, and I'm just proud to be a part of it right now."

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Bryce Harper trolls Cubs fans after they call him overrated because of course he did

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Bryce Harper trolls Cubs fans after they call him overrated because of course he did

It's not just the City of Brotherly Love that heckles Bryce Harper from time to time, it's also one of the clubs he spurned during his offseason tour before settling on Philadelphia.

Prior to losing on a walk-off single to Cubs' star Javy Baez, Harper had a battle going on aside from the scheduled matchup, and that battle didn't involve any players on the opposing squads, but it did include the fans that fill their seats at Wrigley Field.

After the fans booed him all evening and labeled him overrated, the former Nats star chucked a fastball right over their heads and across the street.

Fortunately, the ball didn't break any nearby windows.

We hope. 

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Nationals bullpen finds a new way to lose a game

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Nationals bullpen finds a new way to lose a game

NEW YORK -- The Washington Nationals lost to the New York Mets, 6-5, Tuesday to drop their record to 19-29. Here are five observations from the game…

1. They gave the lead back in the seventh, then again in the eighth before losing in the ninth. You know who “they” is.

A three-run homer run off Wander Suero provided the first shot against the Nationals’ league-worst bullpen. Suero threw a curveball to pinch-hitter J.D. Davis, who is hitting .429 against breaking pitches this year, and Davis hit it into the right-field stands. Not only is Davis potent against breaking pitches, but the curveball is also Suero’s worst pitch. He was beat on a curveball in the ninth inning April 14 to lose the lead. Afterward, in April, manager Davey Martinez said he was surprised by the pitch call. Yan Gomes was calling pitches that game, too. Yet, they called it Tuesday night, despite the dual emphatic counters to why that’s a good pitch in that situation.

“He got two big strikeouts with it,” Gomes said of the selection. “We were trying to expand the zone with it and just when you leave pitches up to good hitters, they're going to do some damage to it. I think [leaving pitches up] can beat anybody. We were trying to expand the zone, we left up just enough for him to hit it and J.D. did what he did. He's a good hitter and he made us pay for it.”

The Nationals rallied for two runs in the eighth to again take the lead back. Trea Turner doubled to drive in a run. Juan Soto followed with a double. Washington led, 5-4.

Matt Grace came in. He retired Robinson Cano in a lefty-lefty matchup. Hard-throwing Tanner Rainey entered to face Mets stud rookie Pete Alonso, who entered the game with 15 home runs. His 16th soared just inside the foul pole -- according to an on-field call then “inconclusive” crew chief replay review -- four pitches later. Tie game.

Both relievers failed in their execution. Suero didn’t want his pitch up. Rainey did. Neither hit the proper spot.

Rainey remained in the game in the bottom of the ninth. He walked two after picking up an out. He left. Kyle Barraclough entered. His first pitch was a broken-bat bloop toward Brian Dozier. He intentionally let it drop to try to trick the Mets into a double play. Instead, it produced an out at second.

Amed Rosario hit a one-hop grounder to shortstop. He beat the throw to first for a walk-off infield single. You read that right.

So, the line for second-guessing starts at Rainey’s initial entrance with one out in the eighth inning, when the Nationals held a 5-4 lead. Why didn’t Barraclough pitch there to hold the lead and set up Sean Doolittle for the ninth?

“I liked the matchup with Rainey, with the velocity and his slider,” Martinez said. “For me, the matchup was … and he got ahead. He just didn’t get the ball up.”

Rainey returned to the mound to start the ninth. Barraclough, who has allowed seven of eight inherited runners to score this season, could have started the inning. Instead, he came in with runners on base, then lost the game. It should be noted nothing was hit hard against Barraclough. However, the outcome was the outcome.

Also, should Turner have charged the grounder to try for a short hop against the fleet Rosario?

“Decision either stay back and catch it and make a hard throw or run and kind of make a do-or-die play,” Turner said. “I guess looking back at it, you try the other one since it didn't work out. But, felt like I gave myself a chance to make the play, complete the play and get out of the inning.”

And, for the first time, the weight of fighting back only to have the bullpen lose the game -- again -- began to show in the Nationals’ clubhouse postgame when Gomes was asked about the need to properly finish games and soon.

“I think you're nailing it but I think we don't need to, kind of a -- it's happening,” Gomes said. “I mean we can't put that aside. I think it's happening we need to figure out how to do it. I think it's just a matter of keep playing. Keep playing until the game's over and not wait for that moment to happen.

“I think mostly the seventh, eighth innings start happening or when those runs start coming in we, I mean you definitely see a drop. We were still tied and you kind of saw a drop in our...but it's kind of like, because it's happening a little bit. But I think it's one of those things man, because we do come out and battle and battle and battle. I think it kind of gets tiring to say we just need that one hit, just need to make it happen more than just wait for it to happen.”

2. Erick Fedde delivered about the best the Nationals could hope for: five innings, one run, four hits, one walk, one strikeout.

He threw 61 pitches, then was removed for a pinch-hitter in the top of the sixth.

Fedde last started April 23 for Harrisburg. After that, he joined the Nationals as a stop-gap reliever, which convinced them to turn him into a full-time reliever this season. He hopped into the rotation for injured Anibal Sanchez to start Tuesday.

The night was all about sinkers for Fedde. Thirty-one of his 61 pitches were sinkers.

Fedde is likely to make another start because the Nationals placed Jeremy Hellickson on the 10-day injured list Tuesday (more on that below). When Hellickson returns, they will have to decide who to keep in the struggling back end of the rotation.

“He looked really good,” Martinez said. “He threw groundballs, groundballs. If he keeps pitching like that, we’re going to be in good shape. We’ve got to build him back up, obviously. But he did really well.”

3. Though it’s a low bar, things are improving for Brian Dozier.

He hit a two-run homer in the top of the seventh inning to provide the Nationals a temporary lead and chase New York starter Zack Wheeler. Dozier was 5-for-12 coming into the game before his homer.

Again, this is a low bar. But for a player hitting .208, any progress is of note.

4. Trevor Rosenthal threw an inning of relief Tuesday for Double-A Harrisburg. Rosenthal walked two, threw a wild pitch, gave up a run and of his 24 pitches, just 10 were strikes.

He was though to be nearing a return to the parent club, possibly by the end of the week. The question now is if the Nationals think he needs more time.

5. Hellickson was placed on the 10-day injured list Tuesday because of a right shoulder strain. Yet, he was in center field playing long toss in the middle of the afternoon.

Hellickson said he felt discomfort in his shoulder since spring training. That prompts two questions: Why not say something prior? And, why play long toss after being placed on the injured list because of an achy shoulder?

To the first question, why now:

“Just cause it hasn’t gotten better,” Hellickson said. “We’ve been treating it every day, it hasn’t gotten better. We’ll see what rest does.”

And?

“Just [a] shoulder strain. It feels good when I’m out there. It just doesn’t feel great in between starts. I’m not waking up too good. Like I said, it’s not getting worse, but it’s not getting better. So I’m just going to rest it for a little bit.”

To the second question, why play long toss:

“That feels good,” Hellickson said. “It’s just taking a start off to give it some rest, and not that big workload on a start day. I can take one of those off. It’s just on and off. It feels good one day, not so good the next. So give it some rest and hopefully get back to 100 percent.”

Another question: Has this affected your pitching and contributed to the 6.23 ERA?

“I felt good when I was out there,” Hellickson said. “It maybe affected my command a little bit. But I felt fine. I felt fine when I was out there. I don’t think it affected too much.”

So, the discomfort has been around since spring, has not gotten better, but feels fine when he pitches and throws long-toss but feels bad in between starts, yet hasn’t influenced his outcomes.

Kyle McGowin is a possibility to replace Hellickson in the rotation while he is on the injured list.

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