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Nationals now have backs against the wall

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Nationals now have backs against the wall

For six months, they could stake claim to the title of "Best Team in Baseball." And after they won their first-ever postseason game Sunday afternoon, the Nationals had every reason to continue crowing about themselves.

Then they got beat up in St. Louis on Monday. Then they got beat up again on Wednesday, this time in front of a record-setting home crowd that gave the first playoff game in Washington in eight decades into a true playoff atmosphere.

And now, in the span of 72 hours, the "Best Team in Baseball" finds itself 27 outs from elimination before many on the roster have even had a chance to process what is going on.

"This isn't the situation we wanted to be in," shortstop Ian Desmond said following an 8-0 drubbing at the hands of the Cardinals in Game 3 of the NLDS. "But we're here and we're going to deal with it, just like we've been dealing with wins and losses all year long."

That was the prevalent theme throughout a somber Nationals clubhouse at the end of one of the more frustrating afternoons in team history. Just because they're facing a do-or-die scenario Thursday in Game 4, players don't believe it's necessary to change the dynamic all of a sudden.

"Our formula has worked pretty well," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "I think it would be kind of bad to change it now."

Perhaps that philosophy works. There's enough talent on the Nationals' roster -- in the lineup, in the rotation, in the bullpen and on the bench -- to win two games in two days, no matter the opponent.

But there's also no proof that success from April through September guarantees success in October. The postseason, plain and simple, is a different animal.

Over the course of a 162-game schedule, there's always ample opportunity to snap out of funks, always another game to play and put yesterday's events in the rear-view mirror.

In a five-game Division Series, that's not the case. Every at-bat, every pitch is magnified. One clutch hit becomes the stuff of legend. One squandered opportunity becomes something that lingers all winter.

"That's how the playoffs are," Zimmerman said. "I think that's why all you have to do is get in. It's whomever's hot. These first series are obviously a little bit more leaning toward that, because it's such a short series. You get hot for a couple games, you have a commanding lead.

"But we've put ourselves in a good position by playing the way we did in the regular season, and now we have to win one game. If we win one game, we have a good chance with our guy on the mound."

Before they can get to their guy, Gio Gonzalez, in a decisive Game 5, the Nationals first need Ross Detwiler to lead them to victory in Game 4. That's easier said than done. The left-hander has enjoyed a breakthrough season in many ways, but he's still battle-untested, and the freshest memory of him with a ball in hand is the trouncing he took 10 days ago in St. Louis against the same lineup he'll face on Thursday.

"Det's capable of pitching a good game tomorrow," manager Davey Johnson said, shooting down any possibility of Gonzalez returning on short rest. "That's been our strength all year. These young guys have pitched great all year."

Great pitching is only one-half of the equation. It wouldn't matter who toed the rubber on Wednesday, because he couldn't have won a game when his teammates didn't score once.

A Nationals lineup that was among the most productive in the majors during the season's second half hasn't exactly gone ice-cold in the postseason. This team has put 36 men on base in the first three games of the series.

The problem, though, hasn't been putting men on base. It's been driving them in. After an 0-for-8 showing in Game 3, the Nationals are now a paltry 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position, stranding 30 total men on base.

The only three players who have come through in those situations: Kurt Suzuki, Tyler Moore and Jordan Zimmermann. Yes, the No. 8 hitter, a rookie off the bench and a pitcher.

Is that lack of playoff experience finally starting to show, with young hitters pressing at the plate in key spots?

"When you're down a few runs, you want to drive something in," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "You can get a little anxious then and try to take more than they give you. Probably later in the game, that was more the case, guys trying to do a little extra to spark something."

It's a natural tendency to try to do too much when the pressure is ramped up. How could anyone in a Nationals uniform not feel that when standing in the box on Wednesday with two men on base and two out, the crowd of 45,017 imploring him to do something special?

That, of course, is the last thing anyone wants to do in that situation. Yet there's no escaping the fact the Nationals have arrived at a moment of desperation.

After mostly cruising through their regular season with few hints of true adversity -- ie. facing a must-win situation -- they'll now arrive at the park on Thursday knowing this could be their final game of the year.

"I believe in this team, I believe in these guys," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "We've been here all year. Over a 162-game season, we were the best team in baseball. And I still feel that way."

The best team in baseball over 162 games, though, isn't always the best team in baseball over a five-game playoff series.

That's a lesson the Nationals hope not to learn over the next 48 hours.

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Soto, Harper homer in Nats' win over Padres

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Soto, Harper homer in Nats' win over Padres

WASHINGTON -- Juan Soto, the youngest player in the majors at 19, hit a three-run homer in his first career start as the Washington Nationals defeated the San Diego Padres 10-2 on Monday.

Mark Reynolds had two solo home runs for the Nationals, who snapped a three-game losing streak. Bryce Harper had a homer and an RBI double.

Soto's drive highlighted a five-run second inning for Washington. The promising outfielder, who played for three minor league teams this season, hit the first pitch from Robbie Erlin (1-3) over the Nationals bullpen in left-center field. Soto also singled.

Soto's homer traveled an estimated 442 feet at Nationals Park. He earned a standing ovation from the crowd and the teenager responded by taking a curtain call. Per Baseball-Reference.com, Soto became the first teenager to hit a home run in a major league game since Harper on Sept. 30, 2012.

Called up to Washington on Sunday, Soto became the first 19-year-old to make his major league debut since Dodgers pitcher Julio Urias in 2016. He entered that game in the eighth inning as a pinch-hitter and struck out.

Washington's starting left fielder began the season at Class A Hagerstown. He hit a combined .362 with 14 homers and 52 RBIs in his three minor league stops.

Gio Gonzalez (5-2) allowed two runs and two hits in seven innings.

San Diego's Franmil Reyes, playing in his seventh career game, also hit his first career home run.

Trea Turner hit a pair of RBI doubles for Washington. Reynolds had three hits.

Erlin surrendered six runs and seven hits over four innings in his third start of the season. San Diego had won three in a row.

Reyes connected for a two-run homer in the fourth inning, but the Padres' lineup generated little else against Gonzalez, who allowed one run over six innings in a no-decision at San Diego on May 9.

2018 MLB POWER RANKINGS AND OTHER NATS NEWS:

- Rankings Update: Where does your team fall?
- Cause For Concern?: How worried should Nats fans be?
- Very Persuasive: How Rizzo convinced Reynolds to come to D.C.

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Juan Soto crushes a homer in the first at-bat of his first-ever start

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Juan Soto crushes a homer in the first at-bat of his first-ever start

Juan Soto, the highly-regarded 19-year-old Nationals' prospect, got his first major league start of his career tonight. 

How did it go, you ask? Surely it would take Soto - who was in Single-A less than two weeks ago - some time to adjust? 

What were you doing at 19??

2018 MLB POWER RANKINGS AND OTHER NATS NEWS:

- Rankings Update: Where does your team fall?
- Cause For Concern?: How worried should Nats fans be?
- Very Persuasive: How Rizzo convinced Reynolds to come to D.C.