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Nats feel like 'sky's the limit'

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Nats feel like 'sky's the limit'

They have every reason right now to pat themselves on the back, to go watch fireworks explode over the National Mall knowing they've got the best record in the NL by three games and the best record in the NL East by 4 12 games.

On Independence Day, a traditional milepost during the baseball season, the Washington Nationals are 15 games over .500, thanks to a 9-4 pasting of the previously red-hot San Francisco Giants.

Surely, someone inside the clubhouse on South Capitol Street is gloating over all this. Right?

"We don't really think about it," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We enjoy playing. Literally, just go out every day to play, and the goal is to win each series. ... There's a lot of season left. What we've done so far is great, but it doesn't mean anything until we finish the job."

For three months, the Nationals have played well enough to put themselves in this position. Now, with the season about to transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2, they can start focusing on finishing that job.

If they need a road map for success, they need only look back at the last week's worth of games, because this team is firing on all cylinders at the moment. A lineup that struggled to produce on a nightly basis has averaged 8.6 runs and 13.4 hits over its last eight games (the last five of those against quality pitching staffs from Atlanta and San Francisco).

The pitching staff has perhaps regressed a tad during that span, but as a whole that unit has continued to perform well enough to take advantage of all that run support and win six of its last eight games.

"It's no secret to us in here," said right-hander Edwin Jackson, today's beneficiary. "We know what these guys are capable of. The last week or so, they've been showing what they can really do."

Production has come from nearly every position in the lineup, but Davey Johnson knows where this all begins.

"I always put it back to the middle of the lineup," the manager said. "Those are the guys who are your best hitters, and when they struggle it has an effect on everybody else trying to do too much, trying to pick it up. ... But when they're doing their thing, everybody else is just looking for a pitch to hit hard and, consequently, you get better pitches to hit and you're a better hitter."

Thus, the lion's share of the credit continues to be heaped upon Zimmerman and Michael Morse. Over their last 10 games, that duo is hitting .391 with six doubles, seven homers and 25 RBI.

Both sluggers were at it again today. Zimmerman came within inches of a three-run homer to left in the bottom of the third, settling instead for an RBI double. Two innings later, he cleared the fence in right-center, a two-run blast. Morse immediately followed with his own opposite-field homer, one of four the Nationals hit in this game.

With the heart of the lineup raking at the plate, everyone else feels less pressure to carry the load. Which leads to all-around efforts like this one, which saw Ian Desmond deliver a two-run single, Rick Ankiel deliver a two-run homer and backup catcher Jhonatan Solano (now hitting .393) deliver a solo blast.

Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper, meanwhile, each reached base three times, setting the stage for the big boys behind them.

"I've said it all along: It's hard to shuffle the lineup all around and have guys doing different things all year and be consistent," Zimmerman said. "Now that we're starting to get healthy and people are starting to find out what their roles are, it's a lot easier to get comfortable. And we're scoring a lot more runs."

Feeling more confident in their own ability to score runs, the Nationals don't worry so much when they give up a few early runs. There was a time not long ago when Jackson's three-run top of the first would have created an insurmountable deficit. Not anymore.

"There's no way that this offense was going to be cold all year," Jackson said. "It's just a matter of time before they get hot, and they've been in a groove and showing what they've been able to do."

And so the Nationals find themselves today in a position unfamiliar to most around these parts. Yes, the inaugural 2005 Nats also held a 4 12-game lead on Independence Day, but that team built around fading veterans collapsed shortly thereafter.

This team doesn't feel the same. This team has believed since Day One it could win. And now the rest of the baseball world is catching on.

"You look back at the beginning of the year, and we all talked about it," Morse said. "And now, the same people that asked the questions are coming back, and you give them the: 'I told you!' kind of thing.

"There's a lot of baseball left. What's good about this team is we really don't know how good this team can be. I think that's what makes us so great: The sky's the limit."

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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.

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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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