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Nats getting close, but not quite there yet

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Nats getting close, but not quite there yet

PHILADELPHIA -- They've won 95 games, matching the franchise record. They've won more games than they've lost every month this season. They've played .643 ball since snapping a five-game losing streak in Miami on August 29, clubbing 51 homers during those 28 games.

But as the final week of the regular season arrives, the Nationals have yet to celebrate anything, aside from the fact they're guaranteed to play at least one playoff game in October.

Even with Thursday night's 7-3 thumping of the Phillies, the Nationals only inched closer to the NL East title. Their magic number now at 3, they can't clinch the division until Saturday night in St. Louis at the earliest.

For that, they can thank the scorching-hot Braves, who simply won't concede the East without putting up a fight right down to the wire. Winners in 10 of their last 12, they remain four games back with six to play, still needing a miracle to overtake Washington but refusing to help their rivals finish the job.

"Take nothing for granted," manager Davey Johnson said. "I know if we win three more, we're in, we win the pennant. That's all I want everybody in that room to figure on."

Knowing they can't count on Atlanta for much help these days, the Nationals (95-61) are pretty much throwing everything they have at the opposition each night, with Johnson doing whatever he thinks necessary to win a game and reduce that magic number by a single digit.

To win Thursday night, Johnson needed to weather a rocky first inning from Gio Gonzalez, coerce his lineup to put the hammer to Phillies rookie Tyler Cloyd and then fire his three best bullets out of the bullpen late, despite the fact his team lead by a fairly comfortable four runs.

The way this ballgame began, you might not have expected it to finish the way it did.

Five days after notching his 20th win of the season, Gonzalez was all over the place during a three-run, three-walk, 37-pitch first inning that left the hurler muttering to himself on the mound.

"I mean, if you looked at me, I looked like I had a split personality," he said. "I was talking to myself. I was just out there trying to beat myself up. I was just trying to get in my head a lot, just trying to figure it out, take myself out of the game as a third person and talk to myself every inning."

Gonzalez made it through the second inning without surrendering a run, but his pitch count was already at 55, and he had allowed seven of the first 11 batters he faced to reach base.

In the dugout, the left-hander approached his manager and sought to ease his concerns.

"Skip, I got this," Gonzalez said. "Stay with me."

Johnson's reply: "I plan on it," even though he later admitted his starter "about gave me a heart attack the first two innings."

With some help from catcher Kurt Suzuki and other teammates, Gonzalez managed to right his ship just in time and earn his 21st win. He wound up retiring 14 of the last 16 batters he faced, keeping the Phillies from scoring again and winding up with a quality start by the time he departed following the sixth.

"I think a lot of people can pitch well when things are going good," Suzuki said. "But it's the guys that can really bear down when they need to, when things aren't going their way or they aren't feeling their greatest. That showed Gio the maturity, how comfortable he feels out there. That shows tonight."

It certainly helped that the Nationals lineup got back the three runs Gonzalez allowed and then some, thanks to Bryce Harper's 21st homer and Michael Morse's 15th and 16th homers of the season.

Morse's second blast -- a 451-foot missile to right-center -- left everyone in the Nationals dugout (and especially the bullpen) celebrating. Why the bullpen? Not so much because Morse destroyed Cloyd's final pitch of the night, but because reliever Tom Gorzelanny managed to catch the ball on the fly in his cap.

"It was awesome," fellow reliever Tyler Clippard said. "That was fun. I was a little late on the jump. I might've tried to steal it from him, but ... good thing he caught it. If he missed it, that would've been pretty bad heckling for a few days."

With his pair of homers, Morse emphatically stated his lingering left wrist injury is not as much of a concern as it was a week ago, before he received some anti-inflammatory shots to help relieve the pain.

"It's more stable," he said. "Which makes it more, I guess, strong, back to normal. I don't have to think about it, which is good."

Johnson didn't have to think much about his bullpen, either, because the late-inning trio of Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen shut the door on the Phillies and quashed any possibility of a reversal of fortune, retiring nine of the 10 batters they faced.

Thus sealed the Nationals' 95th victory, matching the 1979 Expos for the franchise record. That Montreal squad never got even a sniff of postseason play, finishing two games behind the Pirates in the NL East, with no Wild Card in place at the time.

This Nationals squad is guaranteed of at least a Wild Card berth. It's been counting down the days to a division title. But it's not quite there yet. There's still some work to be done this weekend in St. Louis.

And until that happens, they don't intend to take their foot off the gas pedal.

"Every game -- I don't care if it's a save situation or whatever -- we're putting our best foot forward. I told the guys: We've got three more we've got to win. Unless you
can't go, tell me you can't go."

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Nationals use time against woeful Marlins to produce first three-game winning streak

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Nationals use time against woeful Marlins to produce first three-game winning streak

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals beat the Miami Marlins, 9-6, Sunday to raise their record to 22-31. Here are five observations from the game...

1. Rain, sun, hail and a three-game winning streak showed up at Nationals Park Sunday.

The bad parts -- rain and hail -- put a temporary stall on the proceedings in the fifth inning. Erick Fedde finished his day around the same time. Another five-inning outing for him made him look like a reasonable part of a major-league rotation going forward.

The Nationals scored four runs in the third, four more in the sixth. The earlier four were more notable since they came against Miami left-hander Caleb Smith, one of the better lefties in the National League. Smith entered the game with a 2.38 ERA. His WHIP a mere 0.89. Washington chased him in just three innings.

Handling Smith produced the first three-game winning streak of the season. The Nationals are the last team in MLB to put together such a benign run of success. They also don’t care. The house was on fire when they arrived back to the District on Friday. Miami has served as the get-well (get-better?) card it is expected to be for NL East members throughout the season.

"If you look back, regardless of wins and losses – and we all want to win – the boys fight," manager Davey Martinez said. "They play hard, they’re in every game and now it’s gratifying to see us coming out on top. So, we’ll enjoy this one again and come out again tomorrow, we have another early game and do it again."

Max Scherzer pitches Monday. The Nationals could sweep.

2. Fedde was on the attack from the start. He threw eight pitches for eight strikes in a 1-2-3 first inning. His tempo, mentality and stuff were all on-point.

But, he made it just five innings. Fedde threw 83 pitches, 51 strikes.

Again, Fedde relied mainly on his sinker. He also threw a lot of curveballs.

Trouble was limited. Yan Gomes threw out Miguel Rojas when Rojas tried to move to third with one out in the third. Fedde dealt with seven baserunners total -- three of which were because of walks.

If there was a point to lament on the day, it centers on the three walks (one was intentional after he fell behind against Brian Anderson) in the final three innings.

Otherwise, solid work from Fedde in his second start since being re-inserted into the rotation. He appears to be a more effective pitcher than Jeremy Hellickson. The Nationals need to decide what to do with Hellickson (right shoulder strain) when he feels healthy. They could buy time by sending him on a rehabilitation assignment. That would allow a chance to be sure Fedde is on the track he appears to be. A choice would follow.

"Like I said before, my job here is to make it as tough for them to send me down, whether they want me in the rotation or the pen, I'm happy just to help this team get some wins," Fedde said.

3. James Borque made his major-league debut Sunday. It did not go well.

He and his ambitious mustache entered the game in the top of the ninth. The Nationals led, 9-2.

Borque was called up Saturday. Friends of his drove through the night from the Chicago area to make it to Nationals Park. His parents took a 6 a.m. flight. Patrick Corbin kept Borque in his bullpen seat with a complete game Saturday. The Nationals' expansive Sunday lead gave Borque (pronounced “Burke”) a chance to take the mound.

Borque delivered a four-pitch walk, with the fourth pitch going to the backstop, to the first batter. Fourteen-year veteran Howie Kendrick went over to talk to him.

When Borque reached 2-0 on the next batter, catcher Yan Gomes and pitching coach Paul Menhart went to talk to him.

A 4-6-3 double play delivered the first two outs. A double followed. Garrett Cooper walked. Harold Ramirez picked up an infield single when Brian Dozier could not get a throw off after a sliding stop. Brian Anderson then doubled in three runs.

That was the end for Borque. Four earned runs. Two outs.

"Burkie came into the game, and we’ve got to give him a chance, we’ve got to see what he does, he comes from Double-A," Martinez said. "The fact is, they don’t use a Major League baseball in Double-A, so we told him, ‘Hey, just throw your fastball and try to get it up.’ I’m not making excuses for the kid, but the first time out there and I like his stuff. But now he’s got to locate his fastball and you’ve got to get the ball over the plate."

4. Martinez has done well to manage Kendrick’s playing time throughout the Nationals’ struggles.

The temptation -- particularly when the injured list was populated by starters -- was to play Kendrick daily. His bat was needed, his defense was fine. Ryan Zimmerman went on the disabled list April 28. Matt Adams went on the disabled list May 5. Opportunities abounded.

Since Zimmerman went on the disabled list, Kendrick has appeared in 24 games. He made 16 starts, eight pinch-hit appearances and had four full days off.

Massaging playing time for the 35-year-old Kendrick was an issue when the Nationals started the season (and he was on the injured list because of a hamstring strain after coming off an Achilles tendon tear). Even with a full roster, Washington expected to be cautious with Kendrick.

Once the injuries mounted this season, and Kendrick remained hot at the plate, the easy move would have been to play him each day. Martinez played him often, but also gave him breaks. Not an easy decision. It continues to pay off. Kendrick went 3-for-5 Sunday. He’s hitting .303.

"I had conversations with Howie," Martinez said. "He lets me know when his legs are heavy. Because he's had a lot of hamstring issues and I know that. Like I said, if I can plop him in in a game where he can pinch-hit in a big moment, it means just as much to us as much as getting four at-bats."

5. Trevor Rosenthal update No. 1,896: He was in Washington on Sunday. He returns to Harrisburg on Monday to throw another inning. The Nationals thought Saturday night -- one inning pitched, no earned runs, no hits, a strikeout, 18 pitches, 10 strikes -- was better.

They want Rosenthal to make back-to-back appearances next. After that, they will re-evaluate, yet again.

Rosenthal went on the 10-day injured list April 26. He made his first rehabilitation appearance May 11. That started his 30-day clock. Rosenthal needs to come off that particular rehabilitation assignment and start another because of a new injury -- or come to the majors -- at the end of the 30 days. Rosenthal originally went on the IL because of a viral infection.

Rosenthal’s ERA at Harrisburg is 5.06.

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Patrick Corbin shuts out the Marlins, Nationals win second straight

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Patrick Corbin shuts out the Marlins, Nationals win second straight

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals beat the Miami Marlins, 5-0, Saturday to raise their record to 21-31. Here are five observations from the game...

1. Good defense Saturday.

A simplistic thing, yet perversely elusive this season for the Nationals.

Washington committed no errors. It turned three double-plays, allowing the bullpen to be used for just three outs. Brian Dozier made two quality plays -- including snagging a line . Trea Turner charged a ground and used his jump throw to gain an out. Anthony Rendon charged a ground and used his smoothness to throw to first for another. Adam Eaton made a nice sliding catch.

Friday was nasty in the field. The Nationals committed three errors, should have been charged with four. Turner committed two (and would have been the recipient of a third if not for generous scoring). Manager Davey Martinez was not pleased with what he called “sloppy” play Friday. They clean it up Saturday.

2. Corbin was back for the eighth inning, starting with 89 pitches behind him and a run of retiring 16 out of 17.

Miami did not use one left-handed hitter Saturday. The strategy mattered little to Corbin, who picked up three double plays on the day and closed the eighth with a strikeout of Bryan Holaday.

Corbin was removed just five innings into his last start after throwing 98 pitches. Manager Davey Martinez said then the Nationals wanted to keep Corbin under 100 pitches three starts after he threw a career-high 118 pitches and was on a run of throwing at least 107 pitches.

Saturday, he finished the eighth at 103. Corbin hit for himself, despite two runners on base with two out, and came back out for the ninth. A strikeout, flyout and groundout followed.

In all, four hits, no runs, one walk and five strikeouts on 116 pitches.

3. The fourth inning had a little bit of everything Saturday. Adam Eaton committed a major running gaffe. Juan Soto ran from third on a contact play, stopped just short of home plate, then veered left and slid in safe. Victor Robles squared to bunt and leaned in. A 96-mph fastball came up and in, grazed his cheek and sent him to the ground. Team trainer Paul Lessard and manager Davey Martinez immediately ran out at the behest of home plate umpire Tim Timmons. Robles was OK, went to first, then later scored from first base on a single to shallow right.

The Nationals scored five runs in the inning to jolt what was a scoreless game. Eaton’s running mistake -- he made a hard turn at second base, then was hung up in a rundown -- carried the start of the inning. But, Yan Gomes’ squibber to right field redeemed Eaton by scoring three.

4. Sean Doolittle stood at his locker Friday night in case the media wanted to talk to him postgame following his second consecutive rough outing. Reporters took a pass -- no need to talk to a player every time they have a bad night -- and Doolittle went to the back for his postgame maintenance.

His two outings this week vaulted his ERA up almost two runs, from 1.71 to 3.68, before Saturday’s game.

Martinez said Doolittle’s recent bumps are not health-related, despite a downtick in velocity. Doolittle was throwing around 92 mph Friday. He hit 94 mph, but his velocity was down for the most part.

“Credit to Doolittle,” Martinez said. “He knows his stuff wasn’t what he wanted it to be [Friday], but he fought through it. That’s what a good closer does sometimes. I’ve got all the confidence and faith in the world...He knows what he needs to do. When you have a guy like that, and a closer like that, they know how to work out their [issues] when they’re struggling, some of his spin rate stuff he’s going to look at. The biggest thing is I don’t want him to start thinking there’s something wrong with him. I told him that [Friday]: ‘You’re one of the best. You’re an elite closer. It’s OK. Guys go through that.

5. The Nationals called up right-handed reliever James Borque from Double-A Harrisburg on Saturday. Joe Ross, who allowed three earned runs in his Friday appearance and has a 9.22 ERA, was sent to Triple-A Fresno.

Borque arrives after quality work in Harrisburg: a 1.33 ERA, 33 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings. This is his first time on the major league roster. Borque believes better fastball command led to his success and subsequent call-up.

Ross lost the bite on his slider despite showing flashes of being an effective reliever. He will be "stretched out" in Fresno, though he is unlikely to be ready when the Nationals need a spot start April 29 in Atlanta. Kyle McGowin pitched in place of injured Anibal Sanchez (left hamstring strain) Friday. He allowed five earned runs in four innings and is unlikely to receive another opportunity.

Sanchez threw 41 pitches in a simulated game Friday. He felt well Saturday. Sanchez is expected to throw a bullpen session Sunday and make a rehabilitation start Wednesday.

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