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Nats swept by Braves, lead down to 5 12

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Nats swept by Braves, lead down to 5 12

ATLANTA -- Davey Johnson ambled through an otherwise silent clubhouse late Sunday night -- black sweater, khaki slacks, white sneakers -- and started cracking jokes to every player he encountered.

The Nationals had just lost a sloppy game to the Braves, 5-1, had just been swept by their lone remaining challenger in the NL East and had seen their once insurmountable, 8 12-game lead shrink to 5 12 games at the end of a difficult weekend.

Their left fielder has been out since Tuesday with a left hand injury. Their second baseman is now likely to miss at least the next series with a left shoulder injury that will require an MRI. What had been baseball's best pitching staff all season is starting to show some cracks in the foundation. And what had been the league's most-potent lineup for the last month was silenced the last three days by Atlanta's pitching staff.

None of that, Johnson believes, should overshadow what the Nationals have done over the last 5 12 months, nor give them reason to worry about the 2 12 weeks they still have left in a pennant race that is far from over.

"I feel fine about where we're at," the 69-year-old manager insisted.

That sentiment was echoed among Nationals veterans, who while discouraged by the weekend's events aren't ready to hit the panic button.

"We've put ourselves in a great position," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We've played well all year. There's two weeks left of playing baseball. Everything's right in front of us."

With 16 games to play, the Nationals still hold a magic number of 11 for the division title, a magic number of 3 to clinch at least a wild-card berth. But there are a handful of reasons to be concerned, the latest Espinosa's just-revealed left shoulder issue, which could prove significant.

After missing Wednesday's series finale in New York to attend his grandmother's funeral in Arizona, Espinosa rejoined his teammates for this weekend showdown but looked lost at the plate throughout. He wound up 0-for-11 with nine strikeouts, a pop-up and a double-play grounder. And when his spot in the lineup came up with two outs in the ninth Sunday night, he was surprisingly replaced by Steve Lombardozzi (who struck out to end the game).

Turns out Espinosa has been dealing with left shoulder pain, which he finally revealed to the Nationals coaching staff late in the game, requesting he be benched.

"He's hurting," Johnson said. "I was going to hit for him, and he mentioned to one of the coaches, Rick Eckstein, that he was underwater and he was hurting the team. For him to want to come out ... he's my little Iron Man."

Johnson said Espinosa will be examined Monday afternoon in Washington by team orthopedist Wiemi Douoguih, who will administer an MRI. The club won't know for sure the extent of the injury until the results of that test come back, but Johnson said his second baseman will "probably" miss this week's series against the playoff-contending Dodgers.

Espinosa, through a team spokesman, declined to take questions after the game.

"I'm very concerned about him," said Johnson, who hopes to have left fielder Michael Morse (bone bruise in left hand) back in his lineup Tuesday.

Though the Nationals were silenced at the plate Sunday night and throughout the weekend, they were equally as ineffective on the mound and in the field during the series finale.

Gio Gonzalez, seeking to become the majors' first 20-game winner and bolster his Cy Young Award hopes, labored his way through five-plus innings, needing an astounding 83 pitches just to get through the bottom of the third before settling down somewhat and reaching the sixth.

The left-hander walked four, went to a 3-ball count to eight of the first 14 batters he faced and was yanked without retiring a batter in the sixth. But he somehow managed to only surrender two runs during that time, keeping his team in the game.

"You've just gotta make the adjustment, gotta pitch better," Gonzalez said. "You gotta learn how to pound that strike zone. I think that's where my biggest mistake today was. I wasn't being as aggressive in the first three innings. Then the next two, it was exactly what I should've been doing off the bat."

Trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh -- and with Atlanta's lights-out closer Craig Kimbrel unavailable after pitching the previous two nights -- the Nationals were in position to mount a late rally. But then they were done in by two problem areas that hadn't really been problems all year: the bullpen's inability to throw strikes, and the infield's inability to make plays at crucial moments.

Right-hander Craig Stammen got the ball rolling by issuing a one-out walk to Michael Bourn. Reed Johnson then hit a chopper to third, leaving Zimmerman facing a quandary: Charge in and try to make a short-hop grab of the ball and fire either to first or second base for the out, or sit back and wait to catch the ball on a full hop and hope he still had enough time to make the throw.

"With Bourn on first base, if I take a step back and get a big hop, it's going to be tough for me to get the lead runner," he explained. "And then it's going to be a tough play to get Reed running at first, too. It's one of those plays where before the play happens, you say if it goes up, you've got to do whatever you can to get the ball and have a chance to get either one of those guys."

Zimmerman wasn't able to get either guy. He misplayed the short-hop. Worse, he lost sight of the ball as it skipped away into foul territory. By the time he retrieved it, Bourn had raced all the way around to third base.

"I just didn't know where it went after it hit off my glove," he said.

With runners now on the corners and one out, Johnson summoned Sean Burnett to face Jason Heyward in a big spot. The left-hander got what he wanted -- a sharp grounder to first base -- but now Adam LaRoche had to make a decision. Did he have enough time to turn an inning-ending double play? And if so, should he try to get Bourn at the plate or instead try for a 3-6-3 twin-killing?

LaRoche felt his best option was to step on first base and then fire to plate in an attempt to get Bourn. His throw, however, was a bit up the line and prevented catcher Kurt Suzuki from applying the tag in time.

"You know, if I try and roll it the conventional way and we don't get him, that's a run," LaRoche said. "Got some fast guys on the bases, so close to first, try and touch it and go home. Just kind of pulled it up the line. I think if I put in on the money, we've probably got him."

The meltdown continued when Burnett (after intentionally walking Chipper Jones) plunked Freddie Freeman to load the bases with two outs. Dan Uggla then delivered the nail in the coffin: a two-run single that gave the Braves a four-run lead and all but extinguished any hope of a comeback.

Thus the Nationals retreated to their silent clubhouse, concern growing on their faces as banged-up players walked around with ice packs on various injured body parts.

Johnson tried to lighten the mood and remind everyone they're still in the driver's seat. But there, too, was an understanding there's still plenty of work to be done, and the team that just swept them over the weekend isn't going to concede the division title.

"We've had some battles against them," LaRoche said. "They're the team that came back when we were up nine runs in a July game. They're pretty relentless. Watch the scoreboard all year and see how they continue to win and win, and we expected that coming in. It was going to be a dogfight."

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Nationals extend protective foul ball netting

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Nationals extend protective foul ball netting

The Washington Nationals will become the latest MLB team to extend their protective netting down the first and third base lines, team owner Mark Lerner announced on Thursday. A new netting will be installed at Nationals Park during the MLB All-Star break. 

The new netting will extend from the end of the dugout, where they currently end, and go to the left and right field corners. It will be designed with certain sections that can be raised to allow for fan interaction before the games. 

In his announcement, Lerner stated "I could not help but become emotional last month watching the Astros-Cubs game when a four-year-old little girl was hit by a line drive. I can’t imagine what her parents must have felt in that moment. And to see the raw emotion and concern from Albert Almora Jr. was heartbreaking. Further extending the netting at Nationals Park will provide additional protection for our fans."

This announcement comes fresh off the heels of a national conversation about the importance of netting in ballparks and more that needs to be done to protect the fans. As Lerner referenced, a young fan was hit by a foul ball during an Astros-Cubs matchup in May. The girl was rushed to the hospital and left those in attendance paralyzed in shock, especially Cub Albert Almora Jr. 

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said he did not expect the league to step in this season for a league-wide change. However, he did mention that it would continue to be discussed and stressed the importance of fan safety. 

As a result, some teams are taking matters into their own hands. The Chicago White Sox became the first team to announce an extension of their current protective netting to the foul poles. 

Preceding the White Sox announcement, both Chicago and the Nationals experienced a traumatic foul ball situation. Chicago's Eloy Jimenez ripped a foul ball down the line and hit an unsuspecting fan.  

The first game with the new netting with be on Monday, July 22 against the Colorado Rockies. 

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How to celebrate the ultimate D.C. sports day of the summer

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How to celebrate the ultimate D.C. sports day of the summer

Summertime; the time of year when you only look at your calendar to make sure you haven’t double-booked yourself for your ritual weekend brunches, or the time of year you exhaust every vacation day you’ve stored up over the course of the year to get the kids somewhere near their grandparents so you can continue to work on that ever-elusive summer dad-bod. Either one is a win in my book.

Summer also gives birth to one of the rare occasions when there can be three to four different DC-sports related activities all occurring within the same 24-hour timeframe. Thursday, June 20, is THAT day!

Who’s playing? Is there a chance I can attend the game? If not, how do you watch them all? These burning questions are about to be answered faster than you can ride down the escalator at the Pentagon City Metro Station…I think. So, let’s hurry and get started.

We’ll run through these one at a time, in chronological order!

Event 1: Soccer: 3 p.m. EST

1.       Who’s playing?

The US Women’s National Team takes the pitch against Sweden as they look to continue their international dominance in the Women’s World Cup. And yes, it’s DC team because we’re the nation’s Capital.

2.       Reason to watch/attend?

These women are the best Soccer players on the planet; having showcased their proficiency for many years on the world stage. Remember they put up 13 against Thailand in their first match! Don’t miss an opportunity to witness history in the making.  

3.       How to watch/attend?

You can either pull up to Dulles and jump on the next flight to France, or you can be like the rest of us Super-geniuses and tune in at 3 p.m. to watch it from the comfort of your favorite Soccer bar. Make sure to buy a round for anyone rocking a USWNT jersey; #OneNationOneTeam. USA, USA, USA!!!

Event 2: Baseball: 7 p.m. EST

1.       Who’s playing?

 The Washington Nationals are wrapping up a 4-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

2.       Why should I watch/attend?

This is the last day of Bryce Harper in THIS city until September. HALLELUJAH! 

3.       How to watch/attend?

First pitch is at 7:05 p.m. so you can either slide by the park and enjoy the smorgasbord of delicacies offered at Nats park, or you can tune in on the tube. I suggest hitting the park and booing Harper until you lose your voice! Tell your boss it’s my fault you’re hoarse. It won’t be the first time someone did that.

Event 3:  Football: 7 p.m. EST

1.       Who’s playing?

The Washington Valor are back home in Capital One Arena for another chapter in their I-95 battle with their rivals the Baltimore Brigade.

2.       Why should I watch/attend?

 The Valor won the AFL XXXI crown against the Brigade, on their home field. Baltimore hasn’t forgotten that sting in the least bit. Plus, COA has a wicked Bud Light Party Zone where you can catch unlimited beer and perhaps a football from the field. If you haven't seen and AFL game in person, then you're missing out on some really fun action. They even let you down on the field after the game for autographs and pics with the players.

3.       How to watch/attend?

 Kickoff is at 7 p.m. whether you’re at the Arena or not. Since the Nats game is at the same time, you may have to decide which game to see in person and which one to stream on your phone. Hint: the Valor game is on NBC Sports Washington so there’s that. And, if the Nats game gets rained out, then problem solved and see you in the party zone! 

Event 4: Basketball(NBA): 8 p.m. EST

1.       Who’s playing?

 NOBODY, derp! But, it’s the NBA draft and frankly put, I couldn’t be more excited it’s finally here.

2.       Why should I watch/attend?

 This is the first official activation in the post-Grunfeld era for the Wizards. More importantly, this will be the first chance for Wiz fans to wrap their minds around the new direction the team will be taking. Optimism starts here!

3.       How to watch/attend?

Unless you feel like traveling to see the Draft in person, I highly suggest you tune in to NBC Sports Washington for full draft coverage on ‘Wizards on the Clock’ starting at 6:30 p.m.  In my humble opinion, you won’t find better comprehensive coverage. You can watch on TV or via the MyTeams App while you’re at the Nats game booing Bryce if you’re slick with multi-tasking.

Event 4: Basketball(WNBA): 10 p.m. EST

1.       Who’s playing?

 Your Washington Mystics are out in Sin City to take on the Las Vegas Aces. Note: Bill Laimbeer sighting!

2.       Reason to watch/attend?

 The Aces sit atop the Western Conference with Australian native Liz Cambage (she can BALL) holding down the paint. It’s going to be a good test for the Mystics and you’ll get a chance to see how unrelentingly talented Elena Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud, and crew really are. Buckets, the Mystics get buckets!

3.       How to watch/attend?

I know the temptation to hit Vegas is rising by the moment but fret not. You can save a ton of money and possibly help your best bud save his fragile relationship by staying in DC and catching the game at 10 p.m. on Monumental Sports Network/NBC Sports Washington.

Now you know how to do it while maintaining some semblance of sanity, and you can even keep a running tab on who’s been the most DC among your friends. I’m certain we’ll have another opportunity for this phenomenon when Fall comes back around, but for now, let’s all enjoy the summer and all the games therein!