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Rough start to 2nd half for Nationals

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Rough start to 2nd half for Nationals

The Nationals have come out of the All-Star break and gone 3-5, scoring an average of 3.5 runs per game but giving up an average of 4.75 during that same stretch.

Not exactly the kind of baseball you want to be playing at this stage of the season.

Even so, the Nats have actually gained a game on the Mets along the way, thanks to New York's 2-6 record since the All-Star break. And so they aren't in nearly as tough a predicament as might otherwise be expected.

If anything, the Nationals have been able to weather the storm and stay afloat during the latest slump in a season that seemingly has featured nothing but extreme highs and lows. But they can't keep moving along this path forever and expect to emerge where they ultimately want to be.

The good news is, they're about to get a whole lot healthier. Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth all are within days of returning from injury. Yunel Escobar, too, should work his way back into the lineup, perhaps as soon as Saturday, after missing the first two games of this weekend's series in Pittsburgh with an injured left wrist.

So, help is on the way, especially at the plate. But that won't cure everything that ails the Nationals right now.

It's no secret this team is seeking bullpen help in advance of next week's trade deadline. It has been the club's No. 1 area of concern since Opening Day, and it remains a concern due to injuries and inconsistent performances. What that help may look like remains very much uncertain. Rumors have begun flying around the last 36 hours connecting the Nationals to Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Papelbon, but there is legitimate question about what general manager Mike Rizzo is willing to give up, and how much more salary owner Ted Lerner is willing to take on.

A more plausible move might be for a pure setup man or middle reliever, the area of the Nationals' biggest need. They already have one of the most-effective closers in the game in Drew Storen. They just don't have enough experienced, reliable arms to bridge the gap and get the ball to Storen in the ninth inning.

Of course, reliable relievers would be less in demand if the Nationals' vaunted rotation pitched up to expectations instead of falling into the same inconsistent trap that has befallen most of the roster this season. That group was on an utterly dominant roll not long ago, posting a collective 1.84 ERA in 16 starts from mid-June through early-July. But since then, things have taken a turn for the worse, with Nats starters' ERA rising to 4.59 over the last 12 games.

Even Max Scherzer fell victim to the slump Friday night in Pittsburgh, matching a season-high with five earned runs allowed while failing to complete six innings for only the second time all year. And those three towering home runs he served up to Pedro Alvarez, Gregory Polanco and Neil Walker? That's the first time Scherzer has allowed three homers in one start since Sept. 15, 2011.

The Nationals did rally to tie the game and get Scherzer off the hook, but Sammy Solis allowed the go-ahead (and eventual winning) runs to score in the bottom of the sixth, taking the loss in the process. Make no mistake, Scherzer was more to blame for this loss than Solis or anybody else out of the bullpen. Give your ace a 2-run lead in the fifth, you expect your ace to hold it.

Scherzer couldn't do that Friday night, and so the Nats have dropped the first two games of this four-game series. And they've now dropped 5-of-8 game to begin the second half.

At 51-44, they own the worst record of any of MLB's six division leaders, on pace to win a mere 87 games by season's end.

Thankfully, from the Nationals' standpoint, the Mets are a bigger mess right now, unable to score enough runs to take advantage of their electric young rotation. But they can't count on that remaining the case forever.

New York made a couple of significant moves on Friday. First, they called up top prospect Michael Conforto and threw him right to the wolves, batting him seventh and starting him in left field against the Dodgers. Then they pulled off a trade for a pair of veteran infielders: Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, both upgrades over what they currently have.

When healthy, there's still no comparison between the Nationals' lineup and the Mets' lineup. We should see evidence of that in the next few days as the Nats finally start getting players back from injury instead of losing them.

But in the meantime, this team is going to have to try to keep treading water as best it can.

MORE NATIONALS: NATS PROMOTE GIOLITO

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Ozuna homers, Cardinals beat Nationals for 8th straight win

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Ozuna homers, Cardinals beat Nationals for 8th straight win

Marcell Ozuna homered and Austin Gomber tossed six shutout innings to lead the St. Louis Cardinals to a 4-2 win over the Washington Nationals on Wednesday night.

St. Louis has won a season-high eight straight. The Cardinals, who are 18-9 since the All-Star break, captured their sixth successive series after taking the first three of the four-game set.

Daniel Murphy homered in the ninth for Washington, which has lost four in a row and seven of nine to fall below .500 and nine games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves in the NL East. The current skid began with a loss to the Cubs on a two-out, walk-off grand slam.

Ozuna homered in the second inning, his 14th of the season and his first since July 30.

Gomber (3-0), in his fourth start of the year, gave up three hits, struck out six and walked four.

Bud Norris pitched the ninth to pick up his 23rd save in 27 opportunities.

Harrison Bader and Yadier Molina added run-scoring hits for St. Louis, which improved to 19-9 since Mike Matheny was fired and replaced by interim manager Mike Shildt.

St. Louis infielder Matt Carpenter extended his on-base streak to 33 games with a walk in the fifth. It's the longest current streak in the majors. Carpenter left the game in the seventh after he was hit on the hand by a pitch from Matt Grace, but X-rays were negative.

Jeremy Hellickson (5-3) left in the fifth inning after colliding with Bader on a play at the plate following a wild pitch. Hellickson gave up three runs, two earned, on three hits in 4 1/3 innings. He struck out two and walked two.

Bader, who had three hits, also made a diving catch of a liner off the bat of Bryce Harper in the fourth.

The Cardinals, who have an NL-best 12-2 mark in August, remain one game behind Philadelphia for the second wild card spot. They are four games behind Chicago in the NL Central.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: RHP Stephen Strasburg threw a simulated game on Wednesday. He threw around 70 pitches and could be ready to return early next week, manager Dave Martinez said.

Cardinals: LHP Brett Cecil was activated from the 10-day disabled list on Wednesday. Cecil, who had been sidelined with inflammation in his right foot, pitched four scoreless innings in four appearances with Triple-A Memphis. LHP Tyler Webb was optioned to Memphis.

UP NEXT

RHP Tanner Roark (7-12, 4.12) will face RHP Luke Weaver (6-10, 4.66) in the finale of the four-game series on Thursday. Roark has won his last four decision, Weaver is 1-4 with a 5.13 ERA in nine career games against NL East foes.

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Nationals' Jeremy Hellickson exits game after collision

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Nationals' Jeremy Hellickson exits game after collision

Washington Nationals right-hander Jeremy Hellickson was removed from Wednesday night's game in St. Louis in the fifth inning after colliding with Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader at the plate.

Hellickson was covering home after a wild pitch. He stumbled over Bader as Bader slid home safely.

Hellickson was charged with three runs, two earned, on three hits in his 4 1/3 innings. He struck out two and walked two.