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What awaits Nats in Philly?

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What awaits Nats in Philly?

Fresh off an eventful weekend series against their biggest interleague rivals, the Nationals tonight open another important series against their biggest division rivals.

And if you thought the scene at Nationals Park two weeks ago when the Phillies came to town was wild, imagine what the folks at Citizens Bank Park might have in store for the Nats over the next three nights.

"Hopefully I get a couple boos," Bryce Harper said yesterday. "That'd be awesome. I'm excited to get up there and play, and hopefully they don't throw any batteries or whatnot at me."

Whether the Philly faithful give Harper the old J.D. Drew batteries treatment, or whether they elect to go the "whatnot" route instead, the 19-year-old outfielder surely will be the center of attention of a series that opens with plenty of backstory.

After Cole Hamels openly acknowledged plunking Harper in the kidneys on purpose (receiving a five-game suspension in the process), and after Jordan Zimmermann perhaps retaliated by throwing a pitch at Hamels' knees, and after Nationals GM Mike Rizzo called Hamels "fake tough" (receiving a fine in the process), there's no telling what carryover there might be as the two teams meet again.

Some in the Nationals clubhouse predicted there would be no more extracurricular activity, guessing the umpires will issue warnings to both dugouts before the game even starts (thus requiring any pitcher and his manager to be ejected the first time a batter is hit by a pitch).

The two principal pitchers involved in that Sunday Night Baseball dust-up won't meet each other in this series. Zimmermann is scheduled to pitch tomorrow night against Phillies ace Roy Halladay. Hamels is slated to start Wednesday's finale against Edwin Jackson. (Gio Gonzalez and Kyle Kendrick are on the mound for tonight's opener.)

Of more importance than any lingering bad blood between the clubs is the fact these games are significant to both in their quest to re-assume the top spot in the NL East. After leading the division for most of the season's first six weeks, the Nationals now trail the Braves by 1 12 games. The Phillies, meanwhile, have rebounded from their shaky start, having won six of eight to get back to the .500 mark.

"I think everybody knew early on that wasn't going last for long," Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "That's a great team, even with a couple of their big guys hurt. Great pitching. They have a knack for getting big hits and scoring runs, so it's going to be tough. They're starting to come around, and it'll be another battle for us."

Not that the Nationals are fazed in the least at the prospect of playing the reigning five-time division champs in their home. They have, after all, won seven of their last eight head-to-head meetings.

"We took two-of-three from Philly last time, so it's not like we were going to go in panicking against Philly," second baseman Danny Espinosa said. "Like I said, they're a great ballclub, and I'm not taking anything away from them saying they're not a good ballclub. But we're not going to panic. This team's too good. We have too many veterans, guys that have been around four or five years, that there's no need to panic. We know that we can play, and we know that we can win."

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Bullpen struggles plague Nationals in loss to Orioles

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Bullpen struggles plague Nationals in loss to Orioles

BALTIMORE -- Juan Soto sat on the ground against the left-field wall, his head in his hands in the bottom of the eighth. Washington's outfielder had just reached for a long shot from Baltimore's Trey Mancini, but the ball was just out of Soto's reach and Mancini notched his 19th homer of the year, a two-run knock that gave the Orioles a 6-2 lead. 

Soto's body language symbolized more than just his frustration from the one play. By the end of the game -- the start of which was delayed 92 minutes after an onslaught of rain made Camden Yards look like a blizzard had blown into town -- the Orioles outscored the Nationals 9-2, almost the opposite of Washington's 8-1 win Tuesday.

Both teams were sluggish out of the box; a one-run ball game until the seventh, when Baltimore tore the game wide open. Washington put across its two sole runs in the third and fifth, both RBIs from Adam Eaton (he knocked in Soto on a sacrifice fly on the third, and Trea Turner on a double in the fifth). 

The Orioles briefly tied the game in the fourth, but it wasn't until the seventh when Baltimore broke down Washington's bullpen and put up two consecutive multi-run innings. 

Though Washington starter Erick Fedde, who was recalled from Double-A Harrisburg earlier Wednesday, put in six solid innings on the mound and only allowed on run on five hits in his 66 pitches, the Nationals' bullpen struggled to thwart the Orioles' comeback seventh and eighth innings.   

Since the outing was Fedde's first since he was recalled, Washington manager Davey Martinez didn't want to stretch him since he'd had two weeks off. 

"He got us through the sixth inning," Martinez said. "We had [Wander Suero] ready to go, but [Fedde] did well."

Suero, Tony Sipp and Javy Guerra combined for the seventh inning, contributing an out apiece. Suero got off to a rough start, however, and the first two batters he faced reached base. In his outing he gave up three earned runs on three hits and one walk.

After the game Suero explained that he received some bad personal news prior to the game, so he wasn't necessarily in the right mindset.

Sipp faced only two batters before he was done on the mound (he walked one and gave up a sacrifice fly to Rio Ruiz). So, when Guerra entered with two outs and two runners on, the Nationals were in desperate need of that elusive third out. 

Guerra induced a groundout to end the seventh, but couldn't carry that momentum into the eighth. To start the penultimate inning, Guerra gave up that two-run shot to left field that left Soto with his head hanging between his knees. 

Washington stuck with Guerra after those two runs crossed the plate, but as the right-hander struggled to record even one out, Martinez made the call and brought in Matt Grace to complete the inning. Three more runs crossed in the half, putting Baltimore ahead 9-2.

Now, the Nationals head to Atlanta to face the NL East-leading Braves for a four-game set. Washington is 6 1/2 games back of Atlanta, though the Nationals are the top wild-card standings in the National League.

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Max Scherzer takes the next step toward returning to the mound for the Nationals

Max Scherzer takes the next step toward returning to the mound for the Nationals

BALTIMORE -- Max Scherzer emerged from the visitor's dugout about 3:20 p.m. Wednesday and walked to left field. A bullpen catcher, director of athletic training, Paul Lessard, and a couple of other watchful eyes went with him.

Scherzer progressively backed up while throwing in the outfield. By the end, he was roughly 90 feet from the catcher and throwing with clear effort.

The nightly news will not lead with the development. However, it's progress for Scherzer. Manager Davey Martinez said Scherzer came out of the session -- a little further apart, a little more intense than Tuesday's version -- feeling well. 

So, what's next? Thursday, Scherzer could throw a "light" bullpen session in Atlanta. that will determine if he pitches Sunday. Scherzer (mid-back strain) is first eligible to come off the 10-day injured list Saturday.

The Nationals have their rotation for the series against Atlanta otherwise set: Stephen Strasburg on Thursday, Patrick Corbin on Friday, and Anibal Sanchez on Saturday. If Scherzer can't pitch Sunday, Austin Voth would be on the turn. 

Washington entered play Wednesday night six games behind first-place Atlanta, which lost Wednesday afternoon to Milwaukee. The Braves lost two of three to the Brewers, dropping a series for the first time since time June 4-6. Washington can creep as close as 5 1/2 games back before the four-game series begins.

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