Instant Analysis: Nats 5, Marlins 1

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Instant Analysis: Nats 5, Marlins 1

Game in a nutshell: The Nationals opened the second half of their season with a bang, pouncing on Marlins ace Josh Johnson for five runs and handing the ball to Jordan Zimmermann to mow his way through the Miami lineup. Big hits came from Ryan Zimmerman (who went 3-for-4 with a two-run homer), Adam LaRoche (3-for-4, two runs scored) and Ian Desmond (2-for-4, RBI). Zimmermann had a shutout going through six innings but was surprisingly pulled by manager Davey Johnson in favor of Henry Rodriguez, who struggled again to find the strike zone and was yanked after four batters. No worries, though, because the rest of the Nationals bullpen hung on to close this one out and start the pennant race off in style.
Hitting highlight: How nice was the four-day All-Star break for the ailing members of the Nationals' lineup? Apparently very nice, because they came out raking in the second-half opener, no one more so than Zimmerman. Zim launched a third-inning shot to deep left-center and clanked the home run sculpture for a two-run blast. He added a single in the fifth and another in the seventh. In 15 games now since receiving a cortisone shot in his ailing shoulder, he's hitting .359 (23-for-64) with six doubles, six homers and 20 RBI.
Pitching highlight: In what has to be considered one of his best outings of the season, Zimmermann sliced and diced the Marlins lineup, getting better and stronger as the night wore on. With a devastating slider, he struck out four batters in a row in the third and fourth innings, and when the sixth inning ended he had retired 14 of 16 batters and had yet to allow a run while throwing only 87 pitches. And then he never emerged from the dugout for the bottom of the seventh. It was a curious move, to say the least, one Johnson is going to have to explain. Regardless, it was another fine start for Zimmermann, who lowered his ERA to 2.48 and got his record back to .500 at 6-6.
Key stat: Only two major leaguers have made 18 starts this season and completed at least six innings in each of them: Zimmermann and Justin Verlander.
Up next: The Nats wanted to sign Mark Buehrle last winter, but after he signed with Miami, they instead traded for Gio Gonzalez. No complaints about that now, but we will get to see the two lefties go head-to-head Saturday night in Game 2 of this series. First pitch is at 7:10 p.m.

Nationals keep rolling against Royals, win fourth straight

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Nationals keep rolling against Royals, win fourth straight

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 2-0 win over the Kansas City Royals on Monday night at Kauffman Stadium: 

How it happened: After getting swept by the Phillies to close their most recent homestand, Nationals manager Dusty Baker called this Midwest road trip a good barometer for where they stand in the early part of this season. He, and many of his players, saw this road swing as a test, knowing they had yet to face one of baseball's best teams.

Four days later and the bar may need to be raised a little higher for these Nationals, as after sweeping the Cardinals in St. Louis, they opened their series at the defending champion Kansas City Royals with a convincing 2-0 victory on Monday night. Their brand of score early and let their pitching staff take it from there worked wonders once again.

Gio Gonzalez continued his career-best start to a season with six scoreless frames, Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy notched first-inning RBI and the Nats' bullpen held on to push the Nats to club record 18-7 on the season through 25 games.

What it means: The 'they haven't beaten anyone' knock on the 2016 Nats can officially be put to rest. The Nationals are now 4-0 on this road trip, having first swept a 100-win team from a year ago in the Cardinals, to now opening this series against the reigning champs with a win. 

Gio keeps on rolling: Gonzalez battled a high pitch count early, but recovered to give the Nats six scoreless innings on four hits and two walks. Gio now has a 1.15 ERA through five starts this season, going at least six innings in each of those outings. The Nats rotation as a whole has held a 0.92 mark with 34 strikeouts and 10 walks in their last six starts as a group. 

Zim comes up big: Zimmerman has been in quite the skid lately, finishing the month of April hitting .219/.301/.301 with just one hit in his last four games (13 ABs). Zimmerman had been showing positive signs, including the highest average exit velocity on the Nats through the weekend. And on Monday, he came through with a big hit in the first inning, an RBI double to right field to give the Nats an early lead. It was Zim's first RBI since April 26. The Nats have now scored 32 of their 101 total runs this season in the first inning. Zimmerman also smacked a ground-rule double in the ninth inning for just his fourth multi-hit game in 20 games this season.

Harper finally gets a hit: Harper's slump recent slump continued through his first two plate appearances on Monday, as Harper struck out and flew out to make it 16 at-bats without a hit dating back to last Thursday. Harper would finally get one, though, on a bloop single to left field to lead off the top of the sixth inning. Harper broke his slump, but he was quickly thrown out trying to steal second by Royals catcher Lorenzo Cain. He also now has only two hits in his last six games.

Murphy gets No. 1000: Murphy had another solid day at the plate on Monday with three hits and an RBI on a groundout in the first inning. His second hit was No. 1000 for his career. It was a double to center field in the sixth inning and it gave Murphy his 12th multi-hit game in 24 total appearances this season. Only three times this year has he been held hitless. Murphy, by the way, is the 10th player ever to record their 1000th career hit in a Nats uniform. Denard Span was the last in September of 2014.

Up next: The Nats continue their series at the Royals with another 8:15 p.m. start on Tuesday night. Tanner Roark (2-2, 2.03) and former Nats minor leaguer Chris Young (1-4, 6.12) are the starters.

Nats begin series at World Series-champion Kansas City Royals

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Nats begin series at World Series-champion Kansas City Royals

Nats (17-7) vs. Royals (13-11) at Kauffman Stadium

The Nationals rolled through St. Louis this weekend to secure their first sweep of the Cardinals since 2007. It was an impressive series against a team that led baseball with 100 wins last year. And now, on Monday night, they will face another of MLB's most talented clubs.

The Nats begin a three-game set with the defending champion Kansas City Royals with an 8:15 p.m. first pitch. Gio Gonzalez (1-1, 1.42) and right-hander Edinson Volquez (3-1, 3.34) are the scheduled starters.

Gio is pitching his fifth game of the 2016 season and is off to the best start of his career. The Nats' southpaw is holding opponents to a .196 average and .489 OPS. The Royals, though, will be his biggest challenge to date.

Gonzalez will pitch to Jose Lobaton per usual, though Wilson Ramos is back from the bereavement list. The rest of the Nats' lineup is as expected with Stephen Drew in there as the designated hitter.

First pitch: 8:15 p.m.
TV: MASN
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Gio Gonzalez vs. Royals - Edinson Volquez

NATS

CF Michael Taylor
3B Anthony Rendon
RF Bryce Harper
1B Ryan Zimmerman
2B Daniel Murphy
LF Jayson Werth
DH Stephen Drew
C Jose Lobaton
SS Danny Espinosa
(LHP Gio Gonzalez)

ROYALS

SS Alcides Escobar
CF Lorenzo Cain
1B Eric Hosmer
DH Kendrys Morales
LF Alex Gordon
C Salvador Perez
2B Omar Infante
3B Christian Colon
RF Paulo Orlando
(RHP Edinson Volquez)

Follow along with GameView here.

Baker had his team rub a former player's ears for good luck vs. Cards

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Baker had his team rub a former player's ears for good luck vs. Cards

You're going to lobe this story. Wait, sorry, you're going to love this story.

Before the Nationals' weekend series against the Cardinals that started on Friday, a former player and current pal of Dusty Baker named Kirk Rueter stopped by to say hello. It was there when things took a turn for the weird, according to USA TODAY Sports' Bob Nightengale.

As a pitcher under Baker with the Giants, Rueter apparently developed a reputation for having incredibly good fortune. With that in mind,  Baker — whose team had just been swept at home by the Phillies — wanted to take advantage of his penchant for luck.

So he had his buddy walk through Washington's clubhouse and told his roster to rub his ears.

Yes, this is a thing that happened.

The bizarre superstition, of course, seemed to work, considering the Nats took all three games from St. Louis, an organization that has given them fits before. Next up is a four-game tilt in Kansas City. Rueter better bring his ears. 

MORE NATIONALS: WHY NATS PITCHERS THROWING MORE PITCHES ISN'T WORRISOME