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Another impressive Nats rally

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Another impressive Nats rally

As the ball struck Adam LaRoche's bat and began its trek straight toward Giants second baseman Ryan Theriot, the Nationals dugout tried to maintain some positive thoughts and believe LaRoche could get down the line and prevent a tailor-made double play that would send this game into extra innings.

"Hopefully Adam's fast enough," teammate Ryan Zimmerman thought before correcting himself. "Actually, I know he's not fast enough. Hopefully they mess it up."

Prayers answered. The Nationals didn't pull off a wild, 6-5 win because of LaRoche's legs. (Even the veteran's 9-year-old son, Drake, later told his dad: "You got lucky.") They pulled it off because San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford's throw to first bounced and Brandon Belt couldn't make the short-hop scoop.

Not that the Nationals were any less thrilled to win this game via the opposition's mistake. The way things are going for them these days, they just assumed they'd win this one eventually, whether in regulation or extra innings.

"Those are the things that have happened to us this year," Zimmerman said. "We got some opportunities, we've caught some breaks, and more importantly, we've taken advantage of those breaks. Good teams do that."

At 48-32, the Nationals are better than good right now. They're the best team in the NL, they just swept the team that owned the league's second-best record when it arrived in town Tuesday and they've earned the respect of the entire sport.

"We've played Texas, and we've played Anaheim. That's two really good teams," Theriot said, citing a pair of American League powers. "In my opinion, these guys are right up there."

If nothing else, the Giants can attest to the Nationals' resiliency during this series. They beat up on Tim Lincecum Tuesday night in a 9-3 victory. They rebounded from an early three-run hole Wednesday morning to win 9-4. And Thursday night they spotted All-Star Matt Cain a 5-1 lead through six innings and still stormed back to win in dramatic fashion.

All the more remarkable: Prior to Wednesday, the Giants were 74-1 over the last two seasons when they led any game by at least three runs. They're now 74-3.

"There's no quit in this ballclub," manager Davey Johnson said. "There's a lot of character on this ballclub."

On Turn Back the Clock Night -- with both clubs wearing replica 1924 uniforms to commemorate that year's World Series between the Senators and Giants -- the Nationals waited until the seventh inning to finally get their gears cranked up. Stifled all evening by Cain, they eventually got to the right-hander when Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa clubbed back-to-back homers, trimming a 5-1 deficit to 5-3.

After Desmond launched his solo shot (his 15th in 80 games this season), Bryce Harper turned to LaRoche in the dugout.

"We're going to win this game," the 19-year-old told his veteran teammate. "Just be ready for it."

"Yeah," LaRoche said, confirming the exchange. "He was feeling pretty good about it."

Harper played a key role in completing this comeback, starting with his two-out, RBI double later in the seventh. That clutch hit came seconds after he was called for a check-swing by third base umpire Jerry Meals on a 2-0 pitch despite barely moving his bat into the strike zone.

"If it was a 1-1 count and he got me 1-2, I would've been kind of fired up," Harper said. "But it was still in my favor, so I wasn't that upset. I got a pitch I could handle a little bit and flicked it off for a base hit."

The crowd of 29,819 -- which in the throwback spirit of the evening was treated to minimal in-game entertainment and music -- roared with approval. Those fans stayed fired up throughout the game's final three innings, culminating with the Nationals' winning rally in the bottom of the ninth.

That rally was ignited by Tyler Moore, another rookie who managed to turn on an 0-2 slider from Giants closer Santiago Casilla and drill a leadoff double to left-center.

"Last year, I'd go up there and just hack 0-2," said Moore, now hitting .328. "I'm just trying to cut down your swing once you get two strikes, take it the other way. It's just something I've been working on."

Steve Lombardozzi, yet another rookie in the Nationals lineup, then dropped a sacrifice bunt attempt that Casilla couldn't handle, leaving runners on the corners with nobody out and Harper at the plate with a chance to deliver in the clutch again.

Harper did just that, sending a 3-1 pitch from Casilla into right field to bring Moore home with the tying run.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy elected to intentionally walk Zimmerman, loading the bases with nobody out for cleanup hitter Michael Morse, but creating a potential force out at any base. That move paid off when Morse rapped a grounder to second, with Theriot firing to the plate to get Lombardozzi for the inning's first out.

Theriot got another chance moments later when he fielded a tailor-made, double-play grounder off the bat of LaRoche, who had only one thought as he made contact.

"Run as fast as I can -- which isn't very fast -- and put a little pressure on them," he said.

Whether it was LaRoche's blazing speed, the pressure of the moment or some other cosmic force, Crawford and Belt couldn't complete the 4-6-3 double play. LaRoche saw the ball hit the dirt, pumped his fist in celebration and then was mobbed by teammates.

Hundreds of miles away in the clubhouse at Turner Field, members of the Atlanta Braves (who had just won their game) were watching on television and reacted with a loud exclamation and a few inappropriate words.

That may be the prevailing sentiment across the National League right now as 15 other teams wonder what, if anything, can be done to derail Washington's juggernaut of a ballclub.

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Nats get another chance to clinch NL East title in Pittsburgh

Nats get another chance to clinch NL East title in Pittsburgh

Nats (89-64) vs. Pirates (77-76) at PNC Park

With the magic number to clinch a division title still at two, the Nationals will again try to punch their ticket to the postseason Saturday night at PNC Park. Like Friday night, they'll need to defeat the Pirates and hope for a New York Mets loss to the Philadelphia Phillies in order to secure the NL East championship. 

The Nats will send Joe Ross (7-5, 3.48 ERA) to the mound for his second start since he returned from the disabled list. He was limited to just three innings in his previous outing, so it will be important to see how far he gets stretched out against the Pirates. After all, the Nats are in desperate need to identify their third starter for the playoffs, and Ross has a good shot of being that guy if he proves he's capable down the stretch. 

The lineup will be the same as Friday night's, with Daniel Murphy shut down for the weekend with a left buttocks strain. Stephen Drew will take over at second base. 

First pitch: 7:05 p.m.
TV: MASN
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Joe Ross vs. Pirates - Ivan Nova

NATS 

CF Trea Turner
LF Jayson Werth
RF Bryce Harper
3B Anthony Rendon
C Wilson Ramos
2B Stephen Drew
1B Ryan Zimmerman
SS Danny Espinosa
RHP Joe Ross

PIRATES

TBA

CLICK HERE FOR LIVE STATS AND SCORES

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Extra-inning loss puts the Nats NL East celebration on hold

Extra-inning loss puts the Nats NL East celebration on hold

The Nationals were hoping that Friday night would be the moment they could finally pop champagne in celebration of an NL East title. All they had to do was win and hope for a New York Mets loss.

Neither happened. As a result, the Nats’ magic number remains at two entering Saturday.

Here are a few takeaways from Friday night's game: 

Melancon’s first blown save: Entering Friday, Mark Melancon was a perfect 12-for-12 in save opportunities as the Nats’ closer. And as the baseball gods would have it, his first blown save with Washington comes against his former Pittsburgh teammates. Of the four blown saves Melancon’s had all season, one is against the Nats (when he was still with the Pirates), and the other against the Pirates. Baseball is a funny game.   

Turner still learning center field: Though Trea Turner has done just about everything in his short time in the big leagues, he’s still a work in progress as a center fielder. That inexperience bit the Nats in a critical moment on Friday night. With Washington clinging to a 5-4 ninth-inning lead with two outs and a man on, the Pirates’ Sean Rodriguez drilled a Melancon fastball to left-center. Turner didn’t appear to get a great jump after contact, and and got to the ball a tad late. He lunged, but it landed over his head, allowing the tying run to score. It's moments like those that make one wonder if Dusty Baker might consider realigning his defense late in games come October.

Zim reaches milestone: With his run-scoring double in the second inning, Zimmerman notched career RBI No. 1500. The accomplishment is one of the bright spots in an otherwise down season for the veteran first baseman. Though he’s struggled for most of 2016, the Nats are hoping he heats up as the playoffs begin. Case in point: he’s got hits in seven of his last nine games.

Ramos heating up? After an early late-August and early-September swoon, it appears Ramos has found his power stroke once again. He now has six extra-base hits in his last eight games. With the offense scuffling a bit of late, the Nats need Ramos to return to his early-season form. 

Up next: The Nats will look to wrap up the division Saturday night as they send Joe Ross (7-5, 3.48 ERA) to the hill to oppose Ivan Nova (12-7, 4.19 ERA).