Bay Area battle awaits Nats

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Bay Area battle awaits Nats

PHOENIX -- A 10-game road trip is a challenge for any club, owners of the best record in baseball or not. And when the final leg of that trip comes against the toughest opponent of the stretch, the challenge becomes all the more daunting.

So the Nationals, fresh off a four-game sweep in Houston and then a two-out-of-three series victory in Arizona, now prepare for one of their tougher tasks this season: a three-game set in San Francisco against the NL West-leading Giants.

It's a task the Nats realize they need to take head-on as they prepare for the stretch run and the first pennant race by a D.C. ballclub in 67 years.

"To go and play teams like this, it's the kind of teams we're going to have to beat to get to where we need to go," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "It's going to be a tough, three-game series, but we look forward to it."

The Nationals have already established their ability to topple the Giants, having swept a three-game series in the District last month. This, however, is a much different opponent at AT&T Park than it is away from the Bay.

San Francisco owns a 34-24 record at home, the seventh-best mark in the majors. More importantly, the cool Northern California air and spacious outfield gaps make this one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball.

Just look at the staggering difference in the Giants' home vs. road splits. At home, their pitching staff has produced a sparkling 2.76 ERA; on the road, that number skyrockets to 4.45.

At the same time, the Giants' lineup becomes far less imposing at AT&T than it is away from the friendly confines. They've hit a grand total of only 19 home runs in 58 home games this season.

So with the likes of Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Vogelsong, Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum scheduled to pitch over the next three days, slugfests don't appear too plausible.

"They've got some very good pitching. We've got some really good pitching," Zimmerman said. "So I doubt they're going to be high-scoring games. Hopefully we'll score a lot of runs. I don't know if they will."

San Francisco may be among National Leaguers' favorite road cities each season, but the locals aren't exactly a welcoming bunch. Despite the laid-back reputation of California sports fans, Giants backers are no pushovers. And AT&T Park remains a hostile environment for visiting clubs.

"It's definitely a rowdy place," said catcher Kurt Suzuki, who played his share of interleague games in San Francisco while with the rival Athletics. "The Giants do play well at home. When I was in Oakland, we played them this past year. It gets rowdy out there, and the team plays well."

The Nationals might want to get used to the idea of playing important games in unwelcome settings. These are the type of road games they can expect to be playing in September and beyond.

In fact, they very well could find themselves back in San Francisco at some point in October, making this week's series a valuable learning experience for those players who have yet to participate in a pennant race.

"I think it's valuable anytime we can go on the road and get into atmospheres like the one in San Francisco," Zimmerman said. "We've all played in it before, so it's not a huge deal or a thing we need to be exposed to, because if you've been in the big leagues, you've played in front of crowds. But on the road in kind of a hostile environment is always good for any of us to experience and get ready for."

Nationals' bats can't come up with enough late in loss to Cubs

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Nationals' bats can't come up with enough late in loss to Cubs

By JAY COHEN, AP Sports Writer

CHICAGO (AP) -- Kyle Hendricks pitched six scoreless innings, Ben Zobrist drove in four runs and the Chicago Cubs beat the Washington Nationals 5-2 on Thursday night in the opener of a four-game series between two of baseball's hottest teams.

Hendricks (2-2) allowed two hits, struck out four and walked two as Chicago began a 10-game homestand with its fourth consecutive win and eighth in nine games.

Zobrist hit a two-run single in the fourth and a two-run homer in the eighth, helping the Cubs improve their major league-best record to 21-6 for their best start since they were 23-4 in 1907.

Reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper singled and walked twice against Hendricks, but the right-hander shut down the rest of Washington's lineup. Michael Taylor was stranded at second after a two-out double in the third for the Nationals' first hit.

Jayson Werth hit a long two-run homer in the ninth for Washington, which had won five of six, including a 13-2 victory at World Series champion Kansas City on Wednesday. The Nationals began the day with baseball's second-best record at 19-8.

Joe Ross (3-1) matched Hendricks for much of the chilly night, striking out nine in 6 2/3 innings. The 22-year-old right-hander allowed five hits and walked two.

One rough stretch was enough to send Ross to his first loss since Aug. 16 at San Francisco.

Chicago's first four batters in the fourth reached safely, producing two runs. Tommy La Stella singled, Kris Bryant had a ground-rule double and Anthony Rizzo was walked intentionally before Zobrist's single to right gave the Cubs a 2-0 lead.

Rizzo was thrown out trying to advance to third on Zobrist's hit, and Ross retired the next two hitters to get out of the inning. But the damage was done.

Clayton Richard and Justin Grimm combined for a perfect seventh for Chicago before Pedro Strop wriggled out of a jam in the eighth.

Zobrist connected for his third homer and Addison Russell added an RBI double in the bottom half, providing some valuable breathing room.

After Werth went deep against Travis Wood with two down, Hector Rondon retired Wilson Ramos on a liner to first for the final out.

Washington second baseman Daniel Murphy was greeted with a round of boos when he came to the plate in the second inning. It was Murphy's first game at Wrigley Field since he hit four homers while helping the New York Mets sweep the Cubs in the NL Championship Series last year.

CHANGE OF PLANS

Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward tested his sore right wrist in batting practice and was planning to return to the lineup on Friday if he felt OK. But he ended up playing center in the series opener after Dexter Fowler was ejected for arguing with home plate umpire Vic Carpazza after he struck out looking to end the third.

Heyward, who signed a $184 million, eight-year contract with Chicago during free agency, went 0 for 2 with a strikeout.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: OF Ben Revere, who is on the disabled list with a right oblique strain, rejoined the team and could be activated soon. "I'd rather wait an extra day, especially because I've seen too many guys say I'm ready and they come back and they do it again," manager Dusty Baker said. "Hopefully he doesn't injure himself again the rest of the year."

Cubs: C Miguel Montero, on the DL with lower back tightness, hit before the game and manager Joe Maddon said trainer P.J. Mainville was encouraged with his progress.

UP NEXT

Washington ace Max Scherzer (3-1, 3.35 ERA) takes on John Lackey (3-1, 4.32 ERA) in a matchup of veteran right-handers on Friday afternoon. Scherzer is 1-0 with a 1.42 ERA in three career starts at Wrigley. Lackey needs six strikeouts to become the fifth active pitcher with at least 2,000 Ks, joining CC Sabathia, Bartolo Colon, Felix Hernandez and Jake Peavy.

Ross' 9 Ks not enough to overcome Zobrist and Hendricks' big night

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Ross' 9 Ks not enough to overcome Zobrist and Hendricks' big night

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 5-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Thursday night at Wrigley Field:

How it happened: Ben Zobrist came to play. The highly prized free agent signed during the offseason to round out the Cubs infield started things off early, driving in Tommy La Stella and Kris Bryant in the fourth inning on a single to put the Cubs.

Four innings later, with the Nationals unable to make good contact off Kyle Hendricks (2-2, 6 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 4 SO), Zobrist tacked on two more thanks to a big, two-out home run to left field off reliever Felipe Rivero.

Two batters later, Addison Russell drove in Ryan Kallish on a double off Joe Kelley to put the Cubs up 5-0.

Bryce Harper reached on a walk in the top of the ninth and Jayson Werth cleared the bases on a home run off Travis Wood, but Carlos Rodon shut the door on Wilson Ramos and the Nats, procuring the final out.

What it means: The 5-1 win moves the Cubs' run differential to an absurd +96. It's still an early-season series, but four games in Chicago will help fuel the narrative heading toward the All-Star break. The Nats' bats were cold, but Bryce Harper reaching base four times is a good sign that maybe brief slump is coming to an end.

Ross' standout start: Despite suffering his first loss of the year, Joe Ross tossed perhaps his best game of the 2016 campaign. Although he gave up a season-high two runs, he also recorded a season-high nine strikeouts and allowed just five hits and two balls.

His slider was working early, recording his first three punchouts using his go-to pitch. The 22-year-old hurler continues to dazzle early in the year and his been a pleasant surprise.

He faced his biggest test to date and while he took the loss, his performance certainly wasn't anything to scoff at.

With a 1.23 ERA, he ranks behind just Gio Gonzalez and Jake Arrieta for the league lead. That's good company to keep.

Murphy comes up empty: Daniel Murphy did not record a hit. That may sound a bit odd and with good reason. Thursday night was just the fourth time all season Murphy has failed to get a hit this season. His two strikeouts was also a rareity, just the second-time he's been sent down twice in one outing in 2016. But fear not. Each of Murphy's hitless games have been followed up by multi-hit games with at least one RBI. Friday will be different for sure.

Revere waits again: There was speculation that Ben Revere would make his return to the lineup on Thursday after spending a month on the DL due to a strained oblique he suffered during the first week of the season. But after giving it a go in pregame warmups it was determined that one more day of rest would get Revere back to 100%, and he is expected to be back on the field on Friday, 

What's next: Max Scherzer (3-1, 3.31 ERA) takes on John Lackey (3-1, 4.32 ERA) on Friday afternoon with Lackey needing just six strikeouts to become the fifth active starter with at least 2,000 Ks, joining the likes of Bartolo Colon, Felix Hernandez, Jake Peavy and CC Sabathia.

Nats open highly-anticipated series with Cubs looking to make statement

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Nats open highly-anticipated series with Cubs looking to make statement

Nationals (19-8) at Cubs (20-6)

After a successful road trip the Missouri whichs aw the Nationals best the reigning world champion Royals and the always dangerous Cardinals, they must do battle with MLB's best team: The Chicago Cubs.

The Nationals and Cubs are both considered top contenders to win the 2016 World Series, and while that is still months away, their first encounter will provide a small sampling of how the two teams stack up.

On top of that, Ben Revere, who suffered an oblique strain in the first week of the season, is expected to make his return to the roster in Chicago.

First pitch: 8:05 p.m.
TV: MASN
Radio: 106.7 The Fan, XM 869
Starting pitchers: Nats - Joe Ross vs. Cubs - Kyle Hendricks

NATIONALS

CF Michael Taylor

3B Anthony Rendon

RF Bryce Harper

1B Ryan Zimmerman

2B Daniel Murphy

LF Jayson Werth

C Wilson Ramos

SS Danny Espinosa 

RHP Joe Ross

 

CUBS

CF Dexter Fowler

3B Tommy La Stella

RF Kris Bryant

1B Anthony Rizzo

2B Ben Zobrist

LF Ryan Kalish

SS Addison Russell

C Tom, Federowicz

RHP Kyle Hendricks

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