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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."

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Anthony Rendon's homer lifts Nationals over Diamondbacks

Anthony Rendon's homer lifts Nationals over Diamondbacks

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 4-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: With All-Star Wilson Ramos now out for the rest of the regular season and playoffs with a torn right ACL, the Nationals will need others to step up and compensate for his loss. On defense, it will be up to Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino. Ramos is an excellent defensive catcher, but his two backups are perfectly capable behind the dish.

On offense is where Ramos' absence will particularly hurt and that was noted by manager Dusty Baker on Tuesday after his diagnosis was revealed. Others in their lineup will have to raise their games to fill the void.

Time will tell how much Ramos is missed, but Tuesday was a good start. The Nationals saw several players contribute to a sixth inning rally that led them to a 4-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Lobaton got them started with a single to right field, the first hit of the night against Arizona rookie Matt Koch, who was making his MLB debut. Stephen Drew later drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. And after that it was Anthony Rendon who gave the Nats the lead with a three-run homer to left field.

That gave the Nationals enough to hand Max Scherzer his 19th win of the season. Scherzer lasted six innings on 98 pitches before he was pulled for a pinch-hitter.

The Nationals bounced back from their blowout loss in the series opener on Monday night and have now won three of four.

What it means: The Nationals improved to 92-65 on the season with just five games remaining.

Scherzer overcomes rocky start: Scherzer was solid on Tuesday night with six innings and two runs allowed on six hits and two walks. But his night didn't start out too well, as Scherzer gave up a solo homer to Jean Segura on the first pitch of the game. He allowed another run on a Welington Castillo double in the top of the third. After that, though, Scherzer settled in to retired seven straight batters with six consecutive strikeouts. 

Scherzer finished with 10 strikeouts on the night to reach double digits for the 13th time this season and the 49th time in his career. He also got to 277 strikeouts on the season to set a new Nationals record, breaking his previous mark of 276 set just last year. Scherzer is the only active pitcher with at least two seasons of 275 strikeouts or more.

Rendon hits No. 19: Rendon's homer was his 19th of the season, two away from the career-high of 21 he set in 2014. It was also the 500th hit of his career. Rendon hasn't had the greatest month when it comes to getting on base, but he's driven plenty of runs in. With his three RBI on Tuesday, Rendon now has 22 for September, a career-high for a single month. He has 51 RBI in 64 games since the All-Star break.

Lobaton, Severino make an impact: Lobaton's hit to lead off the sixth and start their four-run rally was just a single, but was a positive sign for the Nats, who will need him to step up with Ramos out. Lobaton was replaced by Severino as a pinch-runner and Severino then came around to score on Drew's sacrifice fly. That duo may need to split a lot of playing time over the next few weeks and with Lobaton's sore right ankle, Severino could be replacing him on the basepaths late in close games quite often moving forward.

Up next: The Nationals play another 7:05 p.m. start on Wednesday night with lefty Gio Gonzalez (11-10, 4.51) set to face former Braves starter Shelby Miller (2-12, 6.47).

[RELATED: Ramos' ACL tear devastating news for him and Nats]

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Dodgers set rotation for playoff series against Nationals

Dodgers set rotation for playoff series against Nationals

The Nationals have plenty of questions facing their starting rotation as they enter the 2016 postseason, but they now know exactly what the Dodgers will be rolling out for their NL Division Series.

Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts announced the Dodgers' rotation on Tuesday with Clayton Kershaw set for Game 1, Rich Hill for Game 2 and Kenta Maeda for Game 3. Julio Urias is a possibility for Game 4, though Kershaw could always go on short rest.

That's three lefties, with Maeda the only exception. That's also two rookies in Maeda and Urias.

Kershaw getting Game 1 is no surprise, of course. The three-time Cy Young winner and former MVP is the best pitcher in baseball. He's 12-3 with a 1.65 ERA in 20 starts this season and has 168 strikeouts to just 10 walks.

Hill has also been very good with a 2.05 ERA in 19 starts this season. The Dodgers acquired him in a trade with the Athletics on Aug. 1. Hill actually spent part of the 2015 season as part of the Nationals' minor league system.

Maeda has been one of the best rookies this season with a 16-9 record and 3.20 ERA. Urias is not far behind him with a 3.53 ERA through 17 appearances.

The Nationals are likely to pitch Max Scherzer in Game 1 and Tanner Roark in Game 2. Who pitches Game 3 is less clear, though it will be a choice between Joe Ross and Gio Gonzalez. The other could pitch Game 4, unless the Nats decide to start Scherzer again on short rest.

Stephen Strasburg is unlikely to pitch in the series at all, the Nationals revealed on Tuesday. He remains out with a right flexor mass strain.

[Via the Los Angeles Times]