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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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Marc Rzepczynski excited to join Nationals in middle of pennant race

Marc Rzepczynski excited to join Nationals in middle of pennant race

The Nationals announced they had activated reliever Marc Rzepczynski to their roster at 5 p.m. on Thursday, yet at that time the lefty was 30,000 feet in the air. He was on a cross country flight, having left after a delay from San Francisco. 

He eventually landed at Dulles Airport in Sterling, Va. and made the drive to 1500 South Capitol St., where the Nats were in the middle of game against the Baltimore Orioles. Rzepczynski threw his jersey on and got right to work, even warming up in the eighth inning for a potential debut with his new team.

That debut did not happen, it will have to wait at least one more day, but Rzepczynski was thrilled to be with his new team, a first-place club, after coming over from the 55-72 Oakland Athletics.

"It's amazing. At the end of the day, with a team that's losing, your'e making plans for the offseason already. Then, all of a sudden, hopefully I have a chance to play in October," Rzepczynski said. "It was one of those where it reminded me a lot of '11 when I was with the Cardinals. Being traded at the deadline, then all of a sudden winning the World Series. So, hopefully I'll have the same thing happen here."

Rzepczynski actually found out he was traded on Wednesday. Like Mark Melancon, whom the Nats traded for in July before the deadline, Rzepczynski heard the news after awaking from a nap.

"I'm excited. Little bit in shock. I've been traded, now this is my fifth time. Three times at the deadline. This one got me a little bit. I was quite shocked yesterday. I was actually taking a nap when this happened. We had a day game, so I was just relaxing," he said. "I'm definitely happy to be here. To go from a team that's struggling a little bit to a team that's in first place. What else would you ask for at this time of the year?"

Rzepczynski joined the Nationals in a deal that sent infield prospect Max Schrock and cash to the Athletics. The Nats brought in some help for their bullpen, hoping Rzepczynski can deepen and balance out their relief staff.

Rzepczynski - who has a 3.00 ERA in 56 games this season - described in detail what type of pitcher the Nats just acquired.

"For me, it's just sinker inside or away to lefties. That's not a secret. Every lefty, now that I've been in the AL twice and the NL now three times too, they know what they're facing. I'm just going to go out there and compete and do my job. I was struggling earlier getting lefties out. I feel like I'm back now. I feel like I'm ready," he said.

Rzepczynski is likely to make his Nationals debut this weekend against the Colorado Rockies. He's arrived just in time, as the Rockies boast several dangerous left-handed batters including Carlos Gonzalez, D.J. LeMahieu and Charlie Blackmon. More sinkers inside.

[RELATED: Max Scherzer digs down deep to help Nats, shut up Orioles fans]

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Nats' Dusty Baker talks about slapping Trea Turner's butt, things get weird

Nats' Dusty Baker talks about slapping Trea Turner's butt, things get weird

Manager Dusty Baker was asked about Trea Turner's surprising strength on Thursday night and, well, his answer was a bit unexpected.

You could say things got a little weird. Baker started talking about Turner's build and his description got quite specific:

"He’s wiry-strong. You can tell by that ball he hit down the line. That’s a big man’s swing right there. He’s stronger than he appears. And he’s going to get stronger yet, when he gets his man-muscles or his man-bones or whatever you call it. Heh-heh. Cause today I tapped him on the butt, and I was like: ‘Man, you’re hard as a rock.’ And he said: ‘Well, I should be. It’s all bone.’”

Okay, then. Now, that's a quote. 

Baker also described Max Scherzer's between-the-legs on Thursday night in terms that included the male anatomy:

"First time I’ve seen that. Good thing that ball didn’t hop up on him, know what I mean?”

Just another night with Dusty Baker, one of the funniest people in sports.

[RELATED: Strasburg plays catch, Nats say injury not in area of Tommy John surgery]

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Max Scherzer digs down deep to help Nats, shut up Orioles fans

Max Scherzer digs down deep to help Nats, shut up Orioles fans

Despite his team holding a comfortable division lead in the final week of August, there was plenty on the line to motivate Max Scherzer on Thursday night at Nationals Park.

He was tasked with stopping his team's four-game losing streak against a team in the Baltimore Orioles that was aiming for a four-game sweep. Going back to last season, the O's had won six consecutive games over the Nats. They had their number. They smelled blood. And because of the proximity of the team's stadiums, they had some of their friends lacing the audience dressed in orange.

The Nationals' bullpen also needed a favor. Rookie starter Reynaldo Lopez went just 2 2/3 innings on Tuesday and Tanner Roark was bounced after five the following night. Last week Nats relievers were plagued by even shorter outings from the rotation, rain delays and injuries.

Simply put, the Nationals needed Scherzer to be the ace they paid him $210 million to be. They needed 'Mad Max.'

So, Scherzer stepped out of the dugout and into the view of a sellout crowd on Thursday night with that crazed looked in his eye, that 20-strikeout, 'you'll be lucky to get any hits at all' kind of look. He was ready to be the aggressor against an Orioles lineup that is as aggressive and powerful as they come.

"They have a lot of guys that have a lot of thump in their lineup and the past three nights, I had really been watching them," Scherzer said. "I was going through my experience and really coming up with a gameplan of how I needed to pitch against them."

Scherzer used that preparation to charge out to a fantastic start with six strikeouts in his first eight at-bats. He carved up the Orioles to the tune of eight shutout innings with 10 strikeouts, no walks and just two hits allowed. That set the stage for just the fifth time the O's have been shut out this season.

"That’s what aces do," manager Dusty Baker said. "He shut down a very high–powered offense. There were only a couple balls hit hard off him. Had quite a few strikeouts. Boy, that was a masterful, masterful job by Max."

It was the 11th time Scherzer has posted double-digit strikeouts in a game this season, more than any other MLB pitcher. That tied the Nats club record he set himself just last year.

His 10th strikeout was against Orioles catcher Matt Wieters in the eighth inning. He then got J.J. Hardy to fly out to end the frame and his night after 95 pitches.

Scherzer had every reason to keep pushing late in his start, but there was something in the park on Thursday that gave him some extra motivation.

"I gave everything I got there in the eighth, the O's fans started making noise there in the eighth and that really kind of ticked me off. When they're sitting out there cheering at our park, I didn't like that," he said.

That, of course, was a minor consideration for Scherzer. More important to him was saving the aforementioned bullpen, which has been taxed more than any part of their roster during this current stretch of 20 games in 20 days.

"I knew I needed to pitch deep into the game tonight. Our bullpen has been taxed, and I really needed to try and get deep into the game to try and help those guys out. That was huge to get into the eighth and complete the eighth and just turn the ball over to Mark [Melancon], so that was a first and foremost thing that I knew I needed to do tonight," he said.

[RELATED: Nats' Ross making quick progress, may start rehab assignment soon]

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