Bryce leads Nats in Broad Street beatdown

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Bryce leads Nats in Broad Street beatdown

PHILADELPHIA -- It was early March in Viera, Fla., when Bryce Harper and Rick Eckstein were chatting around the batting cage at the Nationals' spring training complex, talking about how to approach certain big-league pitchers. Harper brought up one prominent NL East hurler in particular, and stunned his hitting coach with his intimate understanding of a pitcher he'd never actually seen in person.

"This is what he's going to do," Harper told Eckstein that morning. "And when he does it, this is where it's gonna go."

The pitcher in question was Roy Halladay. And when finally presented the opportunity to face the two-time Cy Young Award winner Tuesday night, Harper stepped to the plate knowing exactly what to expect from the Phillies ace.

"I've been watching him for about three years," the 19-year-old outfielder said. "He throws a first-pitch curveball to so many people, and they just let it get over the plate. So I was just really trying to get something up in that situation and get something going. We had two guys on, and you had to get them in."

Sure enough, Halladay's first pitch to Harper in the top of the third inning was a "get-me-over" curveball. And sure enough, Harper was waiting for it and sent it on a beeline to right-center field for the two-run triple that put the Nationals on top and set them on their way to an impressive, 5-2 victory.

By night's end, Harper was far from the only one to get a shot in against Halladay. Ian Desmond and Rick Ankiel homered. Steve Lombardozzi had a pair of hits. And a Nationals lineup that lost No. 3 hitter Ryan Zimmerman to lingering shoulder soreness about an hour before first pitch scored five runs off the veteran right-hander and beat him for the first time since the franchise relocated to the District.

In the process, they also beat the Phillies for the ninth time in their last 10 meetings, won their sixth straight at Citizens Bank Park and catapulted themselves back into first place in the NL East at 26-17.

For five years, the Nationals have been looking up in the division standings and seen Philadelphia sitting on top. These days, it's the Phillies looking all the way up at a Washington club that now looks and plays like the bullies in this rivalry.

"I think you can just see it in the standings and throughout this clubhouse," said Tyler Clippard, who earned his second career save with a 1-2-3 ninth inning. "Everything that we've portrayed as a club this year is different than we have in the past. We kind of set that tone at the end of last year and kept it rolling this year, and it feels good. Getting that final out and hearing crickets out there, it's a good feeling."

Actually, there were boos raining down upon the last-place Phillies (21-23) at the end of this one, just as there were boos raining down upon Harper when he laced that triple to ignite the surprising onslaught of Halladay.

Few would have faulted the rookie had he stepped to the plate with at least some feelings of trepidation. Harper, though, "doesn't look fazed at anybody," manager Davey Johnson said.

He certainly didn't look overwhelmed by the matchup in the top of the first, when he sent a sharp grounder through the right side hole for a solid single. And he most definitely wasn't overmatched two innings later when he drilled that triple to right-center, scoring Jordan Zimmermann and Lombardozzi to put the Nationals up 2-1.

"That's a guy that you've been watching for your whole life," said Harper, who was 5 when Halladay made his big-league debut in 1998. "He's an All-Star, he's a Cy Young and it's unbelievable going out there facing Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels and everybody in the NL East."

Harper's teammates joined in the hit parade. Desmond crushed a 2-0 pitch into the left-field bleachers later in the third inning for his team-leading eighth homer of the season. Ankiel then belted the first pitch of the fourth inning over the center-field fence to make it 5-1.

"You really go up there just hoping to get one," Desmond said. "You just want to get one knock, and the best works out for the other ones. But he's such a good pitcher that you can't go up there looking for too much."

Handed a rare, comfortable lead, Zimmermann fought his way through six tough innings, holding the Phillies to one run despite a pitch count that nearly reached triple digits in the fifth.

Tom Gorzelanny did give one run back in the eighth on Erik Kratz's first career homer. But Clippard, the first member of the Nationals' new committee of closers to get the call in a save situation, retired the side in the ninth and sent what was remaining of a crowd of 45,569 to the exits alternately booing and muttering to themselves about the reversal of power structure in the NL East.

The Nationals quietly celebrated and looked ahead to Wednesday's series finale, with an opportunity to sweep the Phillies and make yet another statement about their progress as a franchise.

"I think everybody always gets up for the king of the mountain," Johnson said. "And the Phillies, as far as I'm concerned, are still the king of the mountain. Nobody's really knocked them off that mountain. ... My guys know when we come in here, if we want to play with the best, we've got to beat these guys. And we've been doing a pretty good job."

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