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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."

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What will Joe Ross' role be for Nationals in playoffs vs. Dodgers?

What will Joe Ross' role be for Nationals in playoffs vs. Dodgers?

It was just a few weeks ago that Joe Ross' postseason availability was in question, and if he could return in time, whether he would pitch out of the Nationals' bullpen and or as a starter wasn't clear. Manager Dusty Baker wondered aloud if he would get his young right-hander back, even as Stephen Strasburg dealt with elbow injuries.

The progress Ross has made in a short period of time since is remarkable and after his 90-pitch outing on Thursday afternoon against the Diamondbacks, the 23-year-old looks and feels ready for the playoffs, and not just to pitch in relief, either.

"I'm hoping I get the opportunity to start, but that's up to them," Ross said. "But I'll take any opportunity I get to pitch and go out there and compete. I just want to help the team in any way I can."

Ross wasn't great on Thursday in his third start back from the disabled list. He only made it four innings, as his pitch count soared early. But in giving up just one run, he's now pitched 9 2/3 innings in three games back. During that stretch he's allowed three runs and struck out 14.

[RELATED: Wilson Ramos hopes to be back with Nationals]

It has been a process of baby steps for the Nats starter, a slow progression back from right shoulder inflammation, an injury rehab that featured a setback in late July. Now, though, he is essentially back to normal, just in time for the NL Division Series which begins next week.

"I feel good. I felt really good today. I felt really good last start. I guess it's just a point of executing pitches," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind really on whether I can go out and compete."

Baker mentioned that Ross could pitch in releif early in the NLDS against the Dodgers. That could keep him available for a start later on, if it's kept short like a normal bullpen session.

But one has to wonder if Ross has improved his case enough to pitch Game 3 of that series, given Gio Gonzalez' recent struggles. The lefty has allowed 19 earned runs in his last 23 innings going back five starts.

Regardless, Ross has certainly come a long way in just three MLB outings.

"He looks ready," second baseman Wilmer Difo said through an interpreter.

With all the negative injury news the Nationals have received in recent days, between Wilson Ramos' season-ending injury and Strasburg essentially ruled out for the NLDS, having Ross fully back in the mix is a nice change of fortune for the NL East champs.

[RELATED: Matt Belisle sounds like safe bet for Nats playoff roster]

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Wilson Ramos knows his knee injury could mean the end of Nationals' tenure

Wilson Ramos knows his knee injury could mean the end of Nationals' tenure

Wilson Ramos won't be on the field for the Washington Nationals when the team takes on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the N.L. Divisional Series next week.

The 2016 N.L. All-Star catcher will undergo surgery to repair the ACL he tore in his right knee on Monday night against the Diamondbacks

Ramos has been arguably the Nationals' most constant offensive threat this season, and had positioned himself as the team's backstop for the foreseeable future.

But the injury changed everything.

Not just because the surgery and rehab will stretch well into Spring Training, but because the 29-year-old Ramos will become a free agent at the end of the season. On top of that, a second ACL injury (He tore it in 2012 as well) means that taking the field everyday as a catcher may not be a viable option for him much longer.

"Unfortunately, this injury happened so close to the end and it may affect whether I’m able to stay with a National League team or not," Ramos told reporters prior to the Nationals' 5-3 win over the Diamondbacks on Thursday afternoon.

"But if it’s up to me, I definitely would like to keep playing for the Nationals and play as long as I can."

Ramos is a solid defensive catcher, but his biggest strength is at the plate. Being able to be a part of a lineup everyday is where he is most valuable, and that may mean playing in the American League, where he can serve as the designated hitter and fill in as catcher.

But this doesn't mean Ramos is done as a member of the Nationals, just that he's aware his time could be coming to an end.