Finish line in sight for Nationals

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Finish line in sight for Nationals

NEW YORK -- In expanding the postseason to include two wild-card teams from each league, Major League Baseball opened the door for plenty more franchises to keep themselves in the chase through September.

MLB also, however, lowered the bar to reach the postseason. Had the second wild-card been used over the last decade, the National League would have produced playoff teams with as few as 85 wins. And no team with 91 wins or more would have been left out of October. The average number of wins needed to secure a playoff berth (under the new format) in the NL since 2003: 88.

Guess how many games the Nationals have now won in 2012.

Yes, with a 5-3 victory over the Mets on Tuesday night, the Nationals improved to 88-54. Even if they lose their final 20 games, they could conceivably still wind up reaching the postseason. Win just a couple of times down the stretch, and they're a shoo-in.

It's OK to begin the final countdown, folks. Even the manager admits he's doing it.

"It's time to be looking at magic numbers," Davey Johnson said. "And I've been looking at them for a while now."

Since the skipper gives his approval, there appears to be no harm in pointing out the Nationals' magic number to clinch the NL East is now 13. Any combination of 13 Nats wins and Braves losses would secure the division title.

To merely clinch the NL's final wild-card berth, the magic number is down to seven. A champagne celebration could be on tap as soon as Sunday night in Atlanta, more likely later in the week in Washington, when the fast-fading Dodgers come to town.

Make no mistake, the Nationals are well aware of all this.

"Yeah, absolutely," Bryce Harper said. "We all want to clinch as soon as we can and take that pressure off of us."

They moved themselves one step closer with Tuesday night's win at Citi Field, overcoming Jordan Zimmermann's laborious start thanks to a couple of late rallies against R.A. Dickey and the Mets bullpen.

Tyler Moore's pinch-hit, two-run homer off the first knuckleball he saw from Dickey in the top of the seventh proved the difference, turning a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead. The rookie had some minimal experience with knuckleballers in the minor leagues, but "I think they struck me out every time." This time, he wasted no time turning on Dickey's trademark pitch and belting it into the left-field bleachers.

"They're not real fun to face, and he's got probably the best one in the country," Moore said. "I just was fortunate to get one out."

Moore's ninth homer in only 138 at-bats gave the Nationals the lead for good, but the two insurance runs they added in the ninth were no less significant. Kurt Suzuki's RBI single brought home Danny Espinosa to make it 4-2, then after Jayson Werth walked to reach base for the fifth time in the game, Harper laced a single to left, bringing home another run to extend the lead to 5-2.

With the first four-hit night of his young career, Harper extended his recent surge at the plate, raising his season batting average to .265. (It stood at .247 only 18 days ago.)

"I don't think he can swing any harder than he swings, but tonight against a knuckleballer, he used his hands more instead of just trying to crush the ball," Johnson said. "He tried to put the ball in play. He had a good night."

The insurance runs proved crucial, because closer Tyler Clippard served up a solo homer to Scott Hairston in the bottom of the ninth, then allowed another hit to let the tying run step to the plate in the form of Ruben Tejada. Not until Clippard struck out the Mets leadoff hitter could the Nationals exchange high-fives in the middle of the diamond following a somewhat-tense victory.

They retreated to their clubhouse, where the Braves-Brewers game was immediately turned on. A few minutes later, Milwaukee closed out a 5-0 win, dealing Atlanta a blow while raising the Nationals' lead in the NL East to 7 12 games.

All of a sudden, what looked like a critical weekend series at Turner Field may only serve as the Braves' last-ditch hope of making this a race again. Even in their worst-case scenario, the Nationals can't come home next week with anything less than a 3 12-game lead. In a best-case scenario, they could all but lock up the division title.

Worried about conjuring up such thoughts with 20 games still to go? Don't be. The players have been doing it for a while now. They see the finish line in sight at last, and they have no intention of slowing down before they cross it.

"I think it's been that way for 10 days, two weeks," Werth said. "As soon as September rolls around, things are pretty serious. We got a chance to do something here. I came here for a reason, and here we are, Year Two, and we're where we need to be. It's not time to let up now."

Gonzalez struggles for second straight outing as Nats fall to Cardinals

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USA TODAY Sports

Gonzalez struggles for second straight outing as Nats fall to Cardinals

Postgame analysis of the Nationals' 9-4 loss to the Cardinals on Saturday night at Nats Park. 

How it happened: The Cardinals offense didn't waste much time in this one, jumping on Nats starter Gio Gonzalez by building a 4-0 second-inning lead thanks to three straight two-out hits with men on base. Washington briefly got back in the game in the bottom of the frame as Ryan Zimmerman launched a two-run home run to cut the deficit to 4-2. 

However, the tough times continued for Gonzalez. He promptly yielded a solo shot to Matt Holliday in the third, and then in the fifth gave up an RBI double to Randal Grichuk to make it 6-2 St. Louis, ending the lefty starter's night earlier than he or the Nats would have liked.

Washington would get two runs back on solo home runs from Bryce Harper and Zimmerman, but the red-hot Cards lineup was simply too much on this night. Matt Adams came through with a pinch-hit two-run double to pad the lead to 8-4 and essentially put things out of reach. 

What it means: After starting the season series off with four straight against the Cardinals, the Nats have now dropped back-to-back games to St. Louis. At 29-21, Washington is still in a virtual tie for first place in the NL East with the New York Mets. 

Another rough outing for Gio: Well, so much for the idea of Jose Lobaton spurring a rebound start for Gonzalez. Even though he was throwing to his usual catcher this time, Gio struggled for the second straight outing, allowing six earned runs on six hits and four walks over 4 2/3 frames. What doomed him the most Saturday? His inability to finish innings when he was ahead in the count. Though he had multiple opportunities in two-strike, two-out situations to exit a frame unscathed, he instead allowed a series of crippling run-scoring hits. Indeed, five of the six runs Gonzalez yielded against the Cards came with two down, a frustrating stat considering that there were moments where he looked like he was going to settle down. 

Daniel Murphy, record breaker: In only his second regular season month with his new team, Daniel Murphy has already etched his name in the Nats record books. His second-inning single was his 41st hit in May, breaking Denard Span's club mark for hits in a month. Murphy's average on the season is now at an eye-popping .390 through nearly two months. 

Up next: The Nats will look to salvage a series split Sunday afternoon as they send Stephen Strasburg (8-0, 2.79 ERA) to the mound to oppose the Cardinals' Michael Wacha (2-5, 5.04). 

Despite hot streak, Anthony Rendon gets the night off versus Cardinals

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Despite hot streak, Anthony Rendon gets the night off versus Cardinals

Though Dusty Baker had already made the call earlier in the week to sit Anthony Rendon for Saturday's game against the St. Louis Cardinals, his third baseman's recent torrid stretch at the plate nearly gave the Nats' skipper second thoughts. 

"I hate to give a guy a day off when they're getting hits and starting to look good," Baker said before Saturday's game. 

Still, he stayed true to his word, giving Rendon the day off and tapping Stephen Drew to take over at the hot corner. 

"I told him [earlier] he'd be out Saturday. I said 'Give me all you got until your day off on Saturday,'" the manager said. "And he did." 

Rendon's hot streak has been a much-needed sigh of relief for the offense, as his previous struggles were reaching the point where Nats fans might have wondered if he'd ever reclaim his 2014 form. That guy —the then 24-year-old who finished fifth in National League MVP voting and was once nicknamed "Tony Two-bags" — had been missing for the last season-plus as he battled either injury or inconsistency. 

But since Rendon was dropped to sixth in the batting order, the almost 26-year-old has slowly started to resemble what he was two seasons ago. In the last 10 games, he's raised his average from .237 to .262 thanks to six multi-hit efforts that included four doubles, a home run and a triple. Baker noted that Rendon had been making great contact all along, and part of his breakout is simply getting those hits to drop. 

"He's kinda been our hard-luck guy," Baker said. 

Rendon had played all 49 of Washington's games prior to Saturday, prompting Baker to describe the day off as "much needed." And when he returns, the Nats have to hope he can continue to be a presence in a lineup that desperately needs someone other than Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy to produce consistently. 

"He's looking good," Baker said. "He's looking real good."

Nats tap Gonzalez as they hope to rebound vs. Cardinals

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Nats tap Gonzalez as they hope to rebound vs. Cardinals

Nats (29-20) vs. Cardinals (25-24) at Nationals Park

The Nationals are looking to bounce back a day after dropping Friday night's game to the Cardinals —their first loss to the Red Birds all season. After Max Scherzer's uneven outing, Washington will send lefty Gio Gonzalez to the mound to face a St. Louis offense that has had trouble with southpaws. The Cards have a slashline of .240/.322/.390 against left-handed pitchers on the season, so it will be up to Gonzalez to keep that trend going against an otherwise hot-hitting lineup. It could help that he has his personal catcher in Jose Lobaton back in the lineup after Wilson Ramos held those duties in Monday's 7-1 loss to the New York Mets. 

Another wrinkle in Saturday's lineup is that Anthony Rendon will have the night off, a decision he made earlier in the week despite the third baseman's recent hot streak. In Rendon's absence, Stephen Drew will take over at the hot corner.

Cardinals first baseman Matt Carpenter will return to St.Louis' lineup after going on paternity leave for the first two games of this series. 

First pitch: 7:15 p.m.
TV: FOX
Radio: 106.7 The Fan, XM 183
Starting pitchers: Nats - Gio Gonzalez vs. Cardinals - Adam Wainwright

NATS

CF Ben Revere 

LF Jayson Werth 

RF Bryce Harper 

2B Daniel Murphy 

1B Ryan Zimmerman 

3B Stephen Drew 

SS Danny Espinosa 

C Jose Lobaton 

LHP Gio Gonzalez 

CARDINALS

1B Matt Carpenter 

SS Aledmys Diaz 

LF Matt Holiday 

RF Stephen Piscotty 

CF Randal Grichuk 

C Yadier Molina 

2B Jedd Gyroko 

3B Greg Garcia 

RHP Adam Wainwright

 

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