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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."

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Dusty Baker already preparing Nats rookies for pressure of playoffs

Dusty Baker already preparing Nats rookies for pressure of playoffs

No matter how much MLB regular season experience a player has, that first taste of playoff baseball is always an adjustment. Veterans Daniel Murphy and Ben Revere each spoke about it this past winter when they signed with the Nats. Despite boasting a combined 15 years of MLB experience, both admitted there was an initial shock when they played their first career postseason games last fall. They both mentioned the butterflies and how unexpected that feeling was.

Playoff baseball is just different and, if it took an adjustment for those two, you can imagine what it will be like next week when Nationals rookies like Trea Turner, Pedro Severino and Reynaldo Lopez, as well as youngsters like Joe Ross, take the field for the first time in the postseason. It will be intense and manager Dusty Baker is already talking to his young players about what to expect.

"I've been prepping them every day. I've been telling them 'hey man, it don't matter how old you are, just go out there.' I've been telling them about David and Goliath. I've been telling them about every story I can think of about a young dude that went out there and was brave, whether it was an American-Indian warrior, or what," Baker explained. 

Turner, Severino and Ross will definitely be on hand when the Nationals take on the Dodgers in Game 1. Turner is in the starting lineup, Severino is entrenched as one of the team's two catchers and Ross will be in the rotation.

Lopez is also looking more and more like a lock with the way Baker has been talking about him.

"He could be a one-inning guy, but it just depends. We’d like to try to put him into situations where he’ll most likely succeed," Baker said of Lopez. "Is he ready for that right now? Do you want to find that out in the playoffs?"

Lopez is not counting his eggs before they hatch. He knows he's pitched well lately, with just two earned runs allowed across nine innings in his last two appearances. But he knows his spot is not official yet.

"If God blesses me with that opportunity, I feel like I’m ready and willing to help out the team any way I can to help out the team and hopefully win," he said through an interpreter.

Turner, Severino and Lopez will give the Nats at least three rookies on their playoff roster. There are others with outside chances to crack the final 25, including Koda Glover and Wilmer Difo.

Regardless, Baker will have to rely on some inexperienced players on a stage they've never played on before. 

"It doesn't matter, age at this point. It's how you control your nerves. There are some guys out there, even though they might be veterans, they might be more nervous than some of these kids. Some of these kids, sometimes they don't know what to be nervous about. I'm not afraid to run those kids out there," he said.

[RELATED: Scherzer argues Metro should stay open later for Nats playoffs]

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Jayson Werth out of Nats lineup as they host Marlins

Jayson Werth out of Nats lineup as they host Marlins

Nats (93-67) vs. Miami Marlins (79-80) at Nationals Park

Jayson Werth is out of the Nationals' lineup as they continue their series against the Miami Marlins on Saturday, as the veteran outfielder is nursing back tightness that he suffered in Friday night's loss. Manager Dusty Baker said it was a precaution to keep him out, that they are not worried the injury will persist.

In Werth's place playing left field is Michael Taylor. Ryan Zimmerman is back in the lineup after taking Friday night off. They will play behind Tanner Roark (15-10, 2.86), who will be pitching his final tuneup before the playoffs begin.

Roark has had some trouble with Miami this season. He's 1-4 with a 5.02 ERA against them. Roark was good, however, just two starts ago in Miami when he tossed seven innings of one-run ball.

First pitch: 4:05 p.m.
TV: MASN2
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Tanner Roark vs. Miami Marlins - Wei-Yin Chen

NATS 

CF Trea Turner
LF Michael Taylor
RF Bryce Harper
3B Anthony Rendon
1B Ryan Zimmerman
2B Wilmer Difo
C Pedro Severino
SS Danny Espinosa
RHP Tanner Roark

MARLINS

2B Derek Dietrich
SS Miguel Rojas
CF Christian Yelich
1B Justin Bour
RF Jeff Francoeur
3B Chris Johnson
LF Destin Hood
C Jeff Mathis
LHP Wei-Yin Chen