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Harper sets stage, Desmond takes curtain call

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Harper sets stage, Desmond takes curtain call

He's only 26, but he's logged more time in a Nationals uniform than almost anybody else in the current clubhouse. So when Ian Desmond gathered Bryce Harper and Steve Lombardozzi together before Wednesday night's game to offer up some advice he got years ago from Frank Robinson, the two rookies stopped to listen.

Robinson's advice to Desmond, which Desmond passed along to Harper and Lombardozzi: Always watch an opposing reliever warm up at the start of an inning and see what you can pick up.

So when Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz took the mound for the bottom of the ninth, Desmond watched intently from the Nationals dugout and later from the on-deck circle.

"He was throwing his splits up in the zone," the shortstop said. "His fastballs were elevated to both guys ahead of me. I knew if I looked for the heater, I would be able to see the split up, and I would be able to react. I was really just locked in, and everything clicked for me right there."

Apparently so, because when Putz fired a 93 mph up and over the plate, Desmond took a mighty cut and launched the ball into the D.C. night. By the time it landed in the left-field bullpen, he was well on his way through a 360-foot celebration around the bases into the arms of his teammates who thoroughly enjoyed a 5-4 victory that snapped a five-game losing streak.

The first walk-off home run of Desmond's career was unlike anything he'd ever experienced.

"No," he said. "Circumstances being as they are -- the five-game losing streak, we're down, everyone keeps asking all these questions, obviously Bryce being here. He played a heck of a ballgame, and I'd hate for his second good ballgame like that to be unnoticed."

Oh yes, Bryce Harper. How could anyone ignore his contributions to this win. His manager certainly couldn't.

"What about the kid?" Davey Johnson jubilantly asked as he sat down for his postgame media session.

What did Harper do? It's probably easier to ask what he didn't do, because his fingerprints were all over this game.

If he wasn't hustling to beat out a slow roller past the mound, he was barreling his way into catcher Miguel Montero and knocking the ball loose to score a fourth-inning run.

If he wasn't making a bare-handed catch while falling to the ground in center field (albeit after initially misjudging the ball), he was crushing the ball off the wall in right-center, twice coming just short of his first career homer.

The second of those two wall-banging doubles came at a most-opportune moment, leading off the bottom of the ninth with his team trailing by a run, setting the stage for Desmond to play hero moments later.

Yes, Desmond's homer won it. But Harper's all-around performance is rubbing off on everyone inside the Nationals clubhouse.

"I mean, here's a 19-year-old kid that's getting the bat out," Johnson said. "It's infectious. It hurts you a little bit missing your 3 and 4-hole hitters, because when they start doing it, it kind of flows. But seeing a 19-year-old hitting seventh come along and have nothing but quality at-bats, that's impressive."

With his 3-for-4 showing in his fourth career game, Harper now owns five hits in 13 big-league at-bats. More importantly, he contributed to his first major-league victory.

"I'm just trying to come in here and play my game hard," he said. "I'm just trying to bring some fire to the table and play the game that I've known how to play my whole life. So I play with that fire and that passion, just trying to bust my butt every single day."

And he's gaining more and more admirers with each passing day.

Veteran big leaguers aren't always the most-accepting bunch, especially when it comes to a brash, 19-year-old phenom barging into their clubhouse and tasked with injecting some life into what has been a lifeless lineup. But once they see that player perform at this level, they welcome him into the family with open arms.

"He runs on and off the field the way he's supposed to. He runs down to first hard. That's just old-school baseball," reliever Craig Stammen said. "He gets a lot of stuff in the media about being kind of brash and all that. But he plays hard and he backs it up on the field. ... And I think he showed in the situations he was put in tonight, the stage isn't too big for him."

No, it certainly doesn't look that way. As Johnson put it: "He was born for those situations, I think."

And there's a good chance he's going to start getting a lot more opportunities in all kinds of situations. Not wanting to put too much pressure on the teenager, Johnson has slotted Harper into the seventh spot in his lineup for each of his first four games.

After this game, the manager asked a couple of his coaches if it's too early to bump the kid up a few notches. The consensus opinion: No.

So don't be surprised if Harper finds himself batting sixth, or even fifth, when the Nationals return to the field Thursday for their series finale against Arizona.

Just don't expect him to take over the leadoff spot. The Nationals are quite content with Desmond holding down that job for now, especially after he delivered in the clutch to give his team a much-needed victory.

"It's awesome. It's just what we needed," Desmond said. "Right time. It's just a good win. We played well. We battled the whole game. To finish it up like that, for me personally it was awesome, but for the team even better."

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Papelbon's struggles continue, Ramos and Rendon heating up for Nats

Papelbon's struggles continue, Ramos and Rendon heating up for Nats

Leftover notes and observations from the Nats' 7-6 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night…

Papelbon's rough ninth: Jonathan Papelbon crumbled again in the ninth inning by allowing three runs to the Indians, who saw Francisco Lindor single home the winning run against Oliver Perez in the bottom of the ninth. It was a crushing loss for the Nats and their second reminder in as many games that their bullpen may be a problem, perhaps even one worth addressing before the trade deadline.

Papelbon's timing is at least good in that he's not doing this next week, that it's coming before Monday's non-waiver trade deadline. There is still time for the Nats to add a reliever, though if they want to bring in a new closer, the price will likely be high. One has to wonder if the last few days have changed the Nats' thinking when it comes to parting with one of their top prospects in order to shore up the backend of their bullpen for the pennant race.

Papelbon has now allowed seven earned runs in his last two outings. He took the mound on Sunday with a 2.56 ERA, but now has a 4.45 mark after two straight uneven spots.

Ramos hits No. 15: Wilson Ramos appeared to be cooling off earlier this month, but lately has picked up the pace. On Tuesday he not only homered in the sixth inning - his second in as many games - he also doubled and later scored in the fourth. It was Ramos' fourth multi-hit game in his last six outings. He has reached base in 13 straight appearances.

Ramos' homer was his 15th of the year, which puts him one away from the career-high he set back in 2013. This is the fourth time in his career that he's reached 15 homers in a season.

Rendon's No. 12: Despite missing two games last week with the flu, Anthony Rendon continues to swing a hot bat. He went 2-for-4 on Tuesday night with a homer, two RBI and two runs. His home run was his 12th of the season, a two-run shot that scored Ramos in the top of the fourth. After going 0-for-14 in four games split by the All-Star break, Rendon is 9-for-28 (.321) with three homers and five RBI in the seven games since.

Rivero's streak snapped: Felipe Rivero gave up his first earned run in 11 appearances on Tuesday to snap a 17 1/3 scoreless innings streak, the longest for a Nats reliever this season. Rivero found trouble early, as Jason Kipnis led off the bottom of the eighth with a double and Lindor followed with a single. Mike Napoli then brought Kipnis home on a double play groundball. 

Lindor shows his stuff: The Nationals got their first look at one of the best young players in baseball. At just 22 years old, Lindor has become a superstar shortstop in a very short period of time and on Tuesday demonstrated in several ways what all the hype is about. Not only did he single in the game-winning run, he also made a terrific play in the field in the top of the seventh. Lindor fell down while gloving a hard groundball by Ben Revere, got up and threw a strike to first for the out.

Lindor also singled in the bottom of the third on a Gio Gonzalez pitch that came in chin-high. It was a pitch no one should ever swing at, but he smoothly poked a single to opposite field. Vladimir Guerrero would have been impressed. Lindor, who bats .307 on the season, had three hits in the game.

[RELATED: Papelbon again implodes in ninth as Nats lose to Indians]

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Near trade deadline, former National Drew Storen again on the move

Near trade deadline, former National Drew Storen again on the move

It was back in January that the Nationals acquired Ben Revere from Toronto in exchange for reliever Drew Storen. The former National won't even spend a year north of the border. 

With the trade deadline approaching, Toronto made a move on Tuesday to send Storen and cash considerations to Seattle in exchange for pitcher Joaquin Benoit. 

Storen posted a 6.21 ERA for Toronto in 33.1 innings this season. Benoit has a 5.18 ERA in 24.1 innings. 

MORE NATIONALS: PAPELBON IMPLODES AGAIN IN LOSS

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Papelbon again implodes in ninth as Nats fall to Indians in walk-off loss

Papelbon again implodes in ninth as Nats fall to Indians in walk-off loss

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 7-6 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night at Progressive Field.

How it happened: After Jonathan Papelbon imploded in the ninth inning on Sunday, manager Dusty Baker took some of the blame, saying he should not have pitched his closer for the third straight day. Papelbon denied he was tired, but Baker felt it was worth mentioning.

Despite that, Baker went back to Papelbon on Tuesday night in a key spot. It came after an off-day, but Papelbon did not look himself against the Indians. His fastball was regularly topping out at 89 miles per hour and Cleveland jumped all over it.

Papelbon allowed a leadoff walk then an RBI double to Tyler Naquin. Ryan Zimmerman then committed a costly throwing error to first on a Chris Gimenez sacrifice bunt to score Naquin. And then, with Oliver Perez on the mound and the bases loaded, young superstar Francisco Lindor singled in the winning run for an Indians walk-off victory.

Papelbon has now failed the Nats in the ninth inning of two consecutive games. The one positive may be that he's done this before the Aug. 1 trade deadline and not after it, as the Nats' need for bullpen help is becoming more and more obvious.

The Nats had a solid day on offense, led by Trea Turner in the leadoff spot. He singled, walked, stole a base, reached on an error and scored a run in another all-around effort. The rest of the Nats' lineup followed suit, as Wilson Ramos hit his 15th homer of the season, Anthony Rendon clubbed his 12th and Jayson Werth added two doubles to extend his streak of reaching base to 29 games, matching a career-high. 

The Nats knocked Danny Salazar - one of the AL's best pitchers - out after just four innings of work. He gave up four runs (3 ER) on four hits and two walks. Nats starter Gio Gonzalez overcame a rocky first inning to go 6 1/3 frames with three runs (2 ER) allowed.

The Nationals began their long road trip with a tough, 7-6 loss and have now lost six of their last eight games. 

What it means: The Nats fell to 58-42 on the season. With the Marlins' win on Tuesday, the Nats are now just four games up in the NL East.

Turner mostly good in CF, great at plate: Known for his prodigious speed on the base paths, apparently Trea Turner is also a fast learner.

With Zimmerman back from the disabled list, the Nationals rookie played center field for the first time in a big league game on Tuesday night and the early returns were overall quite good. Turner for the most part looked competent at his new position, despite having one key moment where he showed his inexperience. Perhaps more important, the Nats kept his bat and his legs in their lineup and again saw the impact he can provide at the top of their order.

Turner wasn't tested much in center field on Tuesday night, but he did make one very impressive play in the first inning on a long flyout by Jose Ramirez. Turner covered over 112 feet according to StatCast and caught the ball on a full sprint just a step away from the right-center field wall. It was a difficult play and he made it look easy, registering a 97.8% efficiency score. Turner also made another catch at the warning track in the seventh inning. He displayed good instincts around the wall at a park he's never played before. 

That was the good. There was also some bad, including a mistimed dive attempt in the bottom of the eighth that resulted in a Jason Kipnis double. Turner dove while running in towards the infield, only to have the ball bounce in front of him and then over his head. Kipnis later scored on a double play ball hit by Mike Napoli.

Gio starts slow, rebounds: Tuesday will go down as another step in the right direction for Gonzalez, but it didn't start that way. He ran into major trouble in the first inning by throwing 13 balls in his first 17 pitches. That stretch included a leadoff walk to Rajai Davis and then a ground-rule double by Kipnis. Davis scored after that on a passed ball and Kipnis came home on a Carlos Santana sacrifice fly. Gonzalez barely got out of the first inning and was lucky only two runs came across.

After that, though, he was better. Gonzalez held the Indians scoreless for the next five innings before leaving in the seventh. He finished with three runs allowed (2 ER) on five hits, two walks and four strikeouts. The second earned run charged to Gonzalez came on a tough-luck play. Gonzalez exited after giving up a one-out double to Abraham Almonte. Almonte then scored on a Lonnie Chisenhall groundball hit against Blake Treinen that bounced off Rendon's glove and into center field.

Gonzalez has now allowed eight earned runs in his last four games across 24 innings since July began. That equals an even 3.00 ERA, which is solid considering his struggles through May and June.

Zimmerman returns: Zimmerman came back, but didn't carry over the momentum from his hot-hitting minor league rehab games. Zimmerman went 0-for-4 and left three men on base. That was in addition to his mistake in the field.

Scary moment: There was an unfortunate sequence in the first inning on Tuesday night, as a fan in the crowd at Progressive Field was hit in the face by a Daniel Murphy line drive. The 75-year-old woman was quickly rushed to the hospital, but it sounds like she suffered some serious facial injuries at the very least.

Up next: The Nats and Indians play the finale of their two-game interleague series with a 12:10 p.m. start on Wednesday afternoon. Stephen Strasburg (13-1, 2.83) will square off with right-hander Carlos Carrasco (7-3, 2.31).

[RELATED: Former Nats 1st rd. pick set to make MLB debut with Mets]

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