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Harper, Zim leading Nats' offensive surge

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Harper, Zim leading Nats' offensive surge

MIAMI -- Don't look now, but the Nationals are actually scoring runs in bunches. A lineup that not long ago featured more black holes than a Carl Sagan novel is starting to produce in a manner more befitting a first-place club.

Over the season's first 40 games, the Nationals averaged a scant 3.6 runs. Over their last eight games, they've raised that average to 5.2 runs.

So, what's been the biggest difference? It's not necessarily what you might expect. The Nationals aren't producing that many more hits (8.6 per game during this stretch vs. 8.2 during the season's first quarter). And they're actually reaching base with less frequency (posting a .314 on-base percentage during this stretch vs. a .315 mark prior to it).

No, the reason the Nationals are scoring more runs these days is that they're hitting for more power.

Through games 1-40, they averaged only 2.8 extra-base hits, a pretty paltry total. Since then, they're averaging 3.9 extra-base hits. That equates to nearly a 100-point increase in the team's slugging percentage and OPS.

Where's this sudden surge of power coming from? A lot of it is coming from the longest-tenured player on the roster and the least-tenured player on the roster.

Let's start with Ryan Zimmerman, whose first season since signing a 100 million contract extension hasn't exactly gone according to plan. Sidelined for two weeks with shoulder inflammation, Zimmerman was slow to get back on track. But he's been heating up over the last week-plus: In his last 10 games, he's hitting .318 with five extra-base hits and nine RBI.

"I'm starting to have better at-bats," Zimmerman said. "I'm hitting the ball harder; I'm not just slapping it around. I'm starting to feel good. And I think if I can continue to work and doing the things I've done for the last week and getting this thing (the shoulder) stronger, I think I can kind of take off from there."

Zimmerman admitted he's still getting his shoulder back to 100 percent. He's not in any kind of significant pain, but he continues to get daily treatment on it while trying to build the strength back up.

"Just like anyone, when you hurt something in the middle of the season, you can't give it the maximum time to get it to a point where you're able to play and you know you're not going to injure it by playing," he said. "So you just let it progress and then you continue to work and work and work. It's felt better week by week. As long as I continue to treat it and do the things that I've been doing to get it stronger, I think it's just going to get better and better."

Zimmerman isn't the only one producing more power at the plate. Bryce Harper has chimed in as well, especially since manager Davey Johnson moved him back to the No. 2 spot in his lineup.

Over his last eight games, Harper is batting a hefty .419 while slugging .742 thanks to a pair of triples and a pair of homers. He's recorded at least one hit in all eight of those games (two hits in five of them) and has scored 10 times during the span.

Guess who's been hitting behind Harper in the lineup and taking advantage of those RBI opportunities? Yes, the Face of the Franchise.

Obviously, this is only an eight-game stretch, and that's far too small a sample size to suggest we're seeing a long-term shift here.

But it's clear that the production of both Harper and Zimmerman, bolstered by the fact they're hitting back-to-back near the top of the lineup, has helped ignite what had been a sluggish Nationals lineup.

And with Harper gaining valuable experience by the day, Zimmerman strengthening his shoulder and seeing the ball better each day and Michael Morse drawing ever closer to his return from the disabled list, the Nationals have to feel encouraged about the promise of even more offense to come.

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NL East: Marlins pitcher hurts elbow day after getting traded from Padres

NL East: Marlins pitcher hurts elbow day after getting traded from Padres

MIAMI (AP) -- Right-hander Colin Rea injured his right elbow and left in the fourth inning of his first start with the Miami Marlins on Saturday after being acquired a day earlier from the San Diego Padres.

Rea struck out Jedd Gyorko to lead off the fourth inning, then immediately waved to the trainer. He has right elbow soreness and is considered day-to-day.

Rea pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing one hit and striking out four.

David Phelps relieved Rea with the Marlins leading the Cardinal s4-0.

Rea, right-hander Andrew Cashner and prospect Tayron Guerrero were acquired for right-handers Jarred Cosart and Carter Capps and two minor leaguers, pitcher Luis Castillo and first baseman Josh Naylor.

[RELATED: After Melancon trade, what do Nats do with Papelbon?]

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New Nats CL Melancon to call Papelbon: 'It says a lot about his character'

New Nats CL Melancon to call Papelbon: 'It says a lot about his character'

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- When Mike Rizzo and Dusty Baker called Mark Melancon on Saturday from the visiting clubhouse at AT&T Park, one thing that impressed them right away about their new All-Star closer is that he planned to immediately check in with Jonathan Papelbon.

"It says a lot about his character and makeup, and that was a big reason why he was such an attractive target to us," said Rizzo, Washington's general manager. "His performance level is great but his makeup and character are a lot of the reason that we went out and got him. That tells me he's team-first and Mark Melancon second."

Washington sent reliever Felipe Rivero and pitching prospect Taylor Hearn to the Pirates to acquire Melancon, who supplants the struggling Papelbon as Washington's closer. Rizzo and Baker also spoke to Papelbon, who made it clear he "wants to win," Baker said.

Melancon is expected to join the Nationals on Sunday for their series finale at San Francisco.

Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington tried to tell Melancon he had been traded. And tried. And tried.

"I felt bad because I missed his call three times because my phone was on silent, so I woke up to that," the reliever said after he awakened from his nap and learned of the deal.

A 31-year-old right-hander, Melancon has converted 30 of 33 saves with a 1.51 ERA this season and joins his fifth organization in eight years. He is making $9.65 million and is eligible for free agency after the World Series; as part of the swap, the Pirates will pay Washington $500,000 on Sept. 1.

Once considered a possible successor to Mariano Rivera when he broke into the majors with the New York Yankees in 2009, Melancon said during the All-Star break he knew a trade was possible, given his contract status.

The move comes as the Pirates find themselves on the fringe of the wild-card race. While general manager Neal Huntington stressed the team remains committed to reaching the playoffs for a fourth straight season, the opportunity to deal Melancon -- who led the majors with 51 saves in 2015 and had 33 in '14 -- for two young arms with friendly long-term contracts was too good to pass up.

Baker's bullpen is taxed.

"We're getting some reinforcements," he said of Melancon.

Rivero is under team control through 2021 and hit 100 mph on the radar gun regularly during an extended relief appearance against the Pirates this month. If Melancon left as a free agent, Pittsburgh would have received a high draft pick as compensation.

"We knew full well that holding Mark Melancon would have been a good return, but at the end of the day we felt this was a better return for us," Huntington said.

This was the well-traveled Melancon's fourth season in Pittsburgh after he also pitched for Houston, Boston and the Yankees.

He will move his family once more -- his wife and three kids.

"This has been a blast. Pittsburgh has a special place in heart. My family has been treated so well," Melancon said. "The experiences we've had, just running through my mind all the wild-card games, just big games that we've been in. From where we started, to where we are now, it is an honor. It is an honor to be a Pirate. We got to go through those experiences together. My teammates are my best friends."

Papelbon is 2-4 with a 4.41 ERA and has allowed eight runs and seven hits in his past three outing. Manager Dusty Baker wouldn't say earlier Saturday whether Papelbon still was his closer. Baker pulled Papelbon from a game Thursday in the ninth inning.

Rivero, a 25-year-old lefty, is 0-3 with a 4.53 ERA this season. Hearn is a 21-year-old lefty who was the Nationals' fifth-round pick in the 2015 amateur draft.

Pittsburgh will plug the 25-year-old Rivero into a seventh-inning role, with Neftali Feliz working the eighth and Tony Watson in the ninth. Watson was an All-Star in 2014 in a set-up role and will take over a position where Pittsburgh has enjoyed plenty of success during its rise from mediocrity. Each of its previous three closers: Melanon, Jason Grilli and Joel Hanrahan, made the All-Star team wearing black and gold.

Manager Clint Hurdle will miss Melancon but is confident in his bullpen options.

"I love the guy, love the family. Happy we had him. He helped us, I believe we helped him," Hurdle said. "We are not giving up anything, we aren't lowering the bar. We are not settling. Our organization made a baseball trade, with confidence that our bullpen is going to be in a good place. We are going to be able to compete this year, we are going to be able to add to our competition level in the years to come."

Huntington hinted the team may try to take the money it will save by not paying the remaining portion of Melancon's contract and use it before Monday's trade deadline. The Pirates need help in the starting rotation, which has been forced to turn to rookies Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow quickly as established players Jeff Locke, John Niese and Juan Nicasio faltered.

[RELATED: Nats may have gotten a steal with Melancon]

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Lopez struggles, Nats' bullpen cracks late in loss to Giants

Lopez struggles, Nats' bullpen cracks late in loss to Giants

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 5-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants on Saturday evening at AT&T Park.

How it happened: Mark Melancon can't join the Nationals soon enough.

On the same day the Nats pulled off a big trade for an upgrade at closer, it was their bullpen that failed them. Yusmeiro Petit allowed the go-ahead run on a sacrifice fly to Joe Panik in the bottom of the seventh inning. Panik killed the Nats in the 2014 NL Division Series and on Saturday he was the hero in a 5-3 Giants win.

The trouble, though, didn't stop there. After Petit left, Blake Treinen walked Trevor Brown with the bases loaded to score another run. That gave the Giants the comfort of a two-run lead. The Nats' bullpen had made things interesting in the first two games of their series at San Francisco and they finally cracked in the third matchup.

Rookie Reynaldo Lopez allowed the Giants' first three runs and only lasted four innings. Giants starter Jake Peavy also had a short day with three runs given up in four innings of work. 

Anthony Rendon launched a two-run homer in the third inning. Danny Espinosa landed an RBI double in the fourth. Trea Turner went 2-for-4 with a steal. Ryan Zimmerman continued to heat up with a single and a run. Jayson Werth extended his streak of reaching base end to 33 games on a bloop single in the eighth inning.

The Nats, though, went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. Three of those at-bats came in the first inning after Turner led off with a single, then stole to reach second. The Nats could not move him from there.

What it means: The Nationals had their three-game winning streak snapped with the loss and fell to 2-1 against the Giants this season. They sit 61-43 on the year.

Lopez struggles again: Lopez has all the tools to be a very good MLB pitcher, whether that's as a starter or a reliever, but through two outings he has not had much luck. In his debut against the Dodgers it was basehits that killed him. On Saturday, he couldn't command the strike zone and ended up with five walks in addition to four hits.

Lopez was better in his second start than he was in his debut, but still found trouble getting batters out. He escaped a major jam in the second inning when Eduardo Nunez popped out with the bases loaded. Lopez was not as fortunate in the bottom of the fourth when Nunez doubled with the bases juiced to score two runs. The other run off Lopez was on an Angel Pagan groundout in the same inning.

Joe Ross made another rehab start with Triple-A Syracuse on Saturday. If he is not ready to return to the Nats' rotation in five days, it will be interesting to see if they go back to Lopez or give Lucas Giolito another shot.

Caught stealing: The Nats had two runners caught stealing by Buster Posey. One was Ben Revere in the fifth inning with Hunter Strickland on the mound. The other was in the seventh with Sergio Romo pitching. Harper's was a tough one, as he led off the frame with a walk with the Nats looking to come back from a two-run deficit. The Nats right fielder had no chance against Posey, who easily threw him out on the attempt. Werth then singled two at-bats later, leaving the Nats only to wonder what could have been.

Rendon hits No. 13: Rendon has been the Nats' best hitter this month not named Daniel or Wilson, and the third baseman kept it going on Saturday with another big game. Rendon's homer was his 13th of the season and his sixth of July. Over his last 11 games, Rendon is 14-for-42 (.300) with four homers, eight RBI and six runs scored.

Up next: The Nats and Giants close out their series with another 4:05 p.m. start on Sunday. Gio Gonzalez (6-8, 4.44) will look to keep his positive momentum going opposite Matt Cain (2-6, 5.95).

[RELATED: After Melancon trade, what do Nats do with Papelbon?]

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