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Harper's walk-off winner

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Harper's walk-off winner

He'd already had multiple opportunities to be the hero, in the bottom of the ninth and the bottom of the 11th. That Bryce Harper found himself with yet another chance to deliver for the Nationals in the bottom of the 12th was a remarkable twist of fate in a marathon ballgame that featured enough twists and turns to leave even the most ardent of roller coaster enthusiasts nauseous.

Harper had done something rare in his previous at-bat, chasing pitches from Mets rookie right-hander Elvin Ramirez well out of the zone and striking out to leave the winning run stranded on base. Now, one inning later, he had another opportunity against Ramirez, and he was determined not to waste this one.

"I've been pretty patient the whole time I've been up here, so for him to get me like that, I was pretty pissed off about that right there," Harper said. "I wasn't going to go up there and do the same thing."

The 19-year-old lived up to his promise. Though he fell behind in the count, Harper didn't let the moment get the best of him. He calmly poked Ramirez's 0-2 fastball into left field, bringing Jesus Flores home with the run that gave the Nationals a stirring, 7-6 victory and gave the phenom the first walk-off hit of his career.

And the first player to greet Harper near first base, leaping into his waiting arms? Ryan Zimmerman, a man who has been at the center of those scenes a few times in his career, having slugged eight walk-off home runs since 2006.

"Oh my gosh, that was unbelievable," Harper said. "Sharing that moment with Zim, I think, it was pretty unbelievable."

Zimmerman, in his usual deadpan style, explained his moment of jubilation.

"I was just so happy the game was over and we won," he said. "It could've been you out there and I would've done the same thing."

Harper, of course, is unlike you. Really, he's unlike just about anyone who has ever played this game. Already entrusted at 19 to help carry a first-place ballclub, he added another impressive tally to his ever-growing list of accomplishments: He became the first teenager to record a walk-off hit in the major leagues since Gary Sheffield did it for the Brewers on Sept. 9, 1988.

Not that the Nationals look at him as a teenager, or even as a rookie, anymore.

"He's a man-child," Michael Morse said. "He's unbelievable."

"The kid's a gamer," Ian Desmond said, adding to the superlatives being tossed around the postgame clubhouse. "He's unbelievable. One of the best players I've ever seen, to be honest."

Harper's two-out, bases-loaded single to left ended this game and ensured the Nationals would sit alone atop the NL East, but it would not have been possible if not for a string of clutch hits by his teammates prior to that point.

Three of them, incredibly, were delivered by Desmond, who thrice drove in the tying run over the game's final five innings.

Desmond's eighth-inning single brought Zimmerman home to make this a 4-4 game. His hard-hit ball to shortstop in the 10th -- a ball that ate up New York's Jordany Valdespin and resulted in his second error of a nightmare inning -- again brought Zimmerman home to make it a 5-5 game. And his double down the left-field line in the 12th brought Morse home to make it 6-6 and set the stage for a wild, wacky finish.

The key, in Desmond's mind, to all those clutch hits?

"I wasn't trying to win the game with a home run," he said. "I just wanted to score one run, just try to get the one in. I think that's a mistake that I've been making for a while: I would go up there and try to win the game instead of just hit."

The 12th-inning rally wasn't necessarily a work of art from the Nationals' perspective. It featured Jesus Flores drawing an intentional walk from Ramirez (who nearly threw one of those pitches to the backstop and allowed the winning run to score in that fashion). It featured Ross Detwiler (the last man standing in the bullpen) botching two bunt attempts and then drawing a walk to load the bases. It nearly was killed by Xavier Nady's grounder to first, which might have set off an inning-ending double play but instead led only to a force out at the plate.

And then it finally featured Harper's game-winner, leading to a mad celebration some 4 hours and 15 minutes after this game began, with a 19-year-old right in the middle of it all.

"He doesn't get caught up in the moment," Zimmerman said. "A lot of times it takes people some time to learn how to stay calm in those situations. Everyone's going to obviously not do it in those times, but for the most part for how young he is, he does a really good job."

The coolest part of it all for the rest of the Nationals? They know this won't be the last time they get to see Harper do this.

"It's awesome to see him learn and really just grow as a player right now," Detwiler said. "You know he's going to be in the same position he's in now in 10-15 years. It's pretty cool to see the beginning of it."

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Nats not ready to reveal playoff rotation, how Gio Gonzalez may fit in

Nats not ready to reveal playoff rotation, how Gio Gonzalez may fit in

Just because the Los Angeles Dodgers have released their playoff rotation plans for the NL Division Series, doesn't mean the Nationals are ready to do the same.

Manager Dusty Baker remained coy about who will start for the Nats opposite Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda. He doesn't see any reason to do so until he absolutely has to.

"Just because they did it doesn't mean we've gotta do it. Hey man, they can do what they want to do. I don't really see a point in releasing it so early," he said. "That's nobody's business right now. We'll tell you when we tell you."

[RELATED: Dodgers set rotation for playoff series against Nationals]

Okay, fair enough. We already know who will be pitching Game 1, barring something extraordinary. Max Scherzer will be getting the ball for that one. The same for Tanner Roark in Game 2.

Game 3 is where it gets interesting, though lefty Gio Gonzalez is emerging as the favorite there. GM Mike Rizzo dropped that hint on 106.7 The Fan on Wednesday morning. That would leave Joe Ross for Game 4, unless the Nats opt to pitch Scherzer on short rest, which they have indicated they don't want to do.

"It's probably no secret anyways, other than when you get past No. 2 and 3," Baker said. "Gio's penciled in anyway."

So, when will the Nationals announce their rotation? Technically, they can wait until next week, as playoff rosters don't have to be revealed until the morning of Game 1.

"We haven't talked about it yet. We have to talk about it as a staff before we let you guys know. We'll probably do that on Friday, then we'll let you know," Baker said.

Baker circled back to Gonzalez on Wednesday with the lefty set to make his final regular season start later that night. Gonzalez has reverted back to inconsistency with 14 earned runs allowed in 19 1/3 innings across his last four starts. That followed a stretch of 11 outings from the beginning of July through August where he had a 3.16 ERA.

Baker is preferring to look at Gonzalez with glass half-full optimism as the team enters the postseason.

"Let's not expect bad out of Gio. I'm expecting good out of Gio. I told him when the season started that he was the main key to this ballclub. I didn't know he would be the main key at this point in time coming into these playoffs, but Gio can put him and us on the map with the way he performs," he said.

Gonzalez does have a strong track record against the Dodgers, who happen to feature a lefty-heavy lineup. Gonzalez held them to one run through six innings back in July. And since 2012, he has eight runs in 32 innings against L.A. Certainly, Baker and the Nats would like some more of that.

[RELATED: Podcast: Can Nationals win without Wilson Ramos?]

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Harper and Murphy remain out, as Gio makes final playoff tuneup

Harper and Murphy remain out, as Gio makes final playoff tuneup

Nats (92-65) vs. Diamondbacks (65-92) at Nationals Park

The Nationals have reached their final five games of the regular season, which means each start made by their rotation will be that pitcher's final tuneup for the playoffs. On Wednesday, it's Gio Gonzalez (11-10, 4.51) on the mound making his final start before he likely pitches in Game 3 against the Dodgers. The lefty will be making his 32nd start of the season.

That is, of course, if weather permits. Heavy rain is in the forecast and Wednesday night's game could be affected by it. If Gonzalez can't pitch due to the weather, he will skip his start to attend Jose Fernandez' funeral in Florida.

Bryce Harper (thumb) and Daniel Murphy (buttock) remain out of the Nationals' lineup. Harper could have played, but the Nats want to play it safe on the wet field given what happened to Wilson Ramos on Monday.

First pitch: 7:05 p.m.
TV: MASN2
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Gio Gonzalez vs. Diamondbacks - Shelby Miller

NATS

2B Trea Turner
CF Ben Revere
3B Anthony Rendon
1B Clint Robinson
LF Jayson Werth
RF Brian Goodwin
SS Danny Espinosa
C Jose Lobaton
LHP Gio Gonzalez

DIAMONDBACKS

2B Jean Segura
SS Chris Owings
1B Paul Goldschmidt
C Welington Castillo
LF Brandon Drury
RF Yasmany Tomas
3B Jake Lamb
CF Mitch Haniger
RHP Shelby Miller

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