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Heated words, but no rift between Johnson and Rizzo

Heated words, but no rift between Johnson and Rizzo

Read as much (or as little) as you want into Davey Johnson's animated discussion with Mike Rizzo following yesterday's 4-1 loss in Philadelphia, but know this: There's no rift between the Nationals manager and general manager, not even close to one.

What happened? About five minutes after the game at Citizens Bank Park ended, the clubhouse was opened to reporters, and we made our way toward Johnson's office for his usual postgame session.

Before entering the room, though, we heard Johnson loudly exclaim to someone: "Why don't you come down here and manage this team!" At which point Nationals PR director John Dever asked all of us to head back outside the clubhouse.

About 10 minutes later, we were allowed back in, at which point Johnson answered questions in a manner not all that different after any other loss this season. Johnson also acknowledged it was Rizzo who was in his office.

It all sounds like juicy and salacious stuff, because it's the kind of outburst that rarely takes place within earshot of reporters. But that's the key point: This stuff rarely takes place within earshot of reporters. That doesn't mean it doesn't take place when reporters are nowhere in sight.

Do you honestly think Johnson and Rizzo have never gotten into an argument before? Do you know anything about these two men? Each is an emotional, competitive, baseball lifer with strong opinions and supreme confidence in how he performs his job. Frankly, it would be more concerning if they never raised their voice at each other.

Don't, however, mistake the occasional raised voice a sign of animosity between the two. The level of respect Rizzo has for Johnson and vice versa is as strong as you'll find between any manager and GM in baseball. They've each got opinions on a lot of matters, and they're not afraid to make those opinions known, but they're on the same page when it comes to the big picture.

Maybe it's because the Nationals have cruised along all season without any hint of adversity, occupying first place in the NL East for all but 10 days over the last five months, but we tend to forget a baseball season is full of emotional highs and lows. The Nats have done a remarkable job staying even-keeled through it all, not getting excited over winning streaks, not getting demoralized over losing streaks.

But that doesn't mean these guys don't have emotions. That doesn't mean they don't get upset when something bad happens, whether it's tossing over a bat rack after striking out or knocking over a clubhouse chair after giving up a run.

These aren't robots.

Blowing off a little steam at the right moment never hurt anyone. The only concern is when it happens too frequently or over insignificant matters.

What happened after yesterday's game falls under the first category. A GM frustrated by a lackluster performance that extended his team's losing streak to four games said something that set off his manager.

Ever been frustrated with your boss and raised your voice?

Davey Johnson certainly has. This is a guy who throughout his managerial career has been known to clash with superiors. He's also been known to win a whole lot of games. Johnson has taken five teams to the postseason. It's probably safe to say he got into an argument with his boss at least one in each of those five playoff runs.

The 2012 Nationals haven't made the playoffs yet. They've got 35 games remaining to protect their 4 12-game lead over the Braves for the NL East title and their 8 12-game lead for the NL's final wild-card berth.

It's still unlikely this team collapses and doesn't get there. But if that somehow happens, it won't be because its manager raised his voice to his GM after one late-August game in Philadelphia.

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Nats weight home field advantage against staying healthy as playoffs near

Nats weight home field advantage against staying healthy as playoffs near

Though they’re still fighting for home field advantage in next week’s division series, the Nationals understand they’re in a strange part of their season.  

Sure, playoff seeding is plenty important. These last regular season games count, et cetera et cetera. But Washington already clinched the NL East title, and already knows its playoff opponent is going to be the Los Angeles Dodgers. So it’s not a surprise that players are willing to admit how difficult it can be to keep their foot on the gas pedal these days.

“Once you win the division, there’s that exhale, that sigh of relief,” said Jayson Werth after Friday night’s 7-4 loss to the Miami Marlins.”..You kind of let off the throttle a little bit.”

And when a team takes that approach, health becomes the top priority. It’s a mindset that was on full display Friday night when Werth was removed from the game in the seventh inning as a precaution due to back and side tightness.

 “We can't afford to lose anybody else,” manager Dusty Baker said. “So we decided that, it was wet, on the chilly side, and I decided I couldn't take a chance on him being injured too.”

Werth said that team trainers ruled out a strain or a pull, and that he’d be surprised if he wasn’t in the lineup on Saturday afternoon.  

Still, any injury the Nats suffer this time of the year feels magnified, especially given the last week: Bryce Harper jammed his left thumb, Wilson Ramos tore his ACL and Daniel Murphy was shut down until the playoffs with a glute strain. Not to mention that Stephen Strasburg will likely miss the club’s entire October run.

“The biggest thing is right now is to get everybody healthy for the postseason,” Stephen Drew said. “I think that's key. We got some guys out and hopefully we'll be ready for the playoffs.”

So while every team says it’d like to head into the postseason firing on all cylinders, the Nats’ case shows that it’s not always realistic. Bottling up momentum and carrying into the biggest games of the year is the ideal, of course. But sometimes heading into the tournament with all your horses in tact works too — seeding be damned.

“Obviously home field advantage is important to us, and we want that,” Werth said. “But at the same time, we also feel like we’ve done our job a little bit. So there’s a balance there.....you don’t want to do something where you can put yourself in jeopardy, where you can really get hurt.”

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Cole struggles early, bullpen cracks late as Nats fall to Marlins

Cole struggles early, bullpen cracks late as Nats fall to Marlins

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 7-4 loss over the Miami Marlins on Friday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: If the Nationals want to sew up home field advantage in their first playoff series, they still have more work to do — and only have two more games to do it.

The Nats were unable to help their cause Friday night, falling to the Marlins 7-4 in a rain-soaked affair that began nearly two hours after its scheduled start time.  

While the offense couldn’t come through late, it was starter A.J. Cole that put the Nats in a bind in this one. The 24-year-old rookie right hander forcing Dusty Baker to go to his bullpen early after yielding four runs (two earned) on six hits in just three innings of work.

But all it took was one inning for the Nats to even things up. Anthony Rendon and Stephen Drew opened the fourth with back-to-back solo home runs, and RBI hits by Jose Lobaton and Trea Turner make it 4-4 heading into the fifth.

The bullpen subsequently cracked, however, yielding a runs in the sixth, seventh and ninth innings to give the Marlins a 7-4 edge. The offense couldn’t mount a late rally, and that was all she wrote.

What it means: The magic number for home field advantage in the NLDS remains at two. As of this post, the Dodgers have yet to complete their game against the Giants, so there’s still a chance it could fall to one by Saturday morning.

Rendon reaches homer milestone: With his fourth-inning solo shot, Rendon became the latest Nats hitter join the 20 home run club. In fact, the Nats tied the 1965 and 2003 Braves as the only National League clubs with six players with 20-plus long balls in a season. (Interestingly enough, the Cardinals mathed that feat the Nats later in night after a Matt Holliday home run.)

But back to Rendon: For all the talk that the Nats offense sans Wilson Ramos will suffer, remember that Rendon has been one of the team’s best hitters since the All-Star break. Since then, he’s notched 11 homers, 20 doubles and 51 RBI. In other words, he’s fully returned to his ‘Tony Two-Bags’ form of 2014.

More accolades for Turner: D.C.’s favorite rookie had another one of his patented performances Friday night, going 2-for-3 with an RBI single, a triple and two stolen bases. He became the fourth player in MLB history to notch 10 home runs and 30 steals in less than 100 games, joining Rickey Henderson, Bobby Bonds and current Nats first base coach Davey Lopes. Since the break, he leads the team in both extra-base hits and steals. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Harper struggles: In his first game back since injuring his left thumb, Bryce Harper looked looked very much like a hitter trying to regain his timing at the plate. In four at-bats, he struck out four times — three of them swinging. It’s just one game, of course, but he and the Nats are quickly running out of time to rev up for October.

Up next: The Nats will continue their quest to gain home field advantage in the middle game of this three-game set. Washington will send Tanner Roark (15-10, 2.86 ERA) to the hill to oppose Marlins lefty Wei-Yin Chen (5-4, 5.02 ERA).