Instant analysis: Braves 5, Nats 1

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Instant analysis: Braves 5, Nats 1

Game in a nutshell: The Nationals entered the weekend hoping to deliver a knockout punch to the Braves but knowing they'd still find themselves in great shape if they could just win one of three games. After dropping the first two by one run a piece, they suddenly found themselves in a must-win situation on Sunday Night Baseball. They couldn't get the job done. Gio Gonzalez labored his way through five-plus innings and departed without a chance to earn his 20th win. The previously red-hot lineup was again thwarted by Atlanta's pitching staff, starting with left-hander Mike Minor. And the Nats' bullpen and defense betrayed them late, allowed three insurance runs in the bottom of the seventh despite the Braves recording only one hit in the inning. All of a sudden, their 8 12-game lead is down to 5 12. With only 16 games to play, they're still in a highly advantageous position. But the division title won't come so easy anymore. And should these two teams meet again in October, the Braves will feel plenty confident about their chances to win a head-to-head series.

Hitting lowlight: They didn't give themselves many opportunities, but they squandered what few they had. Never was that more apparent than in the top of the fourth, when with two on and one out, Danny Espinosa stepped to the plate and grounded into a 6-4-3 double play on the first pitch he saw from Minor. That actually proved to be one of Espinosa's more productive at-bats of the series, if only because he made contact. After making a quick, cross-country trip to Arizona for his grandmother's funeral on Thursday, he looked completely out of sync at the plate this weekend. Espinosa's final batting line for the series: 0-for-11, nine strikeouts, one double play grounded into, one pop-out.

Pitching lowlight: With a chance to become the majors' first 20-game winner -- and to do it on a national stage -- Gonzalez labored from the start and couldn't recover until it was too late. He fell behind hitters, then watched as the Braves fouled off everything in sight. The left-hander went to a three-ball count on eight of the first 14 hitters he faced, walking three of them. He needed 83 pitches to complete three innings, and at that point it looked like he might not even complete the minimum five innings required to qualify for the win. Then a couple of 1-2-3 frames got Gonzalez back on track and left him at 103 pitches entering the sixth. Davey Johnson could have been satisfied with that but he decided to give his starter one more chance. That proved costly, because Gonzalez opened the sixth with a walk and a towering double, ultimately getting the hook after that.

Key stat: There have been 21 20-win seasons in Washington baseball history. Twelve of them were recorded by Walter Johnson between 1910-25.

Up next: After a late-night flight home, the Nationals will enjoy a day off before opening a three-game series against the wild-card-contending Dodgers. Right-handers Jordan Zimmermann and Aaron Harang are scheduled to start Tuesday's opener at 7:05 p.m.

Ross dominates, Nats hit four homers in win over Phillies

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Ross dominates, Nats hit four homers in win over Phillies

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 5-1 win over the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park.

How it happened: Daniel Murphy wasn't signed by the Nationals to be a home run hitter, but that's exactly what he's become through two months of the 2016 season. And after his power surge last October, maybe we shouldn't be surprised. Murphy has looked like a completely different player since late last fall and the Nats are now gladly reaping the benefits.

Murphy homered for the second straight night on Tuesday in the Nationals' 5-1 win over the Phillies. That capped off the best month of his career and one of the best months in franchise history.

Jayson Werth, Danny Espinosa and Stephen Drew also homered, and Joe Ross turned in seven strong innings as the Nationals moved to 4-4 against the Phillies on the season.

What it means: Winners of three straight, the Nationals moved to 32-21 on the season Tuesday night. They now have a chance on Wednesday to win four in a row for the first time since April 29-May 2. They can also get their first sweep since they beat the Cardinals three times in a row April 29-May 1. A sweep of the Phillies would put them 12 games above .500 for the first time this season.

Danny Ballgame does it again: Murphy's homer was his ninth of the season and his seventh in the month of May alone. The only time Murphy has hit seven homers in one month was last October during his postseason tear with the Mets. Murphy is now on pace to club 27 home runs this season. Over his last 81 games played - including the 2015 postseason - Murphy has hit 20 homers, 59 RBI and a .366 batting average. That's not quite his .394 average for this year, but it's pretty darn good for what equates to half an MLB season.

Murphy ties franchise record: Murphy also reached on a single in the eighth for his 47th hit in the month of May. That tied a Nats/Expos franchise record for hits in a month. Al Oliver did it in August of 1982 and Marquis Grissom accomplished the feat in June of 1994, both with the Expos of course. Murphy now has 26 multi-hit games in 51 total outings this season. He gets multi-hit games more often than he doesn't. Murphy, by the way, is now batting .397 and we're officially two months into the season.

Ross keeps rolling: Ross was dominant through seven innings of one run ball with three hits and two walks allowed. The right-hander now has a 2.37 ERA on the season, which is best on the Nats and 10th-lowest in the majors. This was the second straight outing for Ross where he went seven innings and only allowed one run. The lone score the Phillies got off him was on an RBI triple by Cesar Hernandez in the third. Hernandez scored Lough all the way from first and it was on a line drive to right-center that may have been fielded by Ben Revere if the Nats had not been in an outfield shift. 

Werth also homers: Werth hit his eighth homer of the season and his second in the last three games. It was a solo shot that put the Nationals up 1-0 in the first inning. It was Werth's second homer off Nola, as he also got him on Sept. 14 of last year. 

Up next: The Nationals and Phillies close their three-game series with a 7:05 p.m. first pitch on Wednesday night. Max Scherzer (5-4, 4.05) will get the start for the Nats opposite Phillies lefty Adam Morgan (1-3, 6.67).

NL East: For one day, Harvey silences critics with dominant outing

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NL East: For one day, Harvey silences critics with dominant outing

In New York, where your every move is dissected to a T by fans and media, achieving and maintaining sports stardom can be difficult to do. Just ask Matt Harvey, who went from being the toast of the town while helping the Mets to the World Series last October to having his ability (and character) roundly criticized after his rough start to the 2016 season. And after he lost back-to-back outings against the Nationals recently, it seemed like he had reached rock bottom. 

But for one outing, the man known as "The Dark Knight" managed to silence his critics with a vintage performance against the Chicago White Sox on Memorial Day. He allowed just two hits over seven shutout frames, striking out six and issuing just one walk in the Mets' 1-0 win. The victory raised his record to 4-7 and lowered his ERA to 5.37. 

And unlike his previous start, he addressed the media after the game. Per MLB.com: 

"There's a lot of emotion....It's been a while.…The idea is to do everything you can to help the team, and I felt like I wasn't doing that very well. Today, to be able to go out in a one-run ballgame like that and be able to put up zeros, was very exciting."

The difference for Harvey on Monday was establishing his dominant fastball that had been missing for most of the first two months of the season. His heater was clocked as high as 98 mph, a marked improvement over his previous starts. 

Harvey was considered a hero in 2015, his first full campaign post-Tommy John surgery, as he pitched a total of 216 innings between the regular season and the playoffs. No pitcher had ever thrown that many innings in the first season following the procedure. And it's precisely that fact that many have pointed to when discussing whether or not the 27-year-old right hander is still feeling the effects from last year's overuse. 

So will Harvey return to form? Can he reclaim his status at the Mets ace? It's too early to tell, but Monday's outing was the first that provided a light at the end of the tunnel. Just don't expect the circus to end anytime soon.  

"I think it's a first step," Harvey said. "Obviously, this isn't going to mean anything unless I continue to do this and stay with what we've been working on. It's a work in progress, but I'm happy that I was able to go out there, feel comfortable in my mechanics and get the job done."

Bryce Harper out of Nats lineup day after getting hit vs. Phillies

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Bryce Harper out of Nats lineup day after getting hit vs. Phillies

Nats (31-21) vs. Phillies (26-25) at Citizens Bank Park

Fresh off their comeback victory on Monday night, the Nationals will look to make it three straight wins overall as the continue their series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Bryce Harper is out of the Nationals' lineup on Tuesday after he took a pitch off his right leg on Monday night. Harper was diagnosed with a contusion on his right leg and, as of last night, was considered day-to-day according to what manager Dusty Baker told reporters in Philly.

Pitching for the Nats will be Joe Ross (4-4, 2.52) in his 10th start of the season. He's coming off a strong performance of seven innings and just one earned run against the Cardinals. Ross saw the Phillies back on April 15 and tossed 7 2/3 scoreless frames in a Nationals win.

Former seventh overall pick Aaron Nola (4-3, 2.86) will take the mound for Philly. He's faced the Nats twice this season, once allowing seven earned runs in five innings on April 16 and then the other time going seven shutout frames in a Phillies win on April 28.

First pitch: 7:05 p.m.
TV: MASN2
Radio: 106.7 The Fan, XM 869
Starting pitchers: Nats - Joe Ross vs. Phillies - Aaron Nola

NATS

CF Ben Revere
RF Jayson Werth
2B Daniel Murphy
1B Ryan Zimmerman
LF Clint Robinson
3B Anthony Rendon
C Wilson Ramos
SS Danny Espinosa
RHP Joe Ross

PHILLIES

CF Odubel Herrera
SS Freddy Galvis
3B Maikel Franco
C Cameron Rupp
1B Ryan Howard
LF Tyler Goeddel
RF David Lough
2B Cesar Hernandez
RHP Aaron Nola

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