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Instant analysis: Cardinals 10, Nats 9

Instant analysis: Cardinals 10, Nats 9

Game in a nutshell: What should have been a fantastic pitchers' duel between two of the NL's best (Jordan Zimmermann and Kyle Lohse) instead turned into a wild slugfest filled with twists and turns. The Nationals stormed out to a 6-2 lead after two innings, but then Zimmermann gave all the runs back and more, putting the Cardinals up 8-6 after four. A three-run rally in the bottom of the sixth put the Nationals back on top, 9-8. But then Sean Burnett coughed up the lead in the eighth and left this a tie game. Drew Storen recorded a huge out to end that inning and was given a chance to return for the ninth. But a leadoff single to Allen Craig and then the inability to prevent Craig from stealing second cost the Nationals. David Freese's RBI single scored Craig, and when the Nats went down in the bottom of the ninth, they were handed a frustrating, 10-9 loss. On the bright side, the Braves lost again to the Phillies, so the lead in the NL East remains 6 12 games, with the magic number down to 24.

Hitting highlight: They stormed out the gates with six early runs, then were silenced and saw their lead disappear. But a sixth-inning rally got the Nationals back on top, with contributions from several players. Danny Espinosa got things started with his 15th homer of the season. Jayson Werth then kept things going with a two-out double to right. That forced Cardinals manager Mike Matheny into summoning lefty Mark Rzepczynski to face Bryce Harper. The rookie did his job, drawing a walk, and that forced Matheny to turn to Fernando Salas to face Ryan Zimmerman. Zim responded with a base hit to left, bringing home the tying run. Then he appeared to purposely get caught in a rundown, stalling things just long enough for Harper to come around and score the go-ahead run. A crazy finish to a big inning for the Nationals.

Pitching lowlight: What's going on with Zimmermann? It's a real question for the Nationals right now, because the right-hander hasn't looked right for a while now. He was ambushed for a career-high eight runs in only 3 23 innings today, serving up two towering homers and losing his location during a laborious fourth inning he couldn't even finish. If this was just one blip on the radar, it wouldn't be cause for concern. But this has become a disturbing trend. After posting a 2.28 ERA over his first 21 starts this season, Zimmermann's ERA over his last six outings is now 6.16. Is there a problem with his shoulder? His velocity has been strong throughout this stretch. Whatever the reason, the Nationals have to hope their presumed playoff ace can figure things out, stat.

Key stat: The Nationals are the only MLB team to post a winning record in each of the season's first five months: April (14-8), May (15-13), June (15-10), July (17-9), August (19-10).

Up next: The series concludes with Stephen Strasburg on the mound for one of his final starts of the season. Veteran Jake Westbrook gets the nod for the Cardinals in the 1:35 p.m. contest.

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Nationals rally against Rivero, beat Pirates 10-7

Nationals rally against Rivero, beat Pirates 10-7

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The tag was clearly fake. What happened next was all too real for the NL East champion Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper got hurt and needs X-rays.

Harper injured his left thumb making an awkward slide to avoid a pretend tag by Pittsburgh third baseman Jung Ho Kang, and the teams later cleared the benches Sunday in Washington's 10-7 win.

Nationals manager Dusty Baker said Harper was "sore" and would have X-rays on Monday. The reigning NL MVP had surgery to repair a torn ligament in the same thumb in 2014.

Harper led off the third inning with a triple. As he neared third, Kang acted as if a throw was coming and feigned a tag.

Harper went down, was checked by a trainer and stayed in. He scored on Anthony Rendon's double and was replaced in the field in the bottom half by Chris Heisey.

Kang insisted he merely intended to keep Harper from scoring when right fielder Josh Bell's throw was way off line.

"First of all, I meant no harm," Kang said through a translator. "During the relay play, I tried to hold the runner on third base. That's all I tried to do."

The next time Kang came up, Nationals starter A.J. Cole threw a fastball behind him and was immediately ejected by plate umpire Jordan Baker as the benches emptied.

Cole said he was trying to pitch inside to Kang. Baker said the entire situation wasn't ideal for a team that is focusing on a playoff run.

"We don't want guys suspended," Baker said. "But you know, boys will be boys, and you've still got to defend your teammates."

Washington's Jayson Werth was in the middle of the skirmish. Pirates outfielder Sean Rodriguez was ejected.

"I was very surprised I was the only one ejected considering," Rodriguez said. "I got blamed for being the one that instigated, but you can watch the film yourself."

Werth had a pinch-hit, two-run homer and Heisey had a go-ahead single during a five-run burst in the eighth. The Nationals' rally came against former teammate Felipe Rivero (1-5).

Rivero had allowed just four earned runs in his previous 25 innings since being traded from Washington to the Pirates.

Kang hit a two-run homer off Koda Glover to give the Pirates the lead in the seventh.

Shawn Kelley (3-2) wound up with the win. Former Pirates closer Mark Melancon pitched a scoreless ninth for his 43rd save.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Pirates: C Francisco Cervelli did not play after taking a foul ball off his wrist Saturday. ... RHP Neftali Feliz (arm) threw off flat ground but is not yet ready for a return to the mound.

UP NEXT

Nationals: Tanner Roark (15-9 2.70 ERA) had his start pushed back one day after the Nationals clinched the NL East on Saturday night. He'll looking for his career-best 16th win as Washington hosts Arizona for a four-game series.

Pirates: Chad Kuhl (5-3, 3.73 ERA) will start as Pittsburgh begins a four-game series against the NL Central champion Chicago Cubs. Kuhl has allowed seven earned runs in 7 1/3 innings in his two previous starts against Chicago this season.

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Benches clear in confrontation between Nats and Pirates

Benches clear in confrontation between Nats and Pirates

With the division title clinched the night before, it seemed the Nationals were poised for an uneventful series finale against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday afternoon. 

That wasn't to be, as the two clubs engaged in a benches clearing altercation in the bottom of the third inning. The tension started in the top of the frame, when Bryce Harper was injured while sliding to third base on a triple. The Nats took exception to Pirates third baseman Jung-ho Kang faking a tag on Harper, which may have led to the injury. 

So when Nats starter A.J. Cole threw behind Kang in the bottom of the inning, the near-fracas was ignited.

Cole was immediately ejected from the game, benches cleared, and each side exchanged words. The Pirates' Sean Rodriguez was also ejected from the game.