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Instant analysis: Nats 3, Dodgers 1

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Instant analysis: Nats 3, Dodgers 1

Game in a nutshell: The Nationals' 2012 season will extend to at least a 163rd game. And if you don't think that's significant, you don't fully appreciate the mostly sad history of Washington baseball. With a victory in the first half of today's doubleheader against the Dodgers, the Nats secured their 90th win of the season and lowered their magic number for clinching a playoff berth to 1. Another win tonight would officially secure at least the Wild Card, but even in the absolute, worst-case scenario, the Nationals know they could do no worse than tie for the final Wild Card berth and thus guarantee at least a tiebreaker game the day after the regular season ends. How did they pull off this victory? They got a quality start out of Jordan Zimmermann, even though the right-hander labored through much of his six innings. They scored three runs, even though none was plated via a base hit. And they got some shutdown work out of their bullpen, with Sean Burnett, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard recording some big outs down the stretch to secure the win that put the Nationals within one step of the postseason.

Hitting highlight: Who says you need to come through with clutch hits to produce runs? The Nationals disproved that theory in this game, scoring all three of their runs on outs. Kurt Suzuki lofted a sacrifice fly to bring home Michael Morse in the bottom of the second. Ryan Zimmerman scored Bryce Harper with a fifth-inning groundout to second base. And Tyler Moore tapped a slow roller to the right side in the sixth, bringing Ian Desmond home. The Nationals don't usually play "small ball," but in this case they showed some nice ability to produce productive outs, a skill that absolutely helped them earn their 90th win of the season.

Pitching highlight: He was by no means in peak form, but Zimmermann did manage to get the job done. The right-hander put eight of the first 16 batters he faced on base yet allowed only one run. He got better as his start progressed, and made some big pitches when he needed them, ultimately throwing 106 of them over his six innings. Zimmermann has struggled sometimes when working on extra rest, actually feeling too strong and thus losing the sink on his sinker. That might well have been the case today, because he was actually pitching on seven days' rest instead of the usual four, thanks to two off-days and last night's rainout. In the end, the Nationals happily took the quality start they got out of Zimmermann, who certainly needed one.

Key stat: Harper's fifth-inning triple represented his 49th extra-base hit of the season. That's now the most ever hit in a major-league season by a teenager.

Up next: Don't go anywhere, folks. Game 2 begins in 30 minutes. John Lannan takes the mound trying to improve to 4-0, with Josh Beckett hurling for the Dodgers.

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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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With Melancon in store, what do Nats do with Papelbon?

With Melancon in store, what do Nats do with Papelbon?

For the Nationals to bring in Jonathan Papelbon last July in a trade with the Phillies, he had to first waive the no-trade clause in his contract. He accepted the move to leave Philadelphia with the understanding he would be the closer in Washington. Drew Storen was moved to the eighth inning and, for a variety of reasons, the trade blew up in the Nationals' faces.

Now they have done the same to Papelbon. They traded for All-Star closer Mark Melancon on Saturday in order to solidify the ninth inning and Papelbon has been replaced.

The question now becomes not only what the Nats do with their embattled reliever, but also how he reacts. As evidenced by his comments last July right after he was traded to the Nationals, being a closer means a lot to him:

''For me I'm getting up there on the all-time closing list and that's important to me. When Theo (Epstein) had me as a young kid in Boston and he wanted to start to me and I said, `No, I'm a closer, that's what I want to be, and that's who I am.' This is what I envisioned. I envisioned chasing Mariano. I've told Mariano that at many All-Star games, `I'm coming after you.' So that's part of it," Papelbon said.

''Ego may be a part of it or whatever you want to say, but for me it's a path that I started 11 years ago and now I'm trying to do everything I can to continue that and win championships as a closer."

Until Papelbon speaks on the subject himself, there's no reason to believe he won't accept the demotion. And truthfully, there are plenty of reasons why he shouldn't have a problem with it.

For one, it is just for a few months. He is an impending free agent and will be able to seek a closer role with another team. If Papelbon turns his season around and becomes an effective setup man or seventh inning guy, he could be paid handsomely this winter.

Papelbon does also kind of owe the Nationals one, doesn't he? For all they put up with last year with the Bryce Harper incident and the suspension and contract grievance that followed, the Nationals have treated Papelbon much better than many teams would if presented the same circumstances. They brought him back this season as a reclamation project and until Saturday had shown plenty of patience with his actions both on and off the field.

Exactly how they will use Papelbon is unclear. Whether the Nats trust Papelbon more than other options like Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen and Sammy Solis is hard to tell. And whatever their plans are, the Nats may not outline them publicly, as manager Dusty Baker has been reluctant to discuss specific bullpen roles this season. 

A Papelbon-Melancon combination doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but the potential is there for a lethal eighth and ninth inning duo, if they choose to go that route. Both would bring experience and toughness to the pennant race and beyond.

Papelbon still provides value and the Nats can very much still use him. What they do and how he feels about it, though, are real questions at this point.

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

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