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Instant analysis: Nats 4, Phillies 2

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Instant analysis: Nats 4, Phillies 2

Game in a nutshell: After clinching the NL East title last night, Davey Johnson decided to rest nearly every regular and fielded a lineup more reminiscent of a split-squad Grapefruit League game than an early October game for a pennant contender. He also sat Gio Gonzalez and turned to his bullpen to churn out nine innings. And you know what? The Nationals still managed to win their 97th game of the season.

That puts them on the precipice of clinching the best record in the NL and the No. 1 seed for the playoffs. If the Reds lose to the Cardinals tonight, that race will be over. Otherwise, the Nationals will merely need to win tomorrow's season finale (or have the Reds lose) to ensure an NLDS showdown with the winner of Friday night's Wild Card game.

Hitting highlight: He's been Mr. Consistent all season for the Nationals, and in possibly his final game of the regular season -- if he's given tomorrow off -- Adam LaRoche delivered once again. The veteran first baseman drew a walk in the second, doubled and scored in the fourth and belted the go-ahead homer in the sixth. That was LaRoche's 33rd home run of the season (his new career-high) and produced his 100th RBI (matching his career-high). That blast drew a curtain call from the crowd of 33,546, which later serenaded LaRoche with chants of "MVP! MVP!" He won't be taking home any hardware this winter, but the mere fact it's mentioned is testament to his importance on this team all season.

Pitching highlight: By choosing to rest Gonzalez in advance of Game 1 of the NLDS, Johnson was left to use Johnny Wholestaff to pitch this game. First up was Tom Gorzelanny, making his first start since July 23, 2011.

The lefty delivered a solid performance, allowing one run over a 3 23 innings while throwing 65 pitches. Gorzelanny probably has the most thankless job on the pitching staff, but he's quietly done yeoman's work, posting a 2.88 ERA in 45 appearances.

His bullpen mates picked up right where he left off, with Christian Garcia, Zach Duke and Ryan Mattheus combining to toss 3 13 scoreless innings and set things up for the back end of the relief corps. Tyler Clippard did serve up a homer to brand-new Nat killer Darin Ruf, but Drew Storen closed out the ninth to cap a collective victory for the Nationals pitching staff.

Key stat: With a fifth-inning base hit to right, Bryce Harper raised his batting average to .270. That's up 22 points over his last 33 games.

Up next: Game 162 tomorrow afternoon starts at 1:05 p.m., with Edwin Jackson squaring off against Cliff Lee. Thus will conclude the Nationals' eighth regular season ... and commence their first-ever postseason.

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Former Nats 1st rd. pick set to make MLB debut with rival Mets

Former Nats 1st rd. pick set to make MLB debut with rival Mets

The Nationals have enjoyed some very good luck with their first round picks in recent years, from Bryce Harper to Stephen Strasburg to Anthony Rendon. Lucas Giolito is still in the very early stages of his MLB career, but looks like a future star.

That has not always been the case for Washington, though, as they swung and missed on plenty of draft picks before Mike Rizzo took over as GM. One of their busts was a left-handed pitcher named Josh Smoker, whom they took with the 31st overall pick in 2007.

Smoker never pitched for the Nats, but has finally reached the majors now nine years later. The New York Mets called him up on Tuesday for his long awaited MLB debut.

Smoker is now 27 and joins the Mets after posting a 4.73 ERA in 43 games at Triple-A Las Vegas. Last year he had a 3.12 ERA across three Mets affiliates.

With his numbers this year, it's hard to tell what type of impact he will make for the Mets in the majors. But if he sticks around, it could make for an interesting storyline in the Nats-Mets rivalry. 

[RELATED: State of the Nats: Turner's pickoff steal, Indians next]

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State of the Nats: Turner's pickoff steal, Indians next, Ross close?

State of the Nats: Turner's pickoff steal, Indians next, Ross close?

Team Record: 58-41

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Inside Trea Turner's pickoff steal - It's a good thing Monday was an off-day because Sunday's 10-6 Nats loss to the Padres featured plenty of moments worth highlighting. One of them was Trea Turner's fourth steal of the season.

It happened in the bottom of the seventh after Turner reached on a fielding error by shortstop Alexei Ramirez. Ramirez bobbled a ball that was hit right to him, perhaps a result of Turner's blinding speed. Once on first, Turner took a big lead with former Nats reliever Matt Thornton on the mound and with Jayson Werth at the plate. Thornton threw to first for a pickoff attempt and Turner took off. He reached second with a head first slide, but Wil Myers' throw didn't even make it a close call.

After the game Turner described the sequence and how he was able to pull off a play many could not accomplish.

"I figured [Thornton's move] would be somewhat slow. Wil is really athletic over there, but it's also I think his first or second year playing first base. So, he's still fairly new. I wanted to take a chance and try to get into scoring position. I did and it worked out. You have to account for all of those things. How quickly the first baseman throws and how quick the pickoff move is," Turner said.

Turner was given intel on Thornton's pickoff move and time to the plate. But Myers' inexperience at first base may have been the biggest factor.

"I may think twice if Adrian Gonzalez is over there. He's a lefty and a Gold Glover. Not to say that Wil is bad, but you've gotta take all of that into account," Turner said.

Will Ross be ready to face the Giants? - We know the Nats are likely to have Ryan Zimmerman and Sammy Solis back on Tuesday when they face the Indians, but what about starter Joe Ross? The right-hander remains on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation and hasn't started since July 2. But after making a rehab start with the Single-A Hagerstown Suns on Sunday, Ross looks close to returning. And given Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez didn't exactly dominate in their most recent showings, perhaps the Nats have some extra motivation to get Ross back into the mix.

Ross pitched three scoreless innings with Hagerstown and gave up only two hits with no walks. He struck out three and threw a total of 43 pitches, 29 of them strikes. The big question for him is whether the Nats think he has built enough arm strength to return to big league action. He threw 35 pitches in a bullpen session before throwing just 43 in them minors. That's a far cry from the 90-100 he may need to go in an MLB start. In an ideal scenario, they would probably like Ross to get one more rehab outing under his belt, one in which he works up to 75 or so pitches. But given their recent luck with spot starters, perhaps they decide to just roll with Ross instead.

Indians up next - Before the Nats go to San Francisco, they have a two-game series at the Cleveland Indians, the current owners of first place in the AL Central. It should be a good test of interleague play against a team that, despite having just been swept by the Orioles, has the best run differential in the American League.

Cleveland has been good at just about everything this season. They are sixth in the majors in run production and fifth in ERA. They are ninth in team OPS and sixth in OPS against. 

And though they are only playing two games in this series, the Nats will see both of the Indians' best pitchers. Danny Salazar will take the opener Tuesday night with his 2.75 ERA and 125 strikeouts in 111 1/3 innings. And Carlos Carrasco, who has a 2.31 ERA through 14 starts, will go in the second game. Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg will pitch in those matchups for Washington.

On offense, watch out for Francisco Lindor. At just 22 years old, he's one of the best players in baseball. A defensive mastermind, he also hits .303 and has 12 homers, 49 RBI and 68 runs this season. 

Familiar names Carlos Santana (21 HR, .838 OPS), Jason Kipnis (16 HR, .827 OPS), Mike Napoli (22 HR, 68 RBI) and Lonnie Chisenhall (.303 BA, .819 OPS) are also having very good years. And then there's former first round pick and AL Rookie of the Year candidate Tyler Naquin, who has a .321 batting average and 1.006 OPS in his first major league season.

The Indians look like World Series contenders and should prove a great barometer for where the Nats are right now. The series will also pit two of the game's best managers - Dusty Baker and Terry Francona - against each other.

NL East Standings

Offensive game of the week: Wilson Ramos 7/24 vs. Padres - 3-for-4, HR, 3 RBI, R

Pitching line of the week: Gio Gonzalez 7/20 vs. Dodgers - 6.0 IP, R, 3 H, 6 SO, 2 BB, 97 pitches (56 strikes)

Quote of the Week 

“My grandpa has a wooden leg and he'll tell you I got my speed from him. My mom will say the same thing. My dad says he was faster when he was younger, but I don't know if I believe that. Everyone likes to claim it, but I don't have any proof."

- Trea Turner to CSN on where he got his speed from

Tweet (or Instagram) of the Week

As the @therealdomingo would say, "this is how you impress the scouts" I love this game! #CurlyW

A photo posted by Bryce Harper (@bharper3407) on

Road Ahead

Mon. - OFF
Tue. - 7:10 p.m. at Cleveland Indians (Gonzalez vs. Salazar)
Wed. - 12:10 p.m. at Cleveland Indians (Strasburg vs. Carrasco)
Thu. - 10:15 p.m. at San Francisco Giants (Roark vs. Cueto)
Fri. - 10:15 p.m. at San Francisco Giants (Scherzer vs. Samardzija)
Sat. - 4:05 p.m. at San Francisco Giants (TBA vs. Peavy)
Sun. - 4:05 p.m. at San Francisco Giants (Gonzalez vs. Cain)

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Trea Turner is ready to step in and play center field for Nats if needed

Trea Turner is ready to step in and play center field for Nats if needed

With the expected return of first baseman Ryan Zimmerman on Tuesday, there will be some shuffling on the Nats roster, most notably with Trea Turner getting bumped from their infield.

Zimmerman, despite his .221/.284/.402 slash this year, is going right back into the starting lineup. He's a proven veteran, went 5-for-12 on his rehab assignment and manager Dusty Baker has already confirmed that plan, not that it needed to be done.

"I've got to get Zim back in the lineup. He’s a big part of our offense. And certainly, if I get Zim back in the lineup, that means [Daniel] Murphy is at second base," Baker said.

Turner will be out of the infield mix, but with Michael Taylor going back to Triple-A Syracuse, the door may be open for Turner to play some in the outfield. A lifelong middle infielder, Turner has been learning center field recently. He played six games there at Syracuse and has been doing outifled drills for several weeks now. 

Turner has shown in recent games the impact he can make offensively. He has 11 hits and four steals in his last nine games and in his last five outings alone has three triples and five runs. The Nats have seen the worst production of any team from their leadoff spot with a dead-last .586 OPS collectively. Taylor's now gone and Ben Revere's still hitting just .216 through 61 games.

"Now we've just got to try to find [Turner's] place with Zim coming back, find a place for him to play," Baker said.

If that is in center field, Turner feels ready to step in. 

"I did it in Syracuse and I'll do it here if they need me to," he said. "It's something that I've embraced, I guess. It's something that I'll do if they need me to. I'll continue to work out there whenever they give me the chance. On days I don't play, I go out there and shag some balls just to make sure I'm staying on top of it. It hasn't happened yet, but if it does I'll be ready."

Six games in Triple-A, of course, is not a lot of action at a brand new position. Whenever Turner does play in center field, there will be a learning curve and perhaps a noticeable drop-off from Revere. But Turner feels he did well in those six chances and can build off that experience.

"[I did] fine. I think I got a couple tough balls hit at me, line drives, and I made the right decisions at the time. I made all the plays that came to me. At the same time, I know it's not as easy as that. You've gotta play balls off the wall. In big league ballparks, it's going to be a lot different everywhere you go. Guys are a lot stronger, so they hit the ball a little bit farther. You've gotta take all that into account as well and learn," he said.

Baker himself has expressed confidence in Turner's ability to transition to the outfield. Earlier this month he offered a comparison to Robin Yount, a Hall of Famer who began his career as a shortstop before moving to center field. Yount won MVPs at both positions.

Zimmerman's return could simply mean Turner is heading back to the bench, ready to step in to give a Nats infielder a day off or wait for pinch-run opportunities. If that's the case, Turner believes he can still make an impact.

"Just keep it simple and do your job, whatever they ask," he said. "I'm still learning. I think you can always figure out ways to come off the bench and take advantage of those opportunities. If I have to do that, running is going to be a huge key. I think that's just a matter of stretching and paying attention by watching video on pitchers in case you get a stolen base opportunity, or whatever it may be."

[RELATED: For Giolito: 'It’s back to the drawing board']

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