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.

Barrage of homers lead Nats past Cardinals in series finale

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Barrage of homers lead Nats past Cardinals in series finale

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 10-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park.

How it happened: Sometimes in baseball all it takes is a second look at a pitcher and on Sunday the difference between the Nationals' first run through the lineup and their second against Cardinals starter Michael Wacha was quite significant.

For the first three innings, the Nats were held hitless, the only baserunner earned on a walk to Wilson Ramos. But then in the fourth, things quickly devolved for Wacha. The Cardinals right-hander gave up two hits to lead off the frame, the second to score a run. He then allowed a two-RBI single to Ramos with two outs.

The three runs in the fourth off Wacha gave them the lead, but a five-run seventh inning put this one on ice for the Nationals. Anthony Rendon led off with a solo homer and Jayson Werth cleaned up the rest with a pinch-hit grand slam. It was Werth's sixth career grand slam and his first ever as a pinch-hitter. It was also just the second pinch-hit grand slam in Nats' history following Justin Maxwell's in September of 2007. You don't see them very often.

Ramos then added a two-run homer in the eighth to make it 10-2. It was Ramos' third hit of the day.

Ten runs were more than enough help for Stephen Strasburg and the Nats' bullpen. Strasburg gave up one run on a homer to Brandon Moss, but otherwise limited damage throughout the afternoon with six hits and two walks spread across six strong innings. Strasburg now has the best start in franchise history at 9-0.

The Nats' bullpen ran into some trouble in the seventh with a bases-loaded jam with one out, but Felipe Rivero escaped the frame with just one run allowed and a lead intact. The run came on a sac fly by Matt Adams, but all things considered, it could have been much, much worse. 

What it means: The Nationals closed their homestand on a positive note as they get set for an 11-day road trip, which is tied for the longest one they have this season. They also finished their season series against the Cardinals with a 5-2 record. That's a nice change of course after they went 8-18 against them from 2012 through 2015.

Rendon smacks homer No. 4: Rendon added an insurance run in the eighth inning with a solo home run to right field on the first pitch he saw from reliever Jonathan Broxton. After having zero homers in April, Rendon has four this month. He has reached safely in 20 of his last 22 games. In 18 games going back to May 10, Rendon is 24-for-63 (.381) with two homers, six doubles, a triple, 10 RBI, 12 walks, 11 runs and three steals. He posted his 10th multi-hit outing of that 18-game stretch. Even taking Saturday night off did not cool him down.

Ramos hits No. 6: Ramos reached base four times on Sunday with a walk and three hits in three at-bats. He hit a two-run bomb to left field in the eighth inning, his sixth homer of the season. Ramos is now batting .336 through 40 games this season.

Zimmerman gets another XBH: After going 4-for-4 with two homers on Saturday night, Zimmerman notched another extra-base hit on Sunday with his double in the fourth inning. Zimmerman now has 10 doubles on the season and 14 extra-base hits in May after posting just four in April. The problem for Zimmerman has been consistency this season in putting together more than two solid games in a row. Just last week he had two hits in consecutive games on May 23-24, then went hitless in four straight outings. On May 10 he had two homers, but that was during a stretch where he went 5-for-37 across nine games. It has truly been feast or famine for the Nats' first baseman this season.

Harper drives in a run: Harper's RBI single to score Michael Taylor in the fourth inning gave him his fourth straight game with a hit. He also has an RBI in five of his last eight games despite only having four hits during that stretch. Harper has scored a run in four straight outings. Overall, though, it was another frustrating day for Harper, who went 1-for-4 with a strikeout. After he popped out in the sixth, he was shown on a television replay chucking his batting helmet in the dugout.

Strasburg left in, then pulled: Strasburg's exit after six innings was part of some creative managing for Dusty Baker. He sent Strasburg out to start the seventh after 104 pitches, but then brought in Oliver Perez before Strasburg even threw a pitch in the inning. He called on Perez once Cardinals manager Mike Matheny brought in Kolten Wong as a pinch-hitter. And once Matheny saw Perez come in, he replaced Wong with Aledmys Diaz to pinch-hit. There was a pitching change and two pinch-hitters inserted into the game all before a single pitch was thrown. The Nats, by the way, have now won all 11 of Strasburg's starts this season and 15 in a row dating back to 2015.

Up next: The Nats embark on a long road trip beginning with three games in Philly. They play three at the Phillies, then three at the Reds and White Sox. Monday night will be a 7:05 p.m. start with Tanner Roark (3-4, 2.71) set to pitch opposite Phillies right-hander Jeremy Hellickson (4-3, 3.97).

Cardinals manager Matheny on pitching to Bryce Harper

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Cardinals manager Matheny on pitching to Bryce Harper

Atop the majors with a 23.4 walk percentage, Bryce Harper is being pitched around more often than anyone this season. Both that approach from opposing teams and his struggles with not getting pitches to hit have been well-documented.

The St. Louis Cardinals, however, have been an outlier this season when it comes to how they've handled Harper. He's only walked twice in 25 plate appearances against them. That's an eight percent walk rate, about a third of his season average. He's struck out in 32 percent of his PAs against the Cardinals (8 SO in 25 PA) - much higher than his 18 percent season average - and is batting just .130 through six games vs. the Cards. Only the Mets have held him to a lower OPS than the .591 mark he has against St. Louis.

The Cardinals have been pitching to Harper and it hasn't hurt them all that much. He has three hits in six games and two are homers, but both were solo shots.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny spoke about the team's approach to Harper this weekend.

"Typically, a solo home run shouldn't beat you," Matheny said. "We do pitch him carefully. We have in the past and we'll continue to. A lot of it has to do with how he's swinging at the time and what the matchups look like and who's hitting around him. All that goes into the decision."

"We've had a little success against him, not that that's always going to continue because he's a good hitter, but when we had him at home we were pitching him tough and we were able to get outs. When you're able to do that, you try to stick with the approach that's working."

A 13-year MLB veteran before he went into coaching, Matheny was a catcher during the days of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and then when Barry Bonds was setting records with the San Francisco Giants.

Matheny knows there comes a time when hitters can get so hot there is just no point in pitching to them.

"Who's a guy we want to stay away from, is there somebody in the lineup you don't want to beat you and is there enough depth to where you can't do that?… Bonds had good players around him, but when he was hot there were just times where he just wasn't going to [allowed to] beat you. I could see Harper being viewed the same way," Matheny said.

"There were times in Barry Bonds' career was the best player on the planet and you couldn't get him out… There were times when Sammy was the hottest hitter in baseball and you just weren't going to let him beat you. I don't care who was hitting behind him. This kid, obviously he can be included in those kinds of conversations."

Ben Standig contributed to this report

Nats' Belisle feels ready, but not quite done with rehab games

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Nats' Belisle feels ready, but not quite done with rehab games

Fresh off three rehab appearances with the Single-A Potomac Nationals, the next stop for Nats reliever Matt Belisle is likely to be Double-A Harrisburg. Belisle expects to pitch two innings there on Tuesday before the team can determine his next step.

Belisle pitched two innings on Saturday night with the P-Nats and allowed two earned runs on four hits with three strikeouts. He feels like he could return now if needed, but it's not up to him.

"I'm ready," the 35-year-old said. "I feel great with the calf. I'm doing everything I can. The therapist and everybody have said I'm good to go. I'm ready to rock."

Belisle has been on the disabled list since April 27 with a right calf strain. The two runs he gave up on Saturday are the only ones he's allowed in four innings on his rehab assigment. He allowed six hits and struck out five in those games.

Belisle made seven appearances with the Nationals before injuring himself fielding a groundball against the Phillies on April 27. He says he feels good both physically and in terms of his performance on the mound.

"I never took off. I was pitching off the mound and doing side sessions quite a bit. I guess when you get up you lose a little bit of feel, but it's not like coming in and starting all over again," he explained. 

"I've done this a few times before. How you play catch is a big and important factor. The more action you get, the better… You need to step in ready to fire and go."