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Instant Analysis: Nats 5, Mets 3

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Instant Analysis: Nats 5, Mets 3

Game in a nutshell: A prime pitching matchup between Jordan Zimmermann and R.A. Dickey lived up to the billing; even though Zimmermann labored through much of his five innings, he managed to allow only two runs and keep the game close. Dickey, meanwhile, thoroughly dominated the Nationals through six innings, his only blemish to that point a manufactured first-inning run. But then Tyler Moore came up to pinch-hit in the top of the seventh and crushed a game-turning homer, giving the Nats the lead. Kurt Suzuki and Bryce Harper (career-high four hits) plated a couple of big insurance run in the top of the ninths, and a pieced-together bullpen of Tom Gorzelanny, Christian Garcia, Michael Gonzalez, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard finished off the Nationals' 88th win of the season (though Clippard allowed a solo homer to Scott Hairston in the bottom of the ninth). At this moment, the Nationals lead the NL East by 7 games, the NL wild card by 13 12 games, with 20 to play.

Hitting highlight: It's been tough for Davey Johnson to find at-bats for Moore since Jayson Werth and Michael Morse came back from early season injuries, but the rookie is somehow finding a way to keep his bat hot despite the lack of action. He stepped to the plate in the top of the seventh inning tonight to pinch-hit for Gorzelanny and wasted no time inflicting damage on Dickey, crushing the first knuckleball he saw into the left field stands. That's nine homers this season for Moore in only 138 at-bats. Do the math: Over a full season, that's quite impressive.

Pitching highlight: While Zimmermann labored through his five innings, Garcia absolutely dominated his one inning of relief. Despite this being only his fifth big-league appearance, the right-hander was entrusted with a one-run lead in the bottom of the seventh, a major vote of confidence from Johnson. Well, Garcia earned even more with his explosive performance. He struck out the side, showing both a high-90s fastball with a devastating changeup and slider. In only 4 23 innings, he's already got seven strikeouts and zero walks. Could a rookie September call-up force his way onto the October playoff roster? It's happened before (remember Francisco Rodriguez with the Angels in 2002?). If Garcia keeps this up, he's going to have a strong case for it.

Key stat: In 32 career plate appearances against Dickey, Werth now has 13 hits and five walks. That equates to a .563 on-base percentage.

Up next: The series wraps up at 7:10 p.m. Wednesday, with New York native John Lannan officially taking over Stephen Strasburg's spot in the Nationals' rotation. Lannan will face Mets rookie Matt Harvey, their top pitching prospect.

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Nats weight home field advantage against staying healthy as playoffs near

Nats weight home field advantage against staying healthy as playoffs near

Though they’re still fighting for home field advantage in next week’s division series, the Nationals understand they’re in a strange part of their season.  

Sure, playoff seeding is plenty important. These last regular season games count, et cetera et cetera. But Washington already clinched the NL East title, and already knows its playoff opponent is going to be the Los Angeles Dodgers. So it’s not a surprise that players are willing to admit how difficult it can be to keep their foot on the gas pedal these days.

“Once you win the division, there’s that exhale, that sigh of relief,” said Jayson Werth after Friday night’s 7-4 loss to the Miami Marlins.”..You kind of let off the throttle a little bit.”

And when a team takes that approach, health becomes the top priority. It’s a mindset that was on full display Friday night when Werth was removed from the game in the seventh inning as a precaution due to back and side tightness.

 “We can't afford to lose anybody else,” manager Dusty Baker said. “So we decided that, it was wet, on the chilly side, and I decided I couldn't take a chance on him being injured too.”

Werth said that team trainers ruled out a strain or a pull, and that he’d be surprised if he wasn’t in the lineup on Saturday afternoon.  

Still, any injury the Nats suffer this time of the year feels magnified, especially given the last week: Bryce Harper jammed his left thumb, Wilson Ramos tore his ACL and Daniel Murphy was shut down until the playoffs with a glute strain. Not to mention that Stephen Strasburg will likely miss the club’s entire October run.

“The biggest thing is right now is to get everybody healthy for the postseason,” Stephen Drew said. “I think that's key. We got some guys out and hopefully we'll be ready for the playoffs.”

So while every team says it’d like to head into the postseason firing on all cylinders, the Nats’ case shows that it’s not always realistic. Bottling up momentum and carrying into the biggest games of the year is the ideal, of course. But sometimes heading into the tournament with all your horses in tact works too — seeding be damned.

“Obviously home field advantage is important to us, and we want that,” Werth said. “But at the same time, we also feel like we’ve done our job a little bit. So there’s a balance there.....you don’t want to do something where you can put yourself in jeopardy, where you can really get hurt.”

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Cole struggles early, bullpen cracks late as Nats fall to Marlins

Cole struggles early, bullpen cracks late as Nats fall to Marlins

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 7-4 loss over the Miami Marlins on Friday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: If the Nationals want to sew up home field advantage in their first playoff series, they still have more work to do — and only have two more games to do it.

The Nats were unable to help their cause Friday night, falling to the Marlins 7-4 in a rain-soaked affair that began nearly two hours after its scheduled start time.  

While the offense couldn’t come through late, it was starter A.J. Cole that put the Nats in a bind in this one. The 24-year-old rookie right hander forcing Dusty Baker to go to his bullpen early after yielding four runs (two earned) on six hits in just three innings of work.

But all it took was one inning for the Nats to even things up. Anthony Rendon and Stephen Drew opened the fourth with back-to-back solo home runs, and RBI hits by Jose Lobaton and Trea Turner make it 4-4 heading into the fifth.

The bullpen subsequently cracked, however, yielding a runs in the sixth, seventh and ninth innings to give the Marlins a 7-4 edge. The offense couldn’t mount a late rally, and that was all she wrote.

What it means: The magic number for home field advantage in the NLDS remains at two. As of this post, the Dodgers have yet to complete their game against the Giants, so there’s still a chance it could fall to one by Saturday morning.

Rendon reaches homer milestone: With his fourth-inning solo shot, Rendon became the latest Nats hitter join the 20 home run club. In fact, the Nats tied the 1965 and 2003 Braves as the only National League clubs with six players with 20-plus long balls in a season. (Interestingly enough, the Cardinals mathed that feat the Nats later in night after a Matt Holliday home run.)

But back to Rendon: For all the talk that the Nats offense sans Wilson Ramos will suffer, remember that Rendon has been one of the team’s best hitters since the All-Star break. Since then, he’s notched 11 homers, 20 doubles and 51 RBI. In other words, he’s fully returned to his ‘Tony Two-Bags’ form of 2014.

More accolades for Turner: D.C.’s favorite rookie had another one of his patented performances Friday night, going 2-for-3 with an RBI single, a triple and two stolen bases. He became the fourth player in MLB history to notch 10 home runs and 30 steals in less than 100 games, joining Rickey Henderson, Bobby Bonds and current Nats first base coach Davey Lopes. Since the break, he leads the team in both extra-base hits and steals. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Harper struggles: In his first game back since injuring his left thumb, Bryce Harper looked looked very much like a hitter trying to regain his timing at the plate. In four at-bats, he struck out four times — three of them swinging. It’s just one game, of course, but he and the Nats are quickly running out of time to rev up for October.

Up next: The Nats will continue their quest to gain home field advantage in the middle game of this three-game set. Washington will send Tanner Roark (15-10, 2.86 ERA) to the hill to oppose Marlins lefty Wei-Yin Chen (5-4, 5.02 ERA).