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Instant analysis: Nats 7, Phillies 3

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Instant analysis: Nats 7, Phillies 3

Game in a nutshell: You might have been nervous after the first inning of this game, with Gio Gonzalez looking totally out of sorts and the Nationals trailing 3-1. No need to panic, though, because Gonzalez got himself back on track, and the Nats lineup bust things open again with an impressive display of power. Bryce Harper launched his second homer in as many nights, giving him 21 for the season. Michael Morse blasted two homers, the second of them a titanic clout into the visitors' bullpen. All that support -- plus some effective relief work from Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen -- set up Gonzalez to win his 21st game of the season and help the Nationals reduce their magic number to 3. The Braves, however, won for the 10th time in their last 12 games, keeping the pressure on and ensuring the Nats cannot clinch the NL East until Saturday night at the earliest.

Hitting highlight: It's been a frustrating season for Morse, who has battled serious injuries and nagging injuries and hasn't been able to produce as much as he would have liked. But the man still has the ability to hit a baseball a long way when he gets a hold of one. He didn't hit second-inning homer very far, lofting one just over the 370-foot fence in left field. But four innings later, he more than made up for it with a 451-foot bomb to right-center that sailed over the Phillies bullpen, into the Nationals' bullpen and directly into Tom Gorzelanny's hat. Yes, his hat. That was Morse's 16th homer of the season, and remarkably 12 of them have been hit to the right of center field.

Pitching highlight: The way the bottom of the first inning played out, you never would have guessed Gonzalez would wind up being credited with a quality start. He needed 37 pitches to get through that first frame, with three runs crossing the plate. His command was all over the place, leading to three walks. But he somehow battled back from that and righted his ship. Over his next five innings, Gonzalez didn't allow a run, didn't walk another batter and threw only 69 pitches. Quite a stunning turnaround. And because of it (and some run support from his teammates) the lefty departed in position to earn his MLB-leading 21st win, staying ahead of the Mets' R.A. Dickey (who notched his 20th win earlier in the day).

Key stat: For the moment, Gonzalez has thrown 199 13 innings. No pitcher in history has ever ended a season with 21 or more wins while throwing fewer than 200 innings. Gonzalez may make one more start Tuesday, depending on the Nats' status.

Up next: The penultimate series of the regular season is upon us, with the Nationals traveling to St. Louis for a weekend tilt with the Wild-Card-clinch-seeking Cardinals. Edwin Jackson, owner of a 2011 Cards World Series ring, starts Friday's 8:15 p.m. EDT opener against former rotation mate Adam Wainwright.

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Nats pull Papelbon in 9th vs. Giants: 'The object is to win the game'

Nats pull Papelbon in 9th vs. Giants: 'The object is to win the game'

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- With his team chasing the Chicago Cubs for the best record in baseball, Washington manager Dusty Baker is willing to do whatever it takes to keep the Nationals close -- even if it means pulling closer Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth inning.

While it might not be the move he cherishes, it's one Baker may make even more down the stretch as Papelbon struggles through one of his roughest stretches of the season.

Ryan Zimmerman had two hits and scored a run, Trea Turner added two hits and an RBI and the Nationals beat the San Francisco Giants 4-2 on Thursday night in the opener of a key four-game series between division leaders.

Papelbon went into the game with 19 saves and retired one batter in the ninth before getting pulled in favor of Shawn Kelley after giving up a single and walk.

"I'm sure he felt badly but I had to do what I had to do to win the ballgame," Baker said of his closer. "I'm sure that Pap didn't like it but I'm sure that he understands."

Papelbon has struggled over the past week. He took the loss Sunday against San Diego and again on Tuesday in Cleveland before being unable to close out the win in San Francisco.

"The object is to win the game," Papelbon said. "Do what you can do to win the game."

[RELATED: Roark and Turner lead the way as Nats top Giants]

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Roark and Turner lead the way as Nats hold on to top Giants

Roark and Turner lead the way as Nats hold on to top Giants

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 4-2 win over the San Francisco Giants on Thursday night at AT&T Park.

How it happened: This Trea Turner and Bryce Harper combination at the top of the Nationals' lineup has potential.

Turner has been doing his part for over a week now, continuing to look like a player who can lead the Nats to new heights with his production from the leadoff spot. And on Thursday night in San Francisco, Harper followed the rookie's lead with a strong effort hitting behind him.

Turner went 2-for-4 with a walk, a run and a steal. After going hitless in his previous five games, Harper smoked an RBI double to score Turner from first in the top of the sixth. As Turner rounded third and charged home, his helmet flew off behind his head, a subtle ode to the man who drove him in.

Turner had one of three straight two-out RBI singles hit by the Nats in the top of the second inning alone. Danny Espinosa got the first to score Wilson Ramos. Tanner Roark then landed the second to score Ryan Zimmerman before Turner brought home Espinosa.

That sequence was the worst moment for Johnny Cueto, who lasted a season-low five innings. Roark, on the other hand, was surgical through seven innings of one-run ball. 

The Nats pitching staff hummed like a well-oiled machine until the bottom of the ninth inning when Jonathan Papelbon took over. He faced one batter - Brandon Crawford - who flew out - before manager Dusty Baker got Oliver Perez warming in his bullpen. Papelbon would stay in to allow two baserunners before getting the hook. That simply does not happen if he had not given up six earned runs in his previous two outings. Clearly the Nats do not have confidence in their closer at the moment.

Perez replaced Papelbon, but didn't finish the inning. He loaded the bases by walking Trevor Brown, then allowed a run on a Gregor Blanco infield grounder that was charged to Papelbon. Blanco hit a laser to Anthony Rendon, who bobbled it before throwing it to second, where Espinosa also bobbled it to botch the forceout.

After Perez, it was Shawn Kelley who came in and shut it down with a strikeout of Angel Pagan with the bases loaded. Papelbon, by the way, has now been tagged with earned runs in three straight outings.

The Nationals won their second straight game after losing six of their previous eight.

What it means: The Nats beat the Giants in their first head-to-head matchup of the season. They moved to 60-42 overall and sit five games up on the Miami Marlins in the NL East with exactly 60 games left to play.

Roark too much for Giants: Roark entered Thursday as the less-heralded of the two starting pitchers, but the Nats right-hander thoroughly out-dueled Cueto in a performance that was typical of his strong 2016 season. Roark went seven innings with one run surrendered on four hits and three walks with three strikeouts on 111 total pitches. It was the eighth time this season that Roark has gone at least seven innings with one earned run or fewer allowed. Only Cubs lefty Jon Lester, with nine such starts, has done that more. Roark moved to 10-6 on the year and currently holds a 2.96 ERA.

Turner lights the fuse: The Nats' issues in the leadoff spot may soon become a distant memory. Turner continued to set the table brilliantly on Thursday night with two hits, a walk, a run and a steal. He fills up box scores like no one else on the Nationals right now and the impact he's having on their lineup as a whole as profound. This was the fifth time in his last nine games that Turner has reached base at least twice and the second straight outing he's been on three times. Turner's steal pushed him to 6-for-6 on attempts this season in just 14 total games. Including the minor leagues, he's 31-of-33 this year.

Turner also fared well defensively. Despite being new to center field and playing in a new ballpark, Turner made all the outs that were hit to him. He even reeled in a leaping catch at the wall for the first out of the bottom of the fifth. Turner backed up all the way to the wall and jumped to catch a Mac Williams flyball. The jump may not have been necessary, but he displayed solid instincts near the wall for a guy who is learning on the job out there.

Harper shows some life: Before Harper's RBI double to the left field corner in the sixth, the reigning MVP was 0-for-19 in his last 21 at-bats. As off as he's looked at times this season, Harper had reached one of his lowest points. The double, though was absolutely crushed and it gave the Nats a nice insurance run against a team that has proven resilient in the past.

Up next: The Nats and Giants play another late one with a 10:15 p.m. ET start on Friday night. Max Scherzer (10-6, 2.92) will take the mound for the Nats opposite right-hander Jeff Samardzija (9-6, 4.22).

[RELATED: 'Baseball in the District' - Harper's slump, trade deadline]

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GIF: Foul ball results in weird moment between Braves player and fan

GIF: Foul ball results in weird moment between Braves player and fan

Uh, that's not supposed to happen.

A fan at Turner Field on Thursday night reached into the field of play to catch a flyball and got a lot more than just a souvenir. He caught it right before Braves outfeilder Chase d'Arnaud came charging in. d'Arnau coudl not stop his momentum and ended up face-to-face with the fan, appearing to nearly give him a kiss on the replay.

It was weird. See for yourself:

[RELATED: 'Baseball in the District' - Harper's slump, trade deadline]

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