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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' bullpen, defense continue to cause problems, lead to losses

Nats' bullpen, defense continue to cause problems, lead to losses

Starter A.J. Cole made it 5 2/3 innings on Saturday afternoon, which is pretty good considering that's how much Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg combined to pitch against the Rockies less than two weeks ago. Gio Gonzalez also only made it three innings in that series due to a rain delay.

And in the time since, the Nats' bullpen has been battered around by all sorts of elements including injuries and short outings from starters. The Nationals' next off-day on Thursday, Sept. 1 can't come soon enough to put them out of their current 20 games in 20 days misery.

Cole's outing, by all accounts, could have been a lot worse. But unfortunately for the Nationals, Saturday's game went to extra innings, forcing manager Dusty Baker to do some things he wouldn't normally prefer to do. Like, use the newly acquired Marc Rzepczynski for 2 1/3 innings. Or, to go to Mark Melancon for the third straight game. Or, to leave Yusmeiro Petit on the mound in the 11th even when it was clear he just didn't have it.

For Petit, in particular, Baker felt like he had no other choice, even after the right-hander served up a two-run homer to Charlie Blackmon.

"We felt badly for Yusmeiro because we had to leave him in there, he was our last pitcher we didn't have [Koda] Glover and we were trying to stay away from [Mark] Melancon because that was his third day in a row and we didn't have [Shawn] Kelley. We were down to our last player, we had no more players on the bench and that was our last player, I don't know who was going to pitch if he didn't get out of that inning. He took one for the team so to speak," Baker said.

Petit's inning got off on a sour note with an error by Anthony Rendon at third base. It was one of two errors committed by the Nationals on Saturday. One was by Rzepczynski in the seventh and that one helped lead to a run. Rzepczynski also messed up fielding a bunt in the ninth. Cole also allowed a run on a wild pitch during an intentional walk.

It was a rough day for the Nats, who were plagued by uncharacteristic mistakes. That has been a theme lately and the Nationals hope it ends soon.

“We address it daily, but you cant harp on it. Like I said the other day these things go in streaks," Baker said. "Tony is sure handed over there. We haven’t seen Rzepczynski. He just threw that ball over the head. They bunted on us twice a couple of times and got hits on us. We just have to continue to work.”

The Nats have now made 14 errors in their last nine games. It's been bizarre to watch and it has some at a loss for words.

“Can’t call it. I don’t know. One of those things," left fielder Jayson Werth said.

[RELATED: Harper explains ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike']

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Before ejection, Bryce Harper continued recent hot streak vs. Rockies

Before ejection, Bryce Harper continued recent hot streak vs. Rockies

Before Bryce Harper earned his eight career ejection following a strikeout in the 10th inning, the Nats right fielder actually had a pretty good game at the plate. He landed an RBI double, walked and scored a run. He has now reached base in all 14 games since he returned from nursing a stiff neck.

The double was a familiar sight for Harper. He dropped it into the left field corner at Nationals Park, just as he did his triple the night before and just as he did his double the night before that. Three straight games with extra-base hits to the opposite field. That's not bad.

That, in fact, is something manager Dusty Baker has been waiting to see for quite some time.

“That’s a good sign, that’s an excellent sign," Baker said. "When he’s hitting that ball to left field and not pulling everything or rolling over means staying on the ball and he’s staying through the zone. That’s a very good sign. He’s been heating up. We know the best is yet to come.”

In the 14 games since he returned, Harper is 21-for-54 (.389) with six doubles, 16 RBI and 11 runs. This is the best Harper has played in months and he's showing no signs of slowing down.

"I feel good. I think the balls are falling where they should," the Nats right fielder said. "It's nice to go into a game and score some runs and have some fun."

In these 14 games, Harper has raised his season average from .233 all the way to .254. It's almost certainly too late for him to repeat as NL MVP, but he's heating up at a good time with September right around the corner and the playoffs, if the Nats keep their current pace, right after that.

[RELATED: Harper explains ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike']

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Bryce Harper explains 10th inning ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike'

Bryce Harper explains 10th inning ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike'

Bryce Harper is not one to back down when it comes to arguments with umpires, even after he's been ejected from a game and has time to cool down and collect his thoughts.

So, it should probably come as no surprise that on Saturday after he was tossed in the 10th inning of the Nats' loss to the Colorado Rockies, Harper referred to home plate umpire Mark Winters' called strike three as a "mistake." 

Here is Harper, in detail, on the call that led to him throwing his helmet to the ground and confronting Winters, who immediately sent him to the showers:

"You're in a game like that, 4-4 in the 10th, you get to a 2-2 count. He throws a pitch off the plate which they said was a strike, which was a ball. I was reading it all the way in. If you look at the tape, I was looking down at the ball the whole way into the glove and it was just, you know, it was off the plate. I could possibly see one more pitch and maybe hit a homer or a double or walk. I could even strike out. But I just wanted to see that last pitch and I never got there. It just shouldn't happen. Just bad [call] there. It's not a strike," he said.

"You don't want an umpire to make a mistake in that big of a situation. That's just not good. I wanted to see that last pitch. We could have possibly not played the 11th or the 12th or whatever. I mean, getting on base with [Anthony] Rendon behind me would have been huge as well, possibly could have stolen second, a ball hit to the ride side and you never know."

On if Harper regretted his actions, he did concede it was not a good time to be tossed, given the game was tied and the Nats had a chance to beat the Rockies.

"I know we had a short bench. I think going into it you don't ever want to get ejected," he said.

Manager Dusty Baker didn't offer a harsh assessment to Harper's ejection. He basically described it as just part of the game.

"Everybody blows up from time to time," he said. "These things happen. Especially it happens this time of year tempers are short. It’s hot, played a lot of games, been around the same people for a long period of time. This is the time of year when tempers do flare up.”

Outfielder Jayson Werth was brief in his comments on Harper. But did note how this isn't the first time for the reigning MVP. Harper has now been ejected from eight games in his career.

"I’ve been kicked out of one game my whole career. Bryce, on the other hand, has been kicked out of multiple," he said.

[RELATED: Harper ejected after arguing balls and strikes]

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