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Johnson tries to boost Nats' spirits during meeting

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Johnson tries to boost Nats' spirits during meeting

PITTSBURGH -- Sensing some of his players were starting to press in an attempt to snap out of their offensive funk, Nationals manager Davey Johnson closed the doors of the visiting clubhouse at PNC Park this afternoon and tried to boost spirits with something of a pep-talk.

The meeting lasted less than 10 minutes, but Johnson's message was clear.

"I wanted to let them know that I'm behind them 100 percent," he said. "I know we're going to get better as the season goes on. And I appreciate the effort they've given so far. ... I wanted to put them at ease that I have confidence in everyone on this ballclub, or else they wouldn't be here. I expect us to get it right."

The Nationals enter tonight's game against the Pirates on a three-game losing streak, having struck out 23 times in the first two games of this series. Several players, Johnson believes, look like they're trying to do too much, perhaps overcompensating for the losses of Michael Morse and Jayson Werth to injuries.

"They try to hit the ball too hard," the manager said. "They try to make up for the lack of power we have in the lineup. And I don't want that. We're not that kind of ballclub. Everybody's different. But all of the guys have the capability to be a good hitter."

Johnson sought not only to show confidence in his players through his words but also his actions. Thus, his lineup for this series finale isn't altered much from previous nights. Bryce Harper was bumped down to the fifth spot in order to provide some protection for cleanup hitter Adam LaRoche. But slumping second baseman Danny Espinosa (who leads the NL with 39 strikeouts) remains in the lineup and hitting sixth.

Johnson did meet individually with Espinosa this afternoon and offered him a chance to take the night off, with rookie Steve Lombardozzi filling his spot. The .189-hitting second baseman said he wanted to play.

"The most important guy right now in this lineup is Danny Espinosa," Johnson said. "And I had a conversation with him today about: 'Let me rest you. Lombo would certainly enjoy the opportunity to go out there and play second base.' But he said: 'I feel better. I've been a little confused.' I had a great conversation with him and I said nothing more than I'll give you every opportunity to do the things you're capable of, because we need you. Ergo, he's in the lineup."

Johnson reiterated a point he made Wednesday: He doesn't want players believing their jobs are on the line every time they step to the plate or take the mound. He also doesn't succumb to outside pressure calling for change.

"I wanted to let them know that I don't manage by audition, and I don't panic and I don't take a lot of advice from people that don't know a whole lot," he said. "I do read blogs and Tweeter and fans and the newspaper and also on the internet. I'm not immune to it, and I know these guys do it 100 times more than me.

"I'm not saying there's not always some good advice in there. But you're dealing with people that have feelings and you're also dealing with people that have a lot of pride. And also I want to be consistent with opportunities. The more you play, the more opportunities you get. It's kind of simple with me. One day doesn't necessarily make a winning streak. And a couple 0-fers doesn't necessarily mean a slump."

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Nats get another chance to clinch NL East title in Pittsburgh

Nats get another chance to clinch NL East title in Pittsburgh

Nats (89-64) vs. Pirates (77-76) at PNC Park

With the magic number to clinch a division title still at two, the Nationals will again try to punch their ticket to the postseason Saturday night at PNC Park. Like Friday night, they'll need to defeat the Pirates and hope for a New York Mets loss to the Philadelphia Phillies in order to secure the NL East championship. 

The Nats will send Joe Ross (7-5, 3.48 ERA) to the mound for his second start since he returned from the disabled list. He was limited to just three innings in his previous outing, so it will be important to see how far he gets stretched out against the Pirates. After all, the Nats are in desperate need to identify their third starter for the playoffs, and Ross has a good shot of being that guy if he proves he's capable down the stretch. 

The lineup will be the same as Friday night's, with Daniel Murphy shut down for the weekend with a left buttocks strain. Stephen Drew will take over at second base. 

First pitch: 7:05 p.m.
TV: MASN
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Joe Ross vs. Pirates - Ivan Nova

NATS 

CF Trea Turner
LF Jayson Werth
RF Bryce Harper
3B Anthony Rendon
C Wilson Ramos
2B Stephen Drew
1B Ryan Zimmerman
SS Danny Espinosa
RHP Joe Ross

PIRATES

TBA

CLICK HERE FOR LIVE STATS AND SCORES

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Extra-inning loss puts the Nats NL East celebration on hold

Extra-inning loss puts the Nats NL East celebration on hold

The Nationals were hoping that Friday night would be the moment they could finally pop champagne in celebration of an NL East title. All they had to do was win and hope for a New York Mets loss.

Neither happened. As a result, the Nats’ magic number remains at two entering Saturday.

Here are a few takeaways from Friday night's game: 

Melancon’s first blown save: Entering Friday, Mark Melancon was a perfect 12-for-12 in save opportunities as the Nats’ closer. And as the baseball gods would have it, his first blown save with Washington comes against his former Pittsburgh teammates. Of the four blown saves Melancon’s had all season, one is against the Nats (when he was still with the Pirates), and the other against the Pirates. Baseball is a funny game.   

Turner still learning center field: Though Trea Turner has done just about everything in his short time in the big leagues, he’s still a work in progress as a center fielder. That inexperience bit the Nats in a critical moment on Friday night. With Washington clinging to a 5-4 ninth-inning lead with two outs and a man on, the Pirates’ Sean Rodriguez drilled a Melancon fastball to left-center. Turner didn’t appear to get a great jump after contact, and and got to the ball a tad late. He lunged, but it landed over his head, allowing the tying run to score. It's moments like those that make one wonder if Dusty Baker might consider realigning his defense late in games come October.

Zim reaches milestone: With his run-scoring double in the second inning, Zimmerman notched career RBI No. 1500. The accomplishment is one of the bright spots in an otherwise down season for the veteran first baseman. Though he’s struggled for most of 2016, the Nats are hoping he heats up as the playoffs begin. Case in point: he’s got hits in seven of his last nine games.

Ramos heating up? After an early late-August and early-September swoon, it appears Ramos has found his power stroke once again. He now has six extra-base hits in his last eight games. With the offense scuffling a bit of late, the Nats need Ramos to return to his early-season form. 

Up next: The Nats will look to wrap up the division Saturday night as they send Joe Ross (7-5, 3.48 ERA) to the hill to oppose Ivan Nova (12-7, 4.19 ERA).