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Lannan, Werth overcome their Philly demons

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Lannan, Werth overcome their Philly demons

PHILADELPHIA -- For John Lannan, the moment came in the bottom of the third, when faced with a bases-loaded jam he struck out Ryan Howard and got Carlos Ruiz on a comebacker.

For Jayson Werth, the moment came in the top of the ninth, when faced with a riled up Phillies crowd in what had become a one-run game he delivered a two-run dagger of a base hit to silence the angry mob.

And for the Nationals, the moment came a few minutes later, when Drew Storen got John Mayberry Jr. to ground out harmlessly to third base and seal an 8-4 victory that moved this team one step closer to the NL East crown and exorcised some Philadelphia demons in the process.

"A big game, a big outing for John," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "That was a huge win for us."

They're all huge at this stage of the calendar year, each win lowering the magic number -- it's now down to 4 -- and reducing the plausibility of a last-minute flip-flop of teams atop the NL East standings.

Yes, the Braves won again Wednesday night -- their ninth win in their last 11 games -- but they still trail the Nationals by four games with only seven left to play. Each day they fail to close the gap is a wasted day from their standpoint.

The most important thing the Nationals can do right now is win games themselves, something they've done 94 times this season but something they've struggled to do inside Citizens Bank Park. That made this victory all the more significant, especially because of the history of two players who were influential in pulling this one off.

Start with Lannan, whose big-league career began in Philadelphia five years ago with an unexpected ejection for plunking Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in succession and had only gone downhill since then. In seven starts in this ballpark entering Wednesday, the left-hander was 1-5 with a 7.06 ERA.

Lannan, though, has stared down all kinds of adversity during the strangest year of his professional life, so it only felt appropriate to overcome one of his biggest hurdles and beat the Phillies in a game his Nationals desperately needed to win.

With 5 13 innings of two-run ball, Lannan improved to 4-0 in five big-league starts this season, all of them significant wins.

"He's been outstanding for us this year," manager Davey Johnson said. "That's his fourth win up here. Big game against Atlanta, big one here. He's just been a big boost for us."

Though he was mostly sharp during this outing, Lannan did find himself in one big jam when ht loaded the bases with one out in the third. All of a sudden, Howard stepped to the plate with a chance to tie the game up on one swing. Given Lannan's sordid history in this place, few would have been shocked had that nightmare scenario happened.

The lefty, though, took a different mindset with him to the mound.

"I've been in that situation here so many times and come up short, so I told myself not to do what I did back then," he said. "I don't even know what I was doing, I just told myself I wasn't going to let it happen because it's happened so many times here. I kind of was fed up with it and kind of just went from there."

So Lannan calmly struck out Howard on a curveball, then snagged Ruiz's comebacker to snuff out the rally and preserve a 5-1 lead.

The Nationals had staked their starter to that cushion thanks to an early explosion against Phillies right-hander Kyle Kendrick. Three of their first eight batters belted home runs, with Bryce Harper becoming only the second teenager ever to hit 20, Desmond increasing his career-high total to 25 and Kurt Suzuki adding his fifth over his last 22 games.

"The kid got us going again," Desmond said.

Harper may have got them going early, but Werth got them over the hump late with a huge hit just when it looked like the Nationals' lead was tenuous.

After chipping away all night, the Phillies got the deficit down to 5-4 in the eighth and nearly tied the game against slumping reliever Tyler Clippard. Desperate for an insurance run in the top of the ninth, the Nationals wound up getting three, the first two delivered by Werth in dramatic fashion.

Standing in the on-deck circle during that inning, Werth picked up a ball fouled off by Danny Espinosa. The one-time Phillies right fielder turned to toss it to a group of kids seated behind the Nationals dugout but claims he was concerned a group of "unruly middle-aged men that, to me, appeared to be snarling" right behind them.

So Werth tossed the ball into the dugout instead, a move that prompted the entire ballpark to shower boos upon him for the next five minutes, including as he battled through his at-bat against right-hander Justin DeFratus. The boos turned to cheers only for a moment after DeFratus buzzed him with a high-and-tight fastball, then everyone turned silent when Werth laced a 2-2 pitch up the middle for a base hit that scored two runs and gave the Nationals much-needed breathing room.

"I was so excited for him," Harper said. "I wanted to jump up and down and scream. ... These fans going crazy, booing him, telling him he sucks and whatnot. They don't know what they're missing. He's an unbelievable ballplayer, and he's been clutch for us all year. He's what gets us going."

Werth, who forcefully clapped his hands together after rounding first base, wound up scoring moments later when Harper delivered his ninth triple of the season, extending the lead to four runs. He downplayed the booing by a fan base that used to adore him when he manned right field in this ballpark.

"It's really just part of playing in Philadelphia," he said. "That's what makes it great. I had a lot of fun here. I had a lot of good times and wouldn't trade those for the world."

Werth, of course, is enjoying some good times with the Nationals right now. While the Phillies are on the verge of missing the postseason for the first time in six years, he's on the verge of clinching the NL East and embarking on a postseason run with his new club.

Which means plenty more key at-bats for a guy who seems to relish those opportunities.

"I mean, as time goes on here, as we get into October, there's probably going to be even more of that," Werth said. "I've been here before, definitely don't mind it."

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Gonzalez on earning career win No. 100 : 'I’m just happy it came'

Gonzalez on earning career win No. 100 : 'I’m just happy it came'

Gio Gonzalez isn’t the type to harp on his accomplishments. After quality outings, he typically deflects praise to his Nationals teammates in postgame interviews when asked to describe his personal performance.

But as much as he tends to downplay, earning his career 100th win in Friday's victory over the Colorado Rockies clearly meant something to him. 

“I’m just happy it came,” Gonzalez said. “I finally showed up and I’m happy I did it here with this organization. Oakland gave me an opportunity and Washington helped me continue that opportunity and I couldn’t be happier to do it with these colors and represent the Washington Nationals.”

The feat came after two no-decisions in his previous two starts, so the third time proved to be the charm. After the game, he had a gathering of family and friends waiting outside the Nats’ clubhouse to congratulate him, some holding gold “100” balloons and others wearing hats featuring the oft-used Twitter emoji of the same number.

“I'm sure it was [on his mind],” manager Dusty Baker said. “…He didn’t want to come out of this game. He was going to get it eventually and we needed it.”

The 30-year-old left hander accomplished the milestone thanks to six innings of two-run ball on just 85 pitches against the hard-hitting Rockies lineup. Gonzalez displayed a lot of what his skipper wanted to see from him: a low pitch count, avoiding the big inning and, as he did later in the game, deliver shutdown frames immediately after the Nats offense scores.

“He threw great tonight," added Bryce Harper. Kept a very good Rockies lineup off balance and did what he needed to do. Stuck with his approach and threw like Gio knows how. Huge for him, that hundredth win. Couldn't be happier for him and his family.”

Historic achievement aside, Gonzalez has quietly turned his season around after a rough patch. In his last nine outings, he’s 5-1 with a 3.20 ERA over 50 2/3 innings. His resurgence couldn’t have come at a better time, as he’s charged with stabilizing the back-end of a rotation that’s in flux due to injuries to Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross.

“That's the key to his success,” Baker said. “Not getting runners on base or not walking people and he had a very good game tonight, excellent game. His last couple games, few games have been good. I'm just glad we were able to get him his 100th victory.”

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Nats ride Gonzalez, bats to 8-5 victory over the Rockies

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USA TODAY Sports

Nats ride Gonzalez, bats to 8-5 victory over the Rockies

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 8-5 win over the Colorado Rockies on Friday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: The Nationals have quickly gotten the sour taste of their recent four-game skid out of their mouths.

Thanks to a resurgent offense and a quality start by Gio Gonzalez, Washington got back on track with Friday’s 8-2 win over the Rockies, the Nats’ second win in as many days.

True to form, the power-laden lineup didn’t take long to strike. Jayson Werth launched a solo home run, his second in as many days and his 18th of the season, to put Washington up 1-0 in the first inning, and scored again in the third on an RBI groundout by Daniel Murphy.

With the game tied 2-2 in the fourth inning, the Nats wouldn’t create breathing room until the middle innings. The Nats took a lead they wouldn’t surrender when they scored two runs on a Jose Lobaton fielder’s choice in the fourth inning, followed by a Murphy solo home run in the fifth to make it 4-2.

From there, the game was blown open in the seventh inning thanks to a four-spot that was highlighted by an RBI double by Werth and a two-run triple by Bryce Harper that nearly left the ballpark.

The Rockies closed the gap to 8-5 on a Nick Hundley three-run home run in the ninth off Shawn Kelley, so Dusty Baker turned to Mark Melancon to notch the final out and secure the victory.  

What it means: The Nats have won back to back games and have raised their record to 75-53. Pending the result of the Miami Marlins game, Washington could be up nine games in the NL East by the end of the night.

Gonzalez notches win No. 100: The lefty starter wasn’t dominant by any means, but he did what Baker wanted him to do: keep his pitch count down and avoid the big inning. Gonzalez allowed two earned runs on four hits over six innings and 85 pitches, and limited the damage every time the Rockies were threatening. He could have easily gone deeper in the game, but Baker opted to pinch hit for him when the Nats had two on and two out in the bottom of the sixth. Regardless, the performance was good enough to earn Gonzalez the 100th victory of his career. 

Murphy’s milestone: With his 25th home run of the season, a fifth-inning solo shot, Murphy notched his 500th career RBI. It’s a remarkable achievement considering that he currently has 98 RBI on the season, which means roughly a fifth of the runs he’s driven in have come in 2016.

Bryce back? Don’t look now, but Harper is looking very much like the reigning NL MVP these days. He added two more extra-base hits Friday night, including his first triple of the season, and is now hitting an even .400 since his return from a neck injury. His season average has suddenly risen to .254, and with the way he’s going, could get to .260 by the end of the weekend.

Up next: The middle game of this three-game set will take place Saturday afternoon at 1:05 p.m. as the Nats send A.J. Cole (0-1, 5.14 ERA) to oppose Jorge De La Rosa (8-7, 5.07 ERA).

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Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Friday night wasn't the first time the Nationals paid tribute to Senators slugger Frank Howard. After all, it’s his likeness that is featured in one of the few statues outside of Nats Park. 

But it wasn't until a recent change in the team’s Ring of Honor criteria — which now allows for any pre-Nats/Expos D.C. great to be inducted — that Howard became eligible for recognition by the franchise.  

 “It’s a real thrill for me, it really is,” said Howard, 80, before Friday’s game against the Colorado Rockies. “It’s nice when somebody says ‘Welcome to the Ring of Honor.’”

For many longtime D.C. sports fans, Howard is one of the few vestiges of the city’s last baseball team before a 34-year gap without the game. He had his best years as a member of the Senators from 1965 to 1971, hitting 237 home runs — the most any player representing D.C. has ever hit.

On Friday, Howard didn’t delve too much into his past, instead praising the current state of D.C.’s baseball team.

“They’re not a young organization anymore,” Howard said of the Nats. “They wanted to create their own image and they should. They’ve done a beautiful job, from top to bottom.”

Howard’s impact on the game went beyond the nation’s capital. Nats manager Dusty Baker said that when he was growing up, his brother would emulate Howard, who began his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“As a kid, his name was big Frank Howard, or ‘Hondo.’,” Baker recalled. “We’re playing games in the back yard and my brother was Frank Howard, and I was Tommy Davis.”

Baker would get to meet and interact with Howard over the years, calling him “the most gentle giant of a man I know.” Howard returned the favor with a few compliments of his own.  

“Dusty Baker is a quality big league player, quality big league manager,” he said. "Knows the game from A to Z and back to Z to A. He’s been very successful.”

And of course, talking to any D.C. baseball great means getting their opinion on the reigning NL MVP, Bryce Harper.

“He haven’t even begun to scratch the surface,” Howard said of the 23-year-old right fielder. “His next 10 years should be dynamite years.”

As great as Howard was for the Senators, the teams he played for in D.C. were rarely considered World Series contenders. This Nats club, on the other hand, represents a perennial threat to win it all, something Howard hopes the team will make good on someday. 

“I think it’d be great for the area,” he said. “We’ve got great fans here, and to give them a world championship ball club would be a real thrill.”