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LaRoche, bench deliver for Nationals

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LaRoche, bench deliver for Nationals

The NL East title clinched at last, Davey Johnson felt it was more important Tuesday night to rest most of his regulars than field his very best lineup against the Phillies in an attempt to lock up the league's best record on the season's penultimate day.

So it was that Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Michael Morse, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Kurt Suzuki all watched the game from the dugout, their bodies and minds still recovering from the previous night's raucous celebration at Nationals Park.

There was, however, one key veteran who found his way into his familiar spot in the heart of the Nationals lineup. Adam LaRoche, sitting on 99 RBI, wanted to take a crack at reaching the century mark for only the second time in his career.

"I was going to get one of these next two days a little breather," he said. "We had a bunch of guys sitting today. I told them I'd go in there and try it out. I'm glad they talked me into it."

As are the Nationals, who benefited from LaRoche's leadoff homer in the sixth, the go-ahead blast that sent them on their way to a 4-2 victory over the Phillies and left them on a precipice of baseball's best record heading into Game 162.

At 97-64, the Nationals remain tied with the Reds (who beat the Cardinals, 3-1) entering Wednesday's finales. Because they own the head-to-head tiebreaker against Cincinnati, one more victory would make them the NL's top seed in the postseason and leave them to open the NLDS on Sunday at the winner of Friday's Wild Card game.

Thing is, the clubhouse still isn't sure whether that's the best-case scenario or not, with a Saturday-opening NLDS in San Francisco the other option.

"I don't know," LaRoche said. "We've been talking about that. I think we're 50-50 on it. I don't know necessarily the advantage. We're going to play to win tomorrow, and either way we're not in a bad spot. So I'd say we're fine, whatever happens."

They certainly were fine Tuesday, in spite of their lineup of backups and the parade of relievers who combined to churn out nine innings so Game 1 starter Gio Gonzalez could get the night off.

Tom Gorzelanny, typically a long man, was given the ball to make his first start since July 23, 2011, and responded with 3 23 solid innings. Christian Garcia, Zach Duke, Ryan Mattheus, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen then finished it off, combining to allow one run on five hits over the final 5 13 innings.

"We did a great job today," Gorzelanny said. "Guys came in did a great job. Guys have been pitching a lot lately and still are able to come in there and produce."

The real stars of this game might well have been the bench players who took this rare opportunity to start and made the most of it.

Steve Lombardozzi drove in two runs. Roger Bernadina drove in a run and scored another by tagging up on a shallow fly ball to center field. Sandy Leon reached base three times.

And Mark DeRosa singled, doubled, scored a run and started at shortstop for the first time since 2006, turning a nifty 1-6-3 double play to end the second inning.

"Awesome," the 37-year-old utilityman said. "Little older, little heavier on my legs, no doubt. But it's a position I played my whole life, coming up through the minors. ... So I appreciate Davey giving me that. That was, kind of come full circle, finish it off nice."

The biggest blast of them all came via LaRoche, who led off the sixth by belting a home run into the right-field bullpen. That gave him 33 homers on the season (a new career-high) and gave him 100 RBI (matching his career-high).

"It feels pretty good," he said. "That's something that for anybody in the middle of the lineup, it's kind of a milestone to reach 100. If I had finished on 99, it would have been a tough pill to swallow."

LaRoche's homer earned him a curtain call from the crowd of 33,546. Those same fans were back on their feet as Storen recorded the game's final out, securing the Nationals' 97th win and leaving them one win shy of baseball's best record in 2012.

Whether they actually want that designation remains unclear.

"I prefer not to fly out to San Francisco for just two days, just for travel purposes," DeRosa said. "But in 2010 with the Giants that's exactly what we did and it was fine. It really doesn't matter once those games start. It's who's going to execute and who's going to enjoy the moment instead of letting it get too big for them."

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Nats option Giolito, Taylor to make room for Zimmerman and Solis

Nats option Giolito, Taylor to make room for Zimmerman and Solis

Less than 90 minutes after their 10-6 loss to the San Diego Padres, the Nationals wasted no time in making a pair of roster moves to pave the way for the expected returns of first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and reliever Sammy Solis from the disabled list.

The two casualties were starter Lucas Giolito, who struggled earlier in the day in his third MLB appearance, and outfielder Michael Taylor, who went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in the loss. Both were optioned to Triple-A Syracuse.

Zimmerman and Solis are expected to return to the Nationals on Tuesday when they play at the Cleveland Indians. The Nats are off Monday before they begin an 11-day, nine-game road trip with stops also in San Francisco and Arizona.

Zimmerman will rejoin the Nats after rehabbing from a left rib cage strain. He has been on the disabled list since July 7. He went 5-for-12 with a homer and five RBI in three minor league rehab games with the Single-A Potomac Nationals.

Solis has been on the DL since July 8 with right knee inflammation. He pitched two rehab games, one with Potomac and one with Single-A Hagerstown. Solis gave up one run on a homer in his two total innings of work.

Giolito goes back down to Triple-A after making one start with the Nats. He allowed four runs, two of them earned, in 3 2/3 innings against San Diego. Giolito has given up six earned runs in 11 total big league innings this season.

Taylor also returns to Syracuse. He was called up on July 8 when Zimmerman was placed on the DL. Taylor is hitting .222 with seven homers and 14 RBI in 66 games this season.

With Zimmerman back in the infield, Trea Turner is expected to be the odd man out. That could mean a return to the Nats' bench, or an experiment with him in center field. Turner began learning the position several weeks ago by playing six games at center in Triple-A. With Taylor now out of the mix, he could be at the very least the team's backup option at the position.

Whether they will start him there soon, though, is hard to tell. 

"I got to get Zim back in the lineup. He’s a big part of our offense," manager Dusty Baker said. "We just got to try to find a place with Zim coming back, find a place for [Turner] to play."

"I did it in Syracuse and I'll do it here if they need me to," Turner said of playing center.

"It's something that I've embraced. It's something that I'll do if they need me to."

[RELATED: Aaron Barrett suffers major setback in TJ recovery]

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Baker wonders if fatigue played role in Papelbon's collapse vs. Padres

Baker wonders if fatigue played role in Papelbon's collapse vs. Padres

Sunday was not a banner day for a Nationals bullpen that has for the most part exceeded expectations this season.

First, setup man Shawn Kelley - who has been reliable for most of this year - allowed two solo home runs in the top of the eighth. That vanished a two-run lead for the Nats, allowing the Padres to tie it at 6-6.

Then, in the ninth inning it was Jonathan Papelbon, who hadn't allowed a run in eight straight outings since returning from the DL. His luck run out with a four-run frame, one that sunk the Nats with a 10-6 deficit.

That Kelley-Papelbon combination looked mighty good just one night before against the same team. But they couldn't close the deal in a game the Nationals held a two-run advantage entering the eighth inning.

Both pitchers blamed location for their problems. Manager Dusty Baker, though, offered one theory for Papelbon.

"I don’t like to make excuses, but I don’t like to use my closer three days in a row. And this was three days in a row for Pap," he said. "But we didn’t have a choice. The ball wasn’t coming out today the way it had been since he came back from the injury."

Papelbon shot down the premise that he was running out of gas.

"No, I was not tired," he said matter of factly.

It was, to be fair, just the second time this season he's been used for three straight days.

For Papelbon, his trouble started with a one-out walk to Wil Myers. From there, Yangervis Solarte landed an RBI single, and Alex Dickerson and Ryan Schimpf then singled to load the bases. That set up a bases-clearing double by Alexei Ramirez to end Papelbon's day.

The closer, soaked in sweat on a 96-degree day, walked slowly off the mound and to the dugout to a cascade of boos from Nationals fans. It was his first uneven outing in a while, but it was an ugly one and the crowd let him hear all about it.

"It boiled down to location. Coming in there in a situation where we've gotta preserve everything we can, every pitch matters in that situation," Papelbon said.

Kelley's homers were hit by Dickerson and Schimpf. Both players took advantage of similar mistakes.

"Just two pitches that weren't up enough," Kelley said. "Both balls were on the corners in the right direction, I just wanted them a few balls higher. I just didn't get them there. I was just looking at them and talking to some people. They were not bad pitches, but to those two guys, they like the ball in those spots. Just gotta be better right off the bat and execute better with the heater."

Kelley and Papelbon have both enjoyed solid seasons and have formed an above average late-innings duo. But that may not stop the Nationals from pulling off an aggressive move before the trade deadline. They have already shown strong interest in Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman and seem intent on adding at least something to their relief corps.

How Kelley and Papelbon will be affected is unclear. It will depend, of course, on what caliber pitcher they acquire, if they choose to bring one in.

For now, however, the Nats bullpen is focused on bouncing back Tuesday when the team travels to Cleveland to play the first-place Indians.

"We come out and whip their butts. That's what we do," Kelley said. This is a great team. We've got a resilient bullpen. A little blip today, but we'll be right back out there on Tuesday."

[RELATED: Aaron Barrett suffers major setback in TJ recovery]

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Ken Griffey Jr. wears impressive suit to Hall of Fame induction

Ken Griffey Jr. wears impressive suit to Hall of Fame induction

Ken Griffey Jr. was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame Sunday. If there was a suit Hall of Fame, Griffey's getup for the occasion would be first-ballot worthy. 

HOF 2016

A photo posted by Ken Griffey Jr (@therealkengriffeyjr) on

Check out the pinstripes on the jacket. If you look closely, you'll see they read "Hall of Fame Class of 2016."

Now examine the tie. There's the outline of Griffey, backwards hat and all, taking a swing in the gold pattern. 

That hat made another appearance in Cooperstown Sunday. 

The look Junior made famous. #HOFWKND

A video posted by MLB ⚾ (@mlb) on

What else would you expect from the Kid?