LaRoche, bench deliver for Nationals

903457.png

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."

Ross strong in return as Nats roll past Cardinals in St. Louis

nationalscutin42716refframe_1.jpg

Ross strong in return as Nats roll past Cardinals in St. Louis

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 6-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday afternoon at Busch Stadium: 

How it happened: Sometimes baseball can be so unpredictable that it almost doesn't even make sense. Trends can reverse in an instant and make all those who cast predictions look like fools. Baseball laughs at your 'educated' guess.

Take this weekend and the Nationals for instance. Somehow, after getting swept at home by the worst team in baseball in 2015, they now find themselves one game away from sweeping a team that led the majors with 100 wins a year ago. The Nats looked like no match for the Phillies in D.C., but now they're dominating the juggernaut Cardinals in St. Louis. Okay, sure. That makes sense.

Amazingly, that's where the Nats find themselves after Saturday's 6-1 win. Joe Ross closed his excellent April with six strong innings, Jayson Werth smacked a three-run homer in the top of the first and the Nats rolled past the Cardinals in St. Louis for the second straight day. They have won their first series at Busch Stadium since 2007. 

What it means: The Nats are off to a terrific start on their toughest road trip of the season. With two wins against the Cardinals, they have a chance to sweep before heading to Kansas City to face the defending champion Royals. These have been two very impressive wins and the Nats are proving well so far that their hot start against bad teams this season was not a mirage.

Ross strong in return: Ross returned from an injury - albeit a minor one - and it was not an easy situation for the right-hander to transition back, on the road at the Cardinals who boast one of baseball's best lineups. The right-hander, though, showed no rust at all from skipping his last start. Ross threw six innings of one-run ball on six hits and two walks. The one run - on a sac fly in the fifth - was the first charged to Ross since the first inning of his season debut. He had a 20 1/3 scoreless innings streak snapped, which is the second-longest in the NL so far this season only to Jake Arrieta's 23-inning streak. Ross now has a 0.79 ERA through four outings.

Werth comes through again: Werth added two hits (and 4 RBI) on Saturday including his big swing in the first inning to give the Nats a nice early lead. His three-run homer was his fourth of the season through 21 games. That's a 31-homer pace over a full 162. Power numbers were a concern for Werth after his shoulder surgery last offseason, but he now has 13 homers in his last 55 games dating back to last August. That's a 38-homer pace over a full season. He needs to get on base more, but lately he's been a significant home run threat.

Harper in a mini-slump: It's not often you see Bryce Harper struggle for several games in a row, but that has been the case over his last four outings. Harper had one walk and a run, but went hitless again on Saturday. He is now 0-for his last 11 at-bats and has one hit in his last four games. Harper's batting average dipped to .289 after Saturday's game, but he still holds a 1.128 OPS, which shows how good he has been overall this season.

Murphy keeps hitting: Daniel Murphy added two singles for his MLB-best 11th multi-hit game in 22 outings this season. His first single drove in the Nats' first run of the afternoon ahead of Werth's homer. Murphy is now batting .370 with a 1.013 OPS.

Up next: The Nationals have a chance to sweep the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon with another 2:15 p.m. first pitch. Max Scherzer (2-1, 4.35) will try to rebound after an uneven start to the season, while 24-year-old budding star Carlos Martinez (4-0, 1.93) will pitch for St. Louis.

Can the Marlins compete in the NL East without Dee Gordon?

nationalscutin42716refframe_1.jpg

Can the Marlins compete in the NL East without Dee Gordon?

Through the first month of the 2016 season, the NL East looks like it could be deeper than it was a year ago. That is, of course, excluding the Atlanta Braves, who are currently MLB's worst team with a .217 win percentage after 23 games.

The Nationals and Mets look very good. The Phillies are 13-10 and winners of three straight. Whether they can keep that up, though, is doubtful.

On paper, the Marlins have the third-best roster in the division and in terms of starpower can measure up to just about any team in baseball. With Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez, in particular, they have two superstars in their prime.

Depth was the biggest concern for Miami heading into this season and now it's about to be seriously tested. All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon, who won the NL batting title in 2015, has been suspended for 80 games for performance enhancing drugs. His loss is a big one.

The Marlins' lineup is impressive, but it looks a lot better with Gordon at the top setting the table for Stanton, Christian Yelich and Justin Bour. Few players in baseball can provide the threat Gordon can not only as a leadoff hitter, but as a baserunner as well. Gordon led the league each of the last two years in steals, with 58 last year and 64 the season before that.

It's only logical to think Gordon's loss will have a profound effect on the Marlins, that his absence alone could pave the way for the Phillies to be the third-best team in the NL East. But, interestingly enough, the Marlins are red-hot right now. They've won six straight and just swept the Dodgers in L.A. The Dodgers had one of baseball's best records prior to the series and won the NL West last year.

Miami may appear okay right now, but they will have to stay afloat for three full months without Gordon. He can't return until late July and by then it could be too late. 

At 11-11, the Marlins have an average record and rank as a pedestrian team in many categories. They aren't scoring a ton of runs and no part of their pitching staff has stood out as above average. Their starting rotation, in particular, does not appear to be a strength, especially if Fernandez pitches the way he has to begin this season. Wei-Yin Chen hasn't been very good, either.

If the Marlins have been a middle of the road team overall with Gordon, it's hard to see them proving to be anything more than that without him. Miami had the best chance of making the NL East a three-team race this season and Gordon's suspension may have sealed their fate. Now the division now looks even more like a direct battle between the Nationals and Mets, unless the Phillies have something to say about it.

Ross returns to mound as Nats continue series at Cardinals

nationalscutin42716refframe_1.jpg

Ross returns to mound as Nats continue series at Cardinals

Nats (15-7) vs. Cardinals (12-11) at Busch Stadium

Joe Ross returns to the mound for the Nationals today after leaving his last start and getting his turn in the rotation skipped due to a blister on his right hand. The Nats and Ross called the move precautionary, but it will still be interesting to see how he returns to action.

Ross will be facing a Cardinals lineup that looks much different today. He won't see Jedd Gyorko, Randall Grichuk or Stephen Piscotty, who all played on Friday night. The Nationals have their expected lineup set to play with Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia on the mound.

First pitch: 2:15 p.m.
TV: MASN
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Joe Ross vs. Cardinals - Jamie Garcia

NATS

CF Michael Taylor
3B Anthony Rendon
RF Bryce Harper
1B Ryan Zimmerman
2B Daniel Murphy
LF Jayson Werth
SS Danny Espinosa
C Jose Lobaton
RHP Joe Ross

CARDINALS

CF Jeremy Hazelbaker
3B Matt Carpenter
LF Matt Holliday
1B Matt Adams
C Yadier Molina
RF Brandon Moss
SS Ruben Tejada
2B Kolten Wong
LHP Jaime Garcia

Follow along with GameView here.