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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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Lobaton, others step up in Nats' 1st game without Wilson Ramos

Lobaton, others step up in Nats' 1st game without Wilson Ramos

If guys like Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon play to their capabilities, the Nationals could make do without Wilson Ramos this postseason, at least on offense.

But even those guys can't do it all by themselves. The much more likely scenario involves a collective effort, one in which contributions from all-around lift the Nationals as a team and help compensate for the loss of one of their best and most consistent players. Collective efforts like Tuesday night when both of Ramos' replacements - Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino - chipped in on offense, Rendon provided the big swing and other bench players like Stephen Drew and Wilmer Difo made pivotal plays in their 4-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Lobaton called a strong game behind the dish, helping starter Max Scherzer adjust after allowing two runs in his first three innings to toss three scoreless after that. He then broke up Diamondbacks' starter Matt Koch's no-hitter in the sixth with a leadoff single. That ignited a four-run rally for the Nats, who took the lead and never relinquished it.

"I don't want to get a no-hitter," Lobaton said. "I got a good result and it was good for the team. We got a rally and we won."

"With [Ramos] going down for the year, that’s just heartbreaking," Scherzer said. "But Loby’s a guy that we need to step up and he’s the one who started off that inning."

Lobaton was replaced on the basepaths by Severino, who is faster than Lobaton, who happens to be dealing with a sore right ankle. Severino would later score after moving to third on walks drawn by Trea Turner and Difo. Severino came home on a sacrifice fly hit to left by Drew.

Lobaton and Severino will be a tag team partnership moving forward this season with Ramos out. They will need to spell each other and work together to try and recreate the production Ramos provided as a standout both at the plate and behind it.

On Tuesday, they pulled through.

"That's what they're going to have to do," manager Dusty Baker said. "That's what they're going to have to do to contribute."

Their night also involved a lot of communication once Severino replaced Lobaton. A veteran with more experience catching the Nationals' pitching staff, Lobaton advised Severino throughout the game about how to call it. That's something Ramos often does for Lobaton.

"That is good for a guy that is not playing every time. It's the same with me, I always talk to Wily about the pitchers and what they are doing," Lobaton said. "I try to communicate more, like what he's been doing and what he's working on. So, I try to do the same with Sevi. This is working in the game, this is not. It can be more easy for him when he goes out."

Severino scored the first run and later in the frame Rendon drove in three more on a homer to left field off Randall Delgado. Rendon was pleased to see the foundation laid ahead of him that inning.

"That’s a great example, first day, stepping up,” he said. "Definitely frustration [with Ramos' injury]. You never like to see a teammate get hurt… obviously he’s going to be missed. He’s a big part of this lineup. But we have a lot of good guys who can fill in. It’s going to be awesome to watch.”

The Nationals have five more games before the regular season is over. To capture a World Seires, they will need to win 11 more after that. It won't always be as smooth asTuesday night, but the Nationals demonstrated well to themselves what it will take to get by without their star catcher.

[RELATED: Dodgers set rotation for playoff series against Nationals]

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Anthony Rendon's homer lifts Nationals over Diamondbacks

Anthony Rendon's homer lifts Nationals over Diamondbacks

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 4-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: With All-Star Wilson Ramos now out for the rest of the regular season and playoffs with a torn right ACL, the Nationals will need others to step up and compensate for his loss. On defense, it will be up to Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino. Ramos is an excellent defensive catcher, but his two backups are perfectly capable behind the dish.

On offense is where Ramos' absence will particularly hurt and that was noted by manager Dusty Baker on Tuesday after his diagnosis was revealed. Others in their lineup will have to raise their games to fill the void.

Time will tell how much Ramos is missed, but Tuesday was a good start. The Nationals saw several players contribute to a sixth inning rally that led them to a 4-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Lobaton got them started with a single to right field, the first hit of the night against Arizona rookie Matt Koch, who was making his MLB debut. Stephen Drew later drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. And after that it was Anthony Rendon who gave the Nats the lead with a three-run homer to left field.

That gave the Nationals enough to hand Max Scherzer his 19th win of the season. Scherzer lasted six innings on 98 pitches before he was pulled for a pinch-hitter.

The Nationals bounced back from their blowout loss in the series opener on Monday night and have now won three of four.

What it means: The Nationals improved to 92-65 on the season with just five games remaining.

Scherzer overcomes rocky start: Scherzer was solid on Tuesday night with six innings and two runs allowed on six hits and two walks. But his night didn't start out too well, as Scherzer gave up a solo homer to Jean Segura on the first pitch of the game. He allowed another run on a Welington Castillo double in the top of the third. After that, though, Scherzer settled in to retired seven straight batters with six consecutive strikeouts. 

Scherzer finished with 10 strikeouts on the night to reach double digits for the 13th time this season and the 49th time in his career. He also got to 277 strikeouts on the season to set a new Nationals record, breaking his previous mark of 276 set just last year. Scherzer is the only active pitcher with at least two seasons of 275 strikeouts or more.

Rendon hits No. 19: Rendon's homer was his 19th of the season, two away from the career-high of 21 he set in 2014. It was also the 500th hit of his career. Rendon hasn't had the greatest month when it comes to getting on base, but he's driven plenty of runs in. With his three RBI on Tuesday, Rendon now has 22 for September, a career-high for a single month. He has 51 RBI in 64 games since the All-Star break.

Lobaton, Severino make an impact: Lobaton's hit to lead off the sixth and start their four-run rally was just a single, but was a positive sign for the Nats, who will need him to step up with Ramos out. Lobaton was replaced by Severino as a pinch-runner and Severino then came around to score on Drew's sacrifice fly. That duo may need to split a lot of playing time over the next few weeks and with Lobaton's sore right ankle, Severino could be replacing him on the basepaths late in close games quite often moving forward.

Up next: The Nationals play another 7:05 p.m. start on Wednesday night with lefty Gio Gonzalez (11-10, 4.51) set to face former Braves starter Shelby Miller (2-12, 6.47).

[RELATED: Ramos' ACL tear devastating news for him and Nats]

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