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LaRoche, Morse power Nats to win

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LaRoche, Morse power Nats to win

You wouldn't know based on the 0-for-13 he carried with him to the plate Wednesday night for his first at-bat, but Adam LaRoche believes the mere presence of Michael Morse behind him in the Nationals' lineup is going to pay significant dividends over the long haul.

"It's tough to say when you're struggling," LaRoche said. "Obviously the last few games have been a little difficult. But I do know having big guys behind you, I've been in that situation a lot, and it helps. It's nice."

Did the sight of Morse standing in the on-deck circle in the bottom of the first inning cause Mets rookie Jeremy Hefner to hang a first-pitch curveball to LaRoche, a pitch the veteran pounced on and sent flying over the right-field fence for the three-run homer that set the Nationals on their way to a 5-3 victory?

The world may never know. But if LaRoche believes it made a difference, does it really matter if it's true or not?

"With him being back, it totally changes that pitchers' meeting to start a series," he said. "Now you've got one more big bat they've got to spend some time talking about, and figure out a way to get him out. And it helps other guys around him. The fact that I'm hitting in front of him now, I'm probably going to see some better pitches, because they know what's coming up."

LaRoche hadn't exactly been inspiring fear in opposing pitchers over the last three weeks after a brilliant start to the season. Owner of a .336 batting average and 1.024 OPS on May 17, he had seen those number plummet to .267 and .849 during a 6-for-55 skid.

With one mighty swing early in Wednesday's game, though, the 32-year-old might well have put that slump to bed for good. He certainly didn't let up as the evening progressed, singling up the middle in the fifth and then delivering a sacrifice fly in the seventh for his fourth RBI of the game.

Throw in Morse's two hits and first RBI of the season, and the heart of the Nationals' lineup wound up with one of its most productive performances of the year.

"Oh! I mean, it's a whole new ballgame," manager Davey Johnson said, barely able to restrain himself. "Michael Morse is warming up, and there's not going to be much let-up in that middle of the lineup. The first two guys are going to get on, and then the thunder's coming. I've been waiting on it."

The entire Nationals organization had been waiting three months to get Morse back in the lineup. Sidelined since spring training with a torn lat muscle, the man who led last season's roster in nearly every offensive category looked a bit overanxious during his first two games off the disabled list over the weekend.

But after an 0-for-9 delayed start to his 2012, Morse is beginning to discover his groove. He's now got four hits over his last seven at-bats, with a pair of walks thrown in for good measure.

Even more encouraging: All four of Morse's hits have been to the opposite field.

"I liked his patience tonight," Johnson said. "That shows me he's zeroing in."

The thunder from the middle of the Nationals' lineup put the home club ahead early in this game, and the quality pitching of Edwin Jackson, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard ensured a second straight victory over a Mets team that came to town on its own hot streak.

Jackson had dominant stuff, allowing only two singles and a double over seven innings. He did inflict a few wounds on himself via four walks and a costly error on a pickoff attempt. But ultimately he surrendered only two earned runs for his seventh quality start in 10 tries, and he was rewarded for his efforts for a change, earning only his second win despite 3.11 ERA over 11 starts.

The unusual stat line -- not to mention the presence of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann ahead of him in the lineup -- leaves Jackson outside the spotlight at times. His teammates, though, understand what he's meant to the club this season.

"He's like the silent assassin, you could say, of the pitching staff," Morse said. "Edwin always comes out and puts up solid starts. Sometimes it's good to be behind guys like that."

It also helps when your bullpen can close out games in relatively easy fashion as the Nationals did Wednesday. Burnett retired the side in the eighth. Clippard then overcame a leadoff walk to pitch a scoreless ninth and earn his fifth save in as many tries since becoming his team's pseudo-closer.

Actually, Clippard appears to be the Nationals' actual closer for now, used in every save opportunity over the last two weeks and even used on Wednesday against a Mets lineup that had five consecutive left-handed hitters due up in the ninth.

"I've changed enough roles in the bullpen," Johnson said, all but declaring Clippard his ninth-inning guy until Drew Storen returns from elbow surgery around the All-Star break. "From long guys setting up, set-up guys closing, I don't like to keep reverting back and have them guessing out there what their role is going to be."

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VIDEO: Dee Gordon homers in Marlins' 1st at-bat since Jose Fernandez' death

VIDEO: Dee Gordon homers in Marlins' 1st at-bat since Jose Fernandez' death

As the Marlins' leadoff hitter, Dee Gordon was the first to step into the batter's box on Monday night in the team's first game since the death of superstar pitcher Jose Fernandez.

It was an emotional moment after the team embraced at the pitcher's mound in his memory. Gordon began by imitating Fernandez' stance on the first pitch from Mets starter Bartolo Colon. That was great, but what happened next could not have been scripted.

Gordon hit his first homer of the season to the upper deck in right field and broke down into tears as he rounded the bases. He was then comforted in the dugout by teammates as he stepped off the field.

See it for yourself:

That's just amazing.

[RELATED: Thoughts on the death of Marlins star Jose Fernandez]

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Nats offer first reaction to playing the Dodgers in NL Division Series round

Nats offer first reaction to playing the Dodgers in NL Division Series round

The Nationals do not yet know where Game 1 will take place, but they do know for certain that they will face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series beginning Oct. 7. They have seven games remaining on their schedule and four off-days after that before their playoffs begin. That's 11 full days to ponder their opponent, a Dodgers team that just happened to pummel them this season 5-1 in head-to-head games.

The Nats, though, see an evenly matched foe. Keep in mind that regular season records sometimes mean very little in the crapshoot that is October. The Mets, for instance, went 0-7 against the Cubs last year, only to sweep them out of the playoffs in the NLCS.

"I think we match up pretty good against them," manager Dusty Baker said of the Dodgers, a team he spent eight years with as a player.

"Anybody that’s gotten this far, there’s not much difference between the teams and talent. It just depends on who’s hot and who’s not and who gets the best pitching, who gets the most clutch, in particular two-out hits. Some of the challenges they present is they have a pile of a left-handed hitters and powerful left-handed hitters, and they hit the ball out of the ballpark. They got a good team. They got a good bullpen. We haven’t even seen [rookie pitcher Kenta] Maeda yet."

The Nats have almost two weeks to prepare for the Dodgers. But really, they have had them in mind for longer than that. Once the San Francisco Giants started slipping in the NL West race, L.A. emerged as the clear favorite to win the division.

"It will be a fun series," reliever Shawn Kelley said. "I think for a while now we've known it was going to be us and the Dodgers. Now it's just about are we going there or are they coming here first."

"First team we've gotta try to beat," center fielder Trea Turner said. "It's a matter of formulating a gameplan to beat those pitchers who have been really good all year. Especially, [Clayton] Kershaw now that he's back. Their lineup is deep. They've got a lot of veteran players and a good mix of young guys that have done it all year."

The Nationals enter Monday night 1 1/2 games ahead of the Dodgers. If they are to finish with the same record, the Dodgers will get home field advantage based on their head-to-head series record.

Baker offered a measured take on what home field advantage would mean to the Nats.

“It’s not necessary because you’ve seen sometimes the home field doesn’t really matter. It depends on who’s hot during that series," he said. "But sure, anytime I can get home field advantage, we’ll take it, especially because you don’t have to go back to the Coast twice. Let them come to us. Right now we have the lead over them and so there’s no sense giving it up. Sometimes it can be taken from you, but that’s up to us."

Baker said he plans to give some players rest during the final seven games of the regular season. He does not know yet whether Max Scherzer or Tanner Roark will be asked to pitch on short rest in the playoffs. He also said the team has not decided how they will handle the four-day layoff next week. They will hold at least one workout either at home or on the road, but whether fans or media will be permitted to attend has not been determined.

It's an inexact science, trying to keep players fresh but also sharp after a playoff spot has been secured. It's even harder to navigate through those four off-days without losing momentum. The Nats remember all too well back in 2014 when they finished the regular season winners of 17 of 22, only to fall flat offensively in the playoffs against the Giants.

Baker has to figure out the best way to handle the Nats this time and he is still determining the best course of action.

"It’s a thin line between playing a whole bunch and not playing enough," he said.

[RELATED: Thoughts on the death of Marlins star Jose Fernandez]

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