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Looking at the Nationals' clinching scenarios

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Looking at the Nationals' clinching scenarios

PHILADELPHIA -- And so we have reached the home stretch at last, the final nine regular season games of what has turned into a most entertaining and surprising year for the Nationals.

Much as they would have loved to break out the champagne bottles and plastic locker barriers during the just-completed homestand, the Nationals couldn't quite create enough separation between themselves and the Braves to clinch the NL East title yet. Thus, the celebration is likely to happen on the road this week, either here in Philadelphia on Thursday night or sometime Friday-Sunday in St. Louis.

Wait, you ask, don't the Braves still have a chance to steal away the division crown? Well, technically yes. But the odds are stacking severely against that happening.

The Nationals enter play tonight up five games with nine to play. The magic number is 5, so any combination of five Washington wins and Atlanta losses wraps this thing up.

Think of it this way: If the Nats go only 4-5 the rest of the way, the Braves would need to go 9-0 simply to force a one-game tiebreaker for the NL East title. (And yes, they would have to play that game in Washington next Thursday, with the winner declared division champs and the losers shipped off to the Wild Card game. That's a new rule instituted by MLB this season.)

So in many ways, it almost doesn't matter what Atlanta does down the stretch as long as the Nationals play respectable baseball and don't gag everything away.

The best-case scenario for the Nats would have them clinching as soon as Thursday night at Citizens Bank Park, which would be poetic in many ways after the Phillies clinched three of their five NL East crowns against Washington (2007, 2008, 2010).

Adding to the intrigue, the Nationals could have a chance not only to celebrate on the Phillies' turf but also officially eliminate them from the postseason altogether. Despite a late surge to get back in the race, Philadelphia trails the Cardinals by 5 12 games for the final Wild Card berth. Their "tragic number" to be eliminated is 4, so any combination of four Cardinals wins and Phillies losses puts an end to that long-shot dream.

If the Nationals can't wrap things up by Thursday, they'll head west to St. Louis and bring the champagne with them. That would present a potentially bizarre scenario, one that could see the Nats clinch the NL East and the Cardinals clinch the Wild Card on the same field at the same time.

How would that work? Would both teams dog-pile in the middle of the diamond? Doubtful. Whichever team won the game would likely get to celebrate, with the other retreating to its clubhouse.

And what if the Nationals can't finish this off before Sunday? Well, they would then head back home for the final, three-game series against the Phillies.

On the bright side, they'd get to clinch in front of their own fans.

Something, though, tells me Davey Johnson and Co. have no interest in experiencing that.

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Nats' Dusty Baker talks about slapping Trea Turner's butt, things get weird

Nats' Dusty Baker talks about slapping Trea Turner's butt, things get weird

Manager Dusty Baker was asked about Trea Turner's surprising strength on Thursday night and, well, his answer was a bit unexpected.

You could say things got a little weird. Baker started talking about Turner's build and his description got quite specific:

"He’s wiry-strong. You can tell by that ball he hit down the line. That’s a big man’s swing right there. He’s stronger than he appears. And he’s going to get stronger yet, when he gets his man-muscles or his man-bones or whatever you call it. Heh-heh. Cause today I tapped him on the butt, and I was like: ‘Man, you’re hard as a rock.’ And he said: ‘Well, I should be. It’s all bone.’”

Okay, then. Now, that's a quote. 

Baker also described Max Scherzer's between-the-legs on Thursday night in terms that included the male anatomy:

"First time I’ve seen that. Good thing that ball didn’t hop up on him, know what I mean?”

Just another night with Dusty Baker, one of the funniest people in sports.

[RELATED: Strasburg plays catch, Nats say injury not in area of Tommy John surgery]

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Max Scherzer digs down deep to help Nats, shut up Orioles fans

Max Scherzer digs down deep to help Nats, shut up Orioles fans

Despite his team holding a comfortable division lead in the final week of August, there was plenty on the line to motivate Max Scherzer on Thursday night at Nationals Park.

He was tasked with stopping his team's four-game losing streak against a team in the Baltimore Orioles that was aiming for a four-game sweep. Going back to last season, the O's had won six consecutive games over the Nats. They had their number. They smelled blood. And because of the proximity of the team's stadiums, they had some of their friends lacing the audience dressed in orange.

The Nationals' bullpen also needed a favor. Rookie starter Reynaldo Lopez went just 2 2/3 innings on Tuesday and Tanner Roark was bounced after five the following night. Last week Nats relievers were plagued by even shorter outings from the rotation, rain delays and injuries.

Simply put, the Nationals needed Scherzer to be the ace they paid him $210 million to be. They needed 'Mad Max.'

So, Scherzer stepped out of the dugout and into the view of a sellout crowd on Thursday night with that crazed looked in his eye, that 20-strikeout, 'you'll be lucky to get any hits at all' kind of look. He was ready to be the aggressor against an Orioles lineup that is as aggressive and powerful as they come.

"They have a lot of guys that have a lot of thump in their lineup and the past three nights, I had really been watching them," Scherzer said. "I was going through my experience and really coming up with a gameplan of how I needed to pitch against them."

Scherzer used that preparation to charge out to a fantastic start with six strikeouts in his first eight at-bats. He carved up the Orioles to the tune of eight shutout innings with 10 strikeouts, no walks and just two hits allowed. That set the stage for just the fifth time the O's have been shut out this season.

"That’s what aces do," manager Dusty Baker said. "He shut down a very high–powered offense. There were only a couple balls hit hard off him. Had quite a few strikeouts. Boy, that was a masterful, masterful job by Max."

It was the 11th time Scherzer has posted double-digit strikeouts in a game this season, more than any other MLB pitcher. That tied the Nats club record he set himself just last year.

His 10th strikeout was against Orioles catcher Matt Wieters in the eighth inning. He then got J.J. Hardy to fly out to end the frame and his night after 95 pitches.

Scherzer had every reason to keep pushing late in his start, but there was something in the park on Thursday that gave him some extra motivation.

"I gave everything I got there in the eighth, the O's fans started making noise there in the eighth and that really kind of ticked me off. When they're sitting out there cheering at our park, I didn't like that," he said.

That, of course, was a minor consideration for Scherzer. More important to him was saving the aforementioned bullpen, which has been taxed more than any part of their roster during this current stretch of 20 games in 20 days.

"I knew I needed to pitch deep into the game tonight. Our bullpen has been taxed, and I really needed to try and get deep into the game to try and help those guys out. That was huge to get into the eighth and complete the eighth and just turn the ball over to Mark [Melancon], so that was a first and foremost thing that I knew I needed to do tonight," he said.

[RELATED: Nats' Ross making quick progress, may start rehab assignment soon]

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Scherzer returns to dominant form to end Nats' losing streak vs. Orioles

Scherzer returns to dominant form to end Nats' losing streak vs. Orioles

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 4-0 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: In order for the Nationals to finally beat the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday night, Max Scherzer had to pull out all the tricks.

Per usual, he dazzled with his electric fastball, sometimes as an out-pitch, sometimes simply to set up his breaking stuff. He didn't allow a baserunner until the fourth inning and struck out six of the first eight batters he faced.

Scherzer even fielded a groundball through his legs, from behind. Like, he was turned and facing the outfield, reached down and grabbed the ball, then threw it to first.

Now, that's something you don't see every day. What you do see often, is the dominance Scherzer displayed on Thursday night. He ended up going eight shutout innings, allowing just two hits and no walks along the way. That performance led the Nats to a win, their first against the Orioles in their last seven tries.

Jayson Werth put them on the board in the fourth inning with a solo homer to center field off O's starter Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez was actually pretty good, as he usually is against the Nats. He went six innings with just one run allowed on five hits and no walks. He now has a 2.24 ERA in nine career starts against the Nats.

Daniel Murphy added another run on an RBI single in the eighth. He drove a hard groundball down the first base line to score Trea Turner and notch his 96th RBI of the season. Bryce Harper added a two-RBI double to opposite field in the eighth inning to give the Nats some extra insurance.

The Nationals snapped a four-game losing streak with the win and prevented the Orioles from handing them their first sweep since June 20-22 against the Dodgers.

What it means: The Nationals got back in the win column to move to 74-53 on the year.

Scherzer ties his own record: With 10 strikeouts on Thursday night, Scherzer notched his 11th double-digit strikeout game of the year. That leads the majors and matches the Nationals club record for a single season. Scherzer, in fact, tied his own record, set last season. Thursday night was Scherzer's 47th career double-digit strikeout performance.

Werth hits No. 17: Werth obliterated an 89 mile per hour fastball to dead center off Jimenez for his 17th home run of the season. The ball traveled 436 feet and ricocheted off the green wall in the groundskeepers pen. For Werth, it was fifth homer of August, a season-high for one month for the Nats left fielder. He had four homers in April and May, and had just four total between June and July. His 17 are the most he's hit in a year since 2013, when he finished 13th in NL MVP voting.

Harper hits two marks: Harper reached two mini-milestones on Thursday night. One was his 18th steal of the season, which matches the career-high he set as a rookie back in 2012. Harper only had 19 total steals from 2013 through 2015. Now that he's healthy and under the tutelage of first base coach Davey Lopes, he's returned to being a significant threat on the basepaths.

Harper also singled and landed an RBI double and has now reached base in all 12 games since he returned from his neck injury nearly two weeks ago. He's 18-for-46 (.391) with 13 RBI overall during that stretch. The single on Thursday gave him his 100th hit of the season in his 117th game. He got to No. 100 in his 89th game last year.

Up next: The Nats next host the Colorado Rockies, who won two out of three in their series at Coors Field earlier this month. Gio Gonzalez (8-9 4.30) will get the start opposite right-hander Jeff Hoffman (0-1, 13.50) in the Friday night opener.

[RELATED: Strasburg plays catch, Nats say injury not in area of Tommy John surgery]

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