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Morse's big blast saves Nats

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Morse's big blast saves Nats

ATLANTA -- As he grabbed a bat and helmet before the eighth inning Friday night, Michael Morse stopped to let manager Davey Johnson his hamstring was acting up a little bit and that he might need a pinch-runner if he reached base.

"It's fine," Morse insisted later. "It was tightening up a little bit in Colorado. He told if I feel anything to let him know, so I said: 'I feel a little bit. A little tired.' That was it."

Yes, that was it in more ways than one. Because when Morse promptly crushed the first pitch he saw from Chad Durbin into the right-center field bleachers, he no longer had reason to test that weak hamstring. He could take as much time as he needed to trot around the bases, his solo homer having just given the Nationals a 5-4 lead over the Braves they would not relinquish.

As Johnson said to Morse as the latter returned to the dugout: "That's the way to keep me from running for you."

Morse's tie-breaking blast was a fitting way to cap this tense game that saw some wild swings of emotion and momentum over the final few innings. Up 4-0 most of the night thanks to the offensive exploits of Morse (4-for-4), Ian Desmond (2-run double) and Jesus Flores (solo homer) and six innings of pitching brilliance from Ross Detwiler, the Nationals nearly collapsed.

Given a chance to complete a seventh inning for only the third time in 56 career starts, Detwiler suffered through a major meltdown. In a span of minutes, he plunked one batter, mishandled a comebacker, was charged with a balk, served up an RBI single and then served up the game-tying home run to rookie Andrelton Simmons on a letter-high curveball.

What thoughts were racing through Detwiler's mind as he slumped over on the mound, hands on knees as Simmons rounded the bases to a roar from the Turner Field crowd of 32,299?

"I can't really say that on camera," the left-hander said with a smile. "They gave me four runs, and I gave them all back. Obviously I'm not going to be very happy about that."

That late implosion soiled an otherwise brilliant start for Detwiler, who carried a streak of 18 13 consecutive scoreless innings into that fateful bottom of the seventh. This outing might not have ended the way he wanted, but it nonetheless came at a most opportune time for a Nationals club that needed eight innings out of its bullpen the previous day in Denver and thus desperately needed a lengthy outing from its No. 5 starter.

"I'll tell you, Det gave us just what the doctor ordered," Johnson said. "It's a shame that he made really one bad pitch and it cost him the ballgame. But a strong effort. We needed it so bad, I can't even tell you."

In the end, Johnson needed to turn to his two best relievers -- Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard -- to record the game's final seven outs. Burnett wound up inducing a double play from Matt Diaz to end the eighth. Clippard managed to escape a self-made jam in the ninth, stranding the tying runner in scoring position after a leadoff double to earn his 13th save in as many tries since assuming the closer's role.

"I wasn't expecting to be my sharpest, by any means, but I was little more off than I wanted to be," said the right-hander, who hadn't appeared in a game in six days. "It's something I've experienced before in the past. I feel like when I'm not feeling my best, I can make it work. And that's what I had to do tonight."

Clutch pitching performances aside, it was Morse's clutch home run that ultimately made this victory possible.

It's been a long, slow road back from a torn lat muscle for the outfielder, who needed nearly a month of big-league at-bats to rediscover his hitting stroke. Throughout his early struggles, Morse tried to convince himself it would all come back, he just needed to stay patient.

But that's easier said than done.

"It's very tough. Very tough," he said. "Right off the bat, you're trying to go out there and do some impossible stuff. But when everything fails, you've got to go back to square one. That's just: Go up there, see the ball, hit it, try to have quality at-bats every time."

Morse has had plenty of those in the last week. He's now 12 for his last 19, a stretch during which he's raised his batting average from .217 to .294 and completely changed the makeup of the Nationals' lineup.

"Oh my goodness, my goodness," Johnson said, adding he plans to move Morse back to the cleanup spot on a daily basis.

Last year's team MVP couldn't have picked a better time to deliver his biggest hit of 2012, a knockout blow against a division rival that further solidified the Nationals' standing as the team to beat in the NL East.

"We've been playing a lot of close games, and we're comfortable in those games," Clippard said. "But this atmosphere tonight was a lot like a playoff atmosphere. I've never been in the playoffs, but I can imagine. It's huge for us, especially because we're a young team and we need these games to get us confidence when it's going to count down the stretch. And I think it does that."

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Cole struggles early, bullpen cracks late as Nats fall to Marlins

Cole struggles early, bullpen cracks late as Nats fall to Marlins

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 7-4 loss over the Miami Marlins on Friday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: If the Nationals want to sew up home field advantage in their first playoff series, they still have more work to do — and only have two more games to do it.

The Nats were unable to help their cause Friday night, falling to the Marlins 7-4 in a rain-soaked affair that began nearly two hours after its scheduled start time.  

While the offense couldn’t come through late, it was starter A.J. Cole that put the Nats in a bind in this one. The 24-year-old rookie right hander forcing Dusty Baker to go to his bullpen early after yielding four runs (two earned) on six hits in just three innings of work.

But all it took was one inning for the Nats to even things up. Anthony Rendon and Stephen Drew opened the fourth with back-to-back solo home runs, and RBI hits by Jose Lobaton and Trea Turner make it 4-4 heading into the fifth.

The bullpen subsequently cracked, however, yielding a runs in the sixth, seventh and ninth innings to give the Marlins a 7-4 edge. The offense couldn’t mount a late rally, and that was all she wrote.

What it means: The magic number for home field advantage in the NLDS remains at two. As of this post, the Dodgers have yet to complete their game against the Giants, so there’s still a chance it could fall to one by Saturday morning.

Rendon reaches homer milestone: With his fourth-inning solo shot, Rendon became the latest Nats hitter join the 20 home run club. In fact, the Nats tied the 1965 and 2003 Braves as the only National League clubs with six players with 20-plus long balls in a season. (Interestingly enough, the Cardinals mathed that feat the Nats later in night after a Matt Holliday home run.)

But back to Rendon: For all the talk that the Nats offense sans Wilson Ramos will suffer, remember that Rendon has been one of the team’s best hitters since the All-Star break. Since then, he’s notched 11 homers, 20 doubles and 51 RBI. In other words, he’s fully returned to his ‘Tony Two-Bags’ form of 2014.

More accolades for Turner: D.C.’s favorite rookie had another one of his patented performances Friday night, going 2-for-3 with an RBI single, a triple and two stolen bases. He became the fourth player in MLB history to notch 10 home runs and 30 steals in less than 100 games, joining Rickey Henderson, Bobby Bonds and current Nats first base coach Davey Lopes. Since the break, he leads the team in both extra-base hits and steals. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Harper struggles: In his first game back since injuring his left thumb, Bryce Harper looked looked very much like a hitter trying to regain his timing at the plate. In four at-bats, he struck out four times — three of them swinging. It’s just one game, of course, but he and the Nats are quickly running out of time to rev up for October.

Up next: The Nats will continue their quest to gain home field advantage in the middle game of this three-game set. Washington will send Tanner Roark (15-10, 2.86 ERA) to the hill to oppose Marlins lefty Wei-Yin Chen (5-4, 5.02 ERA).

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Nationals honor Jose Fernandez before series opener against Marlins

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Twitter: @MiamiHerald

Nationals honor Jose Fernandez before series opener against Marlins

The first game of the Nationals series against the Marlins started late after a nearly two-hour-long rain delay. However, before the first pitch, the Nats played a tribute to Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, whose recent death has left the entire MLB community in shock.

A video tweeted by @masnNationals shows both teams standing on the field, while the clips of Fernandez play on the video board in center field. 

The Marlins twitter also shared a video of the pre-game tribute.

Gio Gonzalez, who was good friends with Fernandez and attended his funeral on Thursday, is seen with tears in his eyes, waving his hat toward the sky. Gonzalez also hung a Fernandez jersey in the Nationals' dugout prior to the game. 

The Diamondbacks left a message for the Marlins in the visitor's clubhouse at Nationals Park before leaving town Thursday. 

Fernandez's death is reaching even further than baseball. The Miami Hurricanes tweeted a picture of decals they added to their helmets for their game tomorrow against Georgia Tech.

It is clear that although Jose may be gone, he will always be rememered by the entire sports community.