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Nationals have something special brewing

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Nationals have something special brewing

The images from the defining moment of Sunday's dramatic, 11-10 victory in Milwaukee were striking and memorable.

Michael Morse with left arm raised as he watched his game-tying home run in the ninth inning sneak over the right-field wall at Miller Park. Davey Johnson doing a little jig from the top dugout step as he watched the ball sail out. Ryan Mattheus, who had put the Nationals in that hole by serving up three homers in two innings of relief making sure he was the very first one to greet Morse and offer his teammate a bear hug.

That moment, perhaps as much as any other this season, revealed why the Nationals aren't just a good team in 2012 but why they may just be something special.

Sure, there's a boatload of talent on the roster, and of course that's the No. 1 reason this club now shares the best record in baseball with the scorching-hot Cincinnati Reds.

But there are other, less-tangible qualities to this assemblage of players and coaches that have allowed that talent to reign supreme: Character and chemistry.

The stat-heads can debate this one for all eternity, arguing whether or not such nebulous concepts make any difference in a team's won-loss record. All that matters is this important fact: The men who wear Nationals uniforms and help create their roster universally believe they are winning right now not only because of their physical abilities but because of their camaraderie and fortitude.

How many times has this team bragged about the manner in which it never gives up on a ballgame? Certainly after each of the 24 games the Nationals have come from behind to win.

How many injuries of significance has this team overcome, not merely replacing the disabled starter with an adequate fill-in but with someone who nearly produced as much as the guy who went down?

And how many times have we heard them talk about having each others' backs, about the importance of all 25 members of the roster contributing to the greater cause, about players who put more stock in team performance than individual accolades?

It's a near-daily theme inside that clubhouse. It's the hallmark of a special team. And it's the biggest reason general manager Mike Rizzo is likely to stay quiet through tomorrow's trade deadline.

Are there a couple of holes Rizzo could fill, a few areas of concern that could use a boost? Yes. The Nationals' catching situation leaves much to be desired. And there's a serious lack of infield depth now that Ian Desmond is on the disabled list.

But Rizzo is incredibly leery of tinkering with the delicate balance of a victorious clubhouse right now. The Nationals aren't just winning games, they're having fun doing it, and the last thing a GM wants to do in the middle of a run like this is disrupt positive mojo.

Players aren't talking about the need to add a veteran catcher or a fifth starter or a backup infielder. They're talking about the gutsy performances Jesus Flores and Sandy Leon are putting together every day behind the plate. They're talking about the manner in which Ross Detwiler has stepped up this season and become the quality pitcher he always was supposed to be, and about the important role they expect John Lannan to play down the stretch. And they're talking about the vital contributions Mark DeRosa makes, not so much on the field but in the dugout and in the clubhouse as he mentors younger teammates who have never experienced a big-league pennant race.

Rizzo sees all this. So does Johnson. They sense what is brewing right now. A season that was supposed to see the Nationals take the next step forward in their long-term plan has seen them take two leaps forward.

The goals have changed. The expectations have been raised. This is a team that can do something special.

They've shown that several times over the last four months, and they really showed it yesterday in Milwaukee.

And the last thing anyone wants to do right now is anything that might screw it all up.

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Nats say Orioles' Dylan Bundy among best pitchers they've seen in 2016

Nats say Orioles' Dylan Bundy among best pitchers they've seen in 2016

The Nationals got their first look at Orioles starter Dylan Bundy on Monday night and, well, let's just say they were impressed.

The superlatives were bountiful in the Nats' postgame clubhouse, including manager Dusty Baker's opinion that Bundy is one of the best pitchers they have seen all season. Baker didn't stop there, he brought up a Hall of Famer to offer a comparison.

 “Well, No. 1, we had never seen him. No. 2, he has an electric fastball," Baker said when asked what made Bundy so tough. 

"He reminds me of the old Mets: Tom Seaver and Gary Gentry and those guys, the drop-and-drive guys. Scientists say a ball can’t rise, but those balls were rising. And then he probably has one of the best curveballs we’ve seen. We heard he had great stuff. It was just a matter of his command."

Bundy, 23, was the fourth overall pick in 2011. He debuted in 2012, but then had Tommy John surgery and didn't make it back to the majors until this season. Since returning, he's held a 3.33 ERA across 81 innings, including eight starts.

Bundy was lethal on Monday against the first-place Nationals with six innings of two-run ball. Despite allowing four walks, he limited the damage and held the Nats to just three hits, one of them a solo homer. That was enough to outduel rookie A.J. Cole, who pitched above expectations for the Nats with seven innings and four runs allowed.

As far as what made him difficult to hit, several Nationals players added some insight to Baker's initial description.

"I feel like he's a little sneaky," Anthony Rendon, who hit the solo homer off of him, said. "He's a big kid up there. He hides the ball really well and it comes out of his hand pretty hot."

“I think he threw kind of that fastball that had a good second half. He was throwing it sort of right at the top of the zone, tough to lay off," Ryan Zimmerman said. "Mixing in that curveball and that changeup. Good fastball."

"He rode it a little more in the first time through the lineup, then he started running it later on," Daniel Murphy said of the fastball. "He went from about 94, 95 first time through the order to about 90, 92 the second time. He'd geek it up a little bit when he got in a spot… he went away from what seemed like a four-seamer and started running it a little bit. I didn't see him do that a ton on the film, so to kinda switch up on the fly right there was impressive."

It's unlikely the Nats will see Bundy any time soon. Next time they do, their odds should be better to find success against him. But as far as first impressions go, he couldn't have done much better on Monday night.

[RELATED: Ross still far from returning, may pitch out of Nats' bullpen]

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Despite loss, Cole's spot start helps alleviate tired Nats bullpen

Despite loss, Cole's spot start helps alleviate tired Nats bullpen

BALTIMORE — The box score may say A.J. Cole couldn’t help the Nationals defeat the Orioles on Monday night at Camden Yards. But that doesn’t mean his outing didn’t provide a big boost to his team.

The 24-year-old right hander, who made his 2016 debut in an emergency start after Stephen Strasburg was placed on the disabled list, came through with a career-high seven innings of work to alleviate the Nats’ exhausted bullpen.  

That might seem pale compared the ultimate objective of winning, but Washington is in the midst of 20 games in as many days, so it needs as many rested arms as it can get. Over the past week, Nats relievers have thrown 27 2/3 frames, desperately needing a starter to carry the load. Going against the powerful Orioles lineup on short notice, Cole did just that.  

“He saved our bullpen,” manager Dusty Baker said. “He pitched a heck of a game. He had great poise, great command against a very good offense.”

Cole allowed four runs on five hits over seven innings while collecting a career-high eight strikeouts. On its face, that’s somewhat of a pedestrian stat line. But consider his only other big-league start was in April of 2015, where he allowed nine runs (four earned) in just two innings. Sixteen months later, the Nats got what they needed from him in his second go-round in the majors. 

“I got some [experience] under my belt,” Cole said afterward. “Comfort zone, yeah, might be a little better. I have a great team behind me, so I know I can go out, make pitches and they're going to make plays behind me. So yeah, a little more comfortable this year.”

Perhaps Cole's most impressive trait he displayed was the ability to shake off a bad inning. After the Orioles three-run fourth — including a loud two-run home run from Mark Trumbo — the Birds were held scoreless the rest of the way. 

“He seemed unfazed by the home runs, which is a sign of maturity,” Baker said. “You can’t do anything about the home run that just happened. All you can do is concentrate on the batter at hand." 

“Tonight was the best I’ve seen him throw,” Ryan Zimmerman said. ”…He was attacking the guys tonight. It was good to see. It was a huge spot for us for him to come up and pitch seven innings like that. Our bullpen has been kind of worked pretty tough over Colorado trip and then down in Atlanta. So for him to give us seven strong innings and give them a rest tonight was huge for us even in a loss.”

Though Cole acquitted himself well in spot duty, there's no guarantee he'll be asked to start again soon. Though Baker admitted the performance earned the young right hander another chance down the road, he said the Nats are preparing Lucas Giolito to make Strasburg’s next start if necessary.

But with the rotation in flux for the foreseeable future, the Nats have to feel good knowing they have yet another capable arm to call upon in a pinch. 

“This is what the game is, gotta be ready," Cole said, "and that's what I've been getting ready for.”

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Bundy, Orioles bullpen too much as Nats drop series opener

Bundy, Orioles bullpen too much as Nats drop series opener

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 4-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles on Monday night at Camden Yards.

How it happened: Nationals right-hander A.J. Cole was given a heck of an assignment on Monday night.

With Stephen Strasburg unexpectedly back on the disabled list with a right elbow injury, the Nats turned to Cole - he of just three career MLB outings - to face the homer-mashing Orioles at Camden Yards in the series opener in Baltimore. Stepping in last minute like that is not an ideal situation for any pitcher, no matter the experience level, day, opponent or ballpark. Throw in all the factors listed above and you've got a time-tested recipe for disaster.

It wasn't quite a disaster, but Cole struggled against the Orioles, as many would expect him to do. He gave up four earned runs on five hits and two walks.

The good news, however, was that Cole went seven innings. That helped save the Nats' bullpen, which had been weathered by rain delays and short outings from their starters in recent days.

Cole wasn't bad, but Orioles starter Dylan Bundy was better. He went six innings with just two earned runs allowed on three hits. He walked four batters, but did well to limit the damage throughout his night.

Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa each hit solo homers for the Nationals. Daniel Murphy drove in another run on a single to score Trea Turner. For Murphy, it was his 90th RBI of the season. Turner scored after notching his 14 steal of the season, which puts him in second on the Nats only behind Bryce Harper, who has 17. Turner has played 35 games, while Harper has appeared in 114.

The Orioles also got two homers, both off Cole. Jonathan Schoop hit a solo bomb in the third, while Mark Trumbo launched a two-run shot in the fourth. It was Trumbo's MLB-leading 38th home run of the season.

Espinosa's homer cut the Orioles lead to one run in the seventh. But star relievers Brad Brach and Zach Britton sealed the deal for Baltimore in the eighth and ninth innings.

The Nationals have lost two consecutive games this season and four straight to the Orioles dating back to last year.

What it means: The Nats fell to 73-51 on the season. Both the Marlins and Mets were off Monday, so the Nationals now hold an eight-game lead in the NL East over Miami. They lead the Mets by 11 games.

Cole goes seven: By saving the Nats' bullpen with seven innings, Cole did all the Nats could ask for, despite the fact he gave up four runs. The Nationals' relief corps is now in much better shape, which is a small victory for them in what amounted to a loss in the standings. Cole struck out eight batters, which set a new career-high. He struck out seven in a relief appearance on May 23 of last year, his last MLB outing.

Rendon hits No. 16: Rendon put the Nationals up a run in the fourth inning with his solo homer. It was Rendon's 16th home run of the season and his third in his last 10 games. His career-high for one season is 21, set back in 2014. In order to match that, Rendon would need five homers by the end of the season and the Nats have 38 games left on their schedule. 

Espinosa hits No. 19: It was just this morning that I wrote about how long it had been since Espinosa had hit a homer, how his power outage had taken away one of the skills you can usually point to when defending his value to the Nationals. On Monday, he broke through with a solo homer to center field off reliever Mychal Givens in the seventh inning. It was Espinosa's first home run since July 3, a stretch of 38 games. That's a good sign for a player who has struggled mightily in recent weeks.

Up next: The Nats and Orioles play one more in Baltimore before heading south for two more games at Nationals Park. Rookie Reynaldo Lopez (2-1, 4.37) will square off with O's right-hander Kevin Gausman (4-10, 4.11).

[RELATED: Ross still far from returning, may pitch out of Nats' bullpen]

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