Nationals hold off Cardinals

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Nationals hold off Cardinals

By Mark Zuckerman
Nationals Insider

ST. LOUIS -- The champagne was on site, stored away in crates out of view from the main room in the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium. So, too, were the plastic locker covers, the ones that can quickly be installed to prevent all that champagne from ruining clothes, jewelry and electronics.

The Nationals showed up Saturday afternoon prepared for a party, just in case events fell their way. But before their 6-4, 10-inning victory over the Cardinals was complete, they already knew there would be no celebration on this night. The Braves' 2-0 win over the Mets kept the NL East race alive for at least one more day.

The Nationals, though, know they don't need to count on Atlanta for anything any more. Thanks to this victory, they lowered their magic number to 1. If they simply win one of their final four games, they'll win the division and enter the postseason no worse than the NL's No. 2 seed.

The clinch could now come Sunday afternoon, with the Nationals closing out this series against the Cardinals about 30 minutes after the Braves and Mets get underway at Turner Field.

A clinch Saturday night -- on the eighth anniversary of the day Major League Baseball announced baseball was returning to Washington after a 33-year hiatus -- certainly would have been sweet. But a clinch Sunday afternoon -- on the 41st anniversary of the Senators' final game at RFK Stadium -- would be just as meaningful for the Nationals and for generations of D.C. baseball fans.

The Nationals reached this precipice of history after a nip-and-tuck, extra-inning affair against the Wild Card-contending Cardinals, one that saw Michael Morse kick things off with one of the strangest grand slams in decades, then saw Jordan Zimmermann and four relievers try to hang on for dear life to prevent St. Louis from completing a late rally that would have spoiled the night for everyone.

The first three men out of the bullpen (Sean Burnett, Ryan Mattheus and Tyler Clippard) managed to get the job done. The fourth man out of the pen, Drew Storen, was not as fortunate.

The Nationals' once-and-future closer blew a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth, allowing back-to-back, groundball singles to Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso before Jon Jay lofted a sacrifice fly to center, plenty deep to bring Kozma home with the tying run and send this one to extra innings.

No worries, because Kurt Suzuki picked everyone up with a clutch, two-out, two-run double in the top of the 10th, moments after St. Louis manager Mike Matheny decided to intentionally walk the struggling Danny Espinosa and pitch to the recently-hot catcher instead.

Suzuki, now hitting .322 with 20 RBI over his last 27 games, scorched right-hander Fernando Salas' pitch to the wall in left-center, bringing home both Adam LaRoche and Espinosa and letting everyone in the Nationals dugout breath a bit again.

Craig Stammen then finished it off, earning a rare save to cap off a tense evening of baseball.

They treated this like any other day inside the Nationals clubhouse before the game, players lounging around playing cards or watching the Ryder Cup on television. Little would anyone realize the champagne and plastic locker covers were lurking in an adjacent room, ready to be moved into position should events make it necessary.

For that to happen, of course, the Nationals not only needed to win but the Braves needed to lose for the second straight night. They'd been sneaking peeks at the out-of-town-scoreboard for several weeks, but they really were keeping a close eye on the giant, LED display above the right field fence at Busch Stadium.

"This one here is plastered all over in front of you," manager Davey Johnson said. "So you can't hardly miss it."

Thus, the Nationals had to notice very quickly when the Braves jumped out to a 1-0 lead on the Mets in the bottom of the first. And they had to notice when the lead doubled to 2-0 in the bottom of the fifth, then remained just like that deep into the ballgame, a somewhat demoralizing development for a club that was hoping to celebrate on this night.

Not that the Nationals weren't holding up their part of the bargain, storming out of the gates to take a 4-0 lead in the top of the first in as bizarre a scene as you'll ever see on a big-league field.

After Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and LaRoche all reached safely with one out, Morse stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and Kyle Lohse on the ropes. He pounced on Lohse's first pitch and drilled the ball on a line to right field, where it caromed off something and bounced back onto the field.

The Nationals all assumed it was a home run, but Cardinals right fielder Carlos Beltran fired the ball back into the infield, so now nobody was entirely sure what happened. Harper crossed the plate, but Zimmerman stopped at third and LaRoche stopped after rounding second. That left Morse scampering back to first base, where he wound up getting thrown out.

The umpires immediately huddled up and agreed to go take a look at the tape, then after a brief delay they confirmed what everyone watching on TV saw: the ball struck an advertisement beyond the fence, clearly a home run.

So Morse was awarded the grand slam, and the Nationals were suddenly up 4-0 ... except for one small problem: All four of their baserunners needed to reposition themselves and jog around the bases to make it official. Thus everyone was treated to the surreal sight of Morse standing in the batters' box, no bat in hand, pantomiming a swing and then trotting 360 feet to complete his Immaculate Grand Slam.

If that wasn't a positive omen for the Nationals on a potentially historic night, what else could be?

How about a dominant pitching performance from Zimmermann, whose up-and-down second half of the season ended on an uplifting note. For six innings, the right-hander was in complete control, scattering four singles and a walk, not allowing any of those runners to cross the plate.

Zimmermann, though, finally faltered in the seventh, letting four straight Cardinals reach in rapid succession, faster than Johnson to get right-hander Mattheus warmed up in the bullpen. So Johnson waited until the left-handed Jon Jay was at the plate before signaling for Burnett, who promptly allowed a seeing-eye single that trimmed the lead to 4-3 but rebounded by getting Matt Carpenter to fly out to center.

Mattheus finally entered after that, facing slugger Matt Holliday in a huge spot, with the tying run on second and two outs. Mattheus, who has been one of the Nationals' better relievers at escaping jams this season, delivered again. He got Holliday to fly out harmlessly to right, preserving that slimmest of leads.

As this was all playing out, though, Craig Kimbrel was putting the finishing touches on the Braves' victory. Just like that, no matter what happened on the field at Busch Stadium, there would be no celebration in the clubhouse.

The champagne stayed in those cases. The plastic locker covers stayed hidden from view. And the Nationals could do nothing but head back their hotel for the night, knowing the celebration Washington baseball fans have waited 79 years to experience can't take place for at least one more day.

Scherzer, Martinez square off as Nats aim to sweep Cardinals

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Scherzer, Martinez square off as Nats aim to sweep Cardinals

Nats (16-7) vs. Cardinals (12-12) at Busch Stadium

The Nationals enter Sunday with a chance to do something they've never done before, sweep the Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. It is an unexpected turn of events after they were swept by the Phillies in their previous series, but here we are. 

The Nats will aim for the sweep in a game with quite the starting pitching matchup in store. Max Scherzer (2-1, 4.35) will face off against one of the best young hurlers in the game, right-hander Carlos Martinez (4-0, 1.93). Martinez throws triple-digit heat and has held opponents to a .162 batting average against this year.

Scherzer has been one of baseball's best pitchers in recent seasons, but is off to a rough start this year. He aims to bounce back from a four-walk performance his last time out against the Phillies.

For the Nats, Michael Taylor and Ryan Zimmerman are getting the day off. The rest of their lineup, though, is as expected. 

First pitch: 2:15 p.m.
TV: MASN2
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Max Scherzer vs. Cardinals - Carlos Martinez

NATS

CF Matt den Dekker
3B Anthony Rendon
RF Bryce Harper
2B Daniel Murphy
LF Jayson Werth
1B Clint Robinson
SS Danny Espinosa
C Jose Lobaton
RHP Max Scherzer

CARDINALS

3B Matt Carpenter
RF Stephen Piscotty
LF Matt Holliday
1B Brandon Moss
C Yadier Molina
CF Randall Grichuk
2B Kolten Wong
SS Aledmys Diaz
RHP Carlos Martinez

Follow along with GameView here.

Ross strong in return as Nats roll past Cardinals in St. Louis

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Ross strong in return as Nats roll past Cardinals in St. Louis

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 6-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday afternoon at Busch Stadium: 

How it happened: Sometimes baseball can be so unpredictable that it almost doesn't even make sense. Trends can reverse in an instant and make all those who cast predictions look like fools. Baseball laughs at your 'educated' guess.

Take this weekend and the Nationals for instance. Somehow, after getting swept at home by the worst team in baseball in 2015, they now find themselves one game away from sweeping a team that led the majors with 100 wins a year ago. The Nats looked like no match for the Phillies in D.C., but now they're dominating the juggernaut Cardinals in St. Louis. Okay, sure. That makes sense.

Amazingly, that's where the Nats find themselves after Saturday's 6-1 win. Joe Ross closed his excellent April with six strong innings, Jayson Werth smacked a three-run homer in the top of the first and the Nats rolled past the Cardinals in St. Louis for the second straight day. They have won their first series at Busch Stadium since 2007. The Nats moved to 16-7 on the season to continue their best start in team history.

What it means: The Nats are off to a terrific start on their toughest road trip of the season. With two wins against the Cardinals, they have a chance to sweep before heading to Kansas City to face the defending champion Royals. These have been two very impressive wins and the Nats are proving well so far that their hot start against bad teams this season was not a mirage.

Ross strong in return: Ross returned from an injury - albeit a minor one - and it was not an easy situation for the right-hander to transition back, on the road at the Cardinals who boast one of baseball's best lineups. The right-hander, though, showed no rust at all from skipping his last start. Ross threw six innings of one-run ball on six hits and two walks. The one run - on a sac fly in the fifth - was the first charged to Ross since the first inning of his season debut. He had a 20 1/3 scoreless innings streak snapped, which is the second-longest in the NL so far this season only to Jake Arrieta's 23-inning streak. Ross now has a 0.79 ERA through four outings.

Werth comes through again: Werth added two hits (and 4 RBI) on Saturday including his big swing in the first inning to give the Nats a nice early lead. His three-run homer was his fourth of the season through 21 games. That's a 31-homer pace over a full 162. Power numbers were a concern for Werth after his shoulder surgery last offseason, but he now has 13 homers in his last 55 games dating back to last August. That's a 38-homer pace over a full season. He needs to get on base more, but lately he's been a significant home run threat.

Harper in a mini-slump: It's not often you see Bryce Harper struggle for several games in a row, but that has been the case over his last four outings. Harper had one walk and a run, but went hitless again on Saturday. He is now 0-for his last 11 at-bats and has one hit in his last four games. Harper's batting average dipped to .289 after Saturday's game, but he still holds a 1.128 OPS, which shows how good he has been overall this season.

Murphy keeps hitting: Daniel Murphy added two singles for his MLB-best 11th multi-hit game in 22 outings this season. His first single drove in the Nats' first run of the afternoon ahead of Werth's homer. Murphy is now batting .370 with a 1.013 OPS.

Up next: The Nationals have a chance to sweep the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon with another 2:15 p.m. first pitch. Max Scherzer (2-1, 4.35) will try to rebound after an uneven start to the season, while 24-year-old budding star Carlos Martinez (4-0, 1.93) will pitch for St. Louis.

Can the Marlins compete in the NL East without Dee Gordon?

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Can the Marlins compete in the NL East without Dee Gordon?

Through the first month of the 2016 season, the NL East looks like it could be deeper than it was a year ago. That is, of course, excluding the Atlanta Braves, who are currently MLB's worst team with a .217 win percentage after 23 games.

The Nationals and Mets look very good. The Phillies are 13-10 and winners of three straight. Whether they can keep that up, though, is doubtful.

On paper, the Marlins have the third-best roster in the division and in terms of starpower can measure up to just about any team in baseball. With Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez, in particular, they have two superstars in their prime.

Depth was the biggest concern for Miami heading into this season and now it's about to be seriously tested. All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon, who won the NL batting title in 2015, has been suspended for 80 games for performance enhancing drugs. His loss is a big one.

The Marlins' lineup is impressive, but it looks a lot better with Gordon at the top setting the table for Stanton, Christian Yelich and Justin Bour. Few players in baseball can provide the threat Gordon can not only as a leadoff hitter, but as a baserunner as well. Gordon led the league each of the last two years in steals, with 58 last year and 64 the season before that.

It's only logical to think Gordon's loss will have a profound effect on the Marlins, that his absence alone could pave the way for the Phillies to be the third-best team in the NL East. But, interestingly enough, the Marlins are red-hot right now. They've won six straight and just swept the Dodgers in L.A. The Dodgers had one of baseball's best records prior to the series and won the NL West last year.

Miami may appear okay right now, but they will have to stay afloat for three full months without Gordon. He can't return until late July and by then it could be too late. 

At 11-11, the Marlins have an average record and rank as a pedestrian team in many categories. They aren't scoring a ton of runs and no part of their pitching staff has stood out as above average. Their starting rotation, in particular, does not appear to be a strength, especially if Fernandez pitches the way he has to begin this season. Wei-Yin Chen hasn't been very good, either.

If the Marlins have been a middle of the road team overall with Gordon, it's hard to see them proving to be anything more than that without him. Miami had the best chance of making the NL East a three-team race this season and Gordon's suspension may have sealed their fate. Now the division now looks even more like a direct battle between the Nationals and Mets, unless the Phillies have something to say about it.