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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.

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Gio Gonzalez has plenty to work on before Nats playoffs begin

Gio Gonzalez has plenty to work on before Nats playoffs begin

Gio Gonzalez' seesaw 2016 regular season is officially in the books. Next stop: the NL Division Series where he will face the L.A. Dodgers, likely in Game 3 and possibly with one of the two teams' season on the line. Either way, it will be important.

Over the years, teams have trotted out far less accomplished pitchers in playoff games, ones with nothing close to the track record of Gonzalez. And for long stretches this season, he has been effective, like in July and August when he held a 3.16 ERA across 11 starts.

But a lot has happened since August for Gonzalez, both on the field and off of it. In his five starts since, he's given up 19 runs in 23 innings. That stretch includes his 3 2/3 innings on Wednesday night against the Diamondbacks, when he gave up three runs on eight hits and three walks and threw a whopping 100 pitches.

Just in time for the playoffs.

The Nationals have an unenviable situation without Stephen Strasburg, who is rehabbing a right flexor strain, and with Joe Ross still building his workload. They better hope the version of Gio Gonzalez they see in the NLDS is better than the one they have witnessed over the last several weeks.

“It wasn’t that good, but we didn’t score any runs either. He had a lot of pitches in a short period of time," manager Dusty Baker said after the Nats' 3-0, rain-shortened loss.

"They ran his pitch count up. They didn’t swing at very many balls and it looked like they were trying to wait on his fastball."

Gonzalez will now have to make adjustments in bullpen sessions over the course of the next 12 days. He will have to do that with a lot on his mind. Gonzalez heads to the funeral of close friend Jose Fernandez on Thursday and was pitching with extra emotion against Arizona. 

“He’s an emotional-type guy," Baker said. "I talked to him a little bit about Fernandez and he was pitching for him and for us. Just wasn’t a very good night."

Now Gonzalez will have plenty of time to grieve and recalibrate before he sees the Dodgers. Whether that hurts or helps has yet to be determined.

“It can [help]. Just depends on, not only can it reset him, but after things have subsided some… they say time heals all wounds, but some wounds take longer to heal," Baker said.

"It probably won’t really set in until after the season when he’s back in Miami and around and Jose’s not around. Hopefully, he can have a couple good ‘pens and get it back together because we’re certainly going to need him come playoff time."

Gonzalez does have some success against the Dodgers to build off of. He holds a 1.69 ERA across 32 innings vs. L.A. since 2012 and held them to one run through six earlier this season.

Gonzalez is also just ready for a fresh start.

"You start the postseason with a zero ERA. It's a new series. New way to look at it," he said.

[RELATED: Podcast: Can Nationals win without Wilson Ramos?]

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Gio Gonzalez bounced early as Nats fall to Diamondbacks

Gio Gonzalez bounced early as Nats fall to Diamondbacks

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 3-0 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: The Nationals will be starting Gio Gonzalez in the NL Division Series against the Dodgers whether it's their preference or not. That's not to say they aren't at all comfortable with having him on the mound in the playoffs. He's been there before and happens to have plenty of recent success against the very team he'll face.

It's just that with Stephen Strasburg injured and Joe Ross not yet stretched out since returning from the disabled list, Gonzalez is essentially their third starter by default. And with how inconsistent he's been lately, that produce an interesting dynamic in the postseason. It's Gio Gonzalez roulette: who will take the ball and stare down Corey Seager and Adrian Gonzalez, Good Gio or Bad Gio?

The latter was on display Wednesday night in the Nats' 3-0 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks, a game shortened to 6 1/3 innings by unrelenting rain. He managed just 3 2/3 innings on 100 pitches. That's not an MLB record for pitches in such a short start, but it's not far off. Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia, for instance, threw 107 pitches in 3 2/3 just five years ago.

Gonzalez' latest outing may not go down in the annals of history, but it was a troubling sight for the Nationals. The next time he will pitch is against the Dodgers, either in L.A. or Washington. And given the nature of a five-game series, their season could be on the line.

Gonzalez needed 24 pitches to get out of the first inning and was fortunate to give up just one run in the frame, that on a groundout by Paul Goldschmidt. Gonzalez needed 24 more in the second after giving up a single and a walk, but no runs. 

He threw 29 more in the third, including an RBI double to Brandon Drury. In the fourth, he tossed 23 more pitches and was pulled after Goldschmidt landed an RBI single, Gonzalez' third run of the evening. He allowed eight hits and three walks in total.

Gonzalez has been bounced after 4 1/3 innings or less in four of his last nine starts. In his last five outings, he's surrendered 19 earned runs in 23 innings. He's trending in the wrong direction after a strong July and August, and it's not good for the Nats.

Gonzalez didn't go deep in his start, but he wasn't necessarily terrible either. The Nats' offense fell closer to that description. They managed zero runs on five hits and one walk against Arizona starter Shelby Miller. His 6.15 ERA through 20 starts this season makes his 2015 All-Star nod seem like a distant memory.

The Nationals lost their second game of this series against the Diamondbacks and will now hope for a four-game split on Thursday. Washington has dropped seven of their last 11 games.

What it means: The Nationals fell to 92-65 not the year with four games remaining. Their magic number to clinch home field advantage in the NLDS stands at three thanks to the Dodgers' loss to the Padres.

Rendon lands two: Anthony Rendon was once again a standout for the Nats on offense with a pair of singles in two plate appearances. That came one night after he led the Nats to victory with a three-run homer. Rendon now has six hits in his last five games and appears to be heating up as the Nats enter the final four games of the regular season. With Wilson Ramos out, Rendon is even more important as one of the Nationals' most potent right-handed bats.

Belisle keeps it up: He may not pitch in high-leverage spots, and he may not bring electric stuff out of the bullpen, but veteran Matt Belisle just continues to produce in whatever role the Nats ask of him. He replaced Gonzalez in the fourth inning on Wednesday and tossed 1 1/3 perfect frames. He got four outs on seven pitches, a nice change of pace from the 100 pitches Gonzalez needed to record 11 outs. Belisle was even checked on by trainer Paul Lessard before he began the fifth inning, but he didn't show any problems afterwards.

Gio playing with a heavy heart: Gonzalez was pitching with a lot on his mind Wednesday night following the death of his friend Jose Fernandez over the weekend. Gonzalez was in tears while warming up in right field before the game and plans to fly to Florida in the morning to attend the funeral services of the late Marlins star. 

Up next: The Nats and Diamondbacks finish of their series with a 1:05 p.m. start on Thursday afternoon. Joe Ross (7-5, 3.48) will pitch opposite former Nats prospect Robbie Ray (8-14, 4.77).

[RELATED: Podcast: Can Nationals win without Wilson Ramos?]

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