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Nationals now have backs against the wall

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Nationals now have backs against the wall

For six months, they could stake claim to the title of "Best Team in Baseball." And after they won their first-ever postseason game Sunday afternoon, the Nationals had every reason to continue crowing about themselves.

Then they got beat up in St. Louis on Monday. Then they got beat up again on Wednesday, this time in front of a record-setting home crowd that gave the first playoff game in Washington in eight decades into a true playoff atmosphere.

And now, in the span of 72 hours, the "Best Team in Baseball" finds itself 27 outs from elimination before many on the roster have even had a chance to process what is going on.

"This isn't the situation we wanted to be in," shortstop Ian Desmond said following an 8-0 drubbing at the hands of the Cardinals in Game 3 of the NLDS. "But we're here and we're going to deal with it, just like we've been dealing with wins and losses all year long."

That was the prevalent theme throughout a somber Nationals clubhouse at the end of one of the more frustrating afternoons in team history. Just because they're facing a do-or-die scenario Thursday in Game 4, players don't believe it's necessary to change the dynamic all of a sudden.

"Our formula has worked pretty well," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "I think it would be kind of bad to change it now."

Perhaps that philosophy works. There's enough talent on the Nationals' roster -- in the lineup, in the rotation, in the bullpen and on the bench -- to win two games in two days, no matter the opponent.

But there's also no proof that success from April through September guarantees success in October. The postseason, plain and simple, is a different animal.

Over the course of a 162-game schedule, there's always ample opportunity to snap out of funks, always another game to play and put yesterday's events in the rear-view mirror.

In a five-game Division Series, that's not the case. Every at-bat, every pitch is magnified. One clutch hit becomes the stuff of legend. One squandered opportunity becomes something that lingers all winter.

"That's how the playoffs are," Zimmerman said. "I think that's why all you have to do is get in. It's whomever's hot. These first series are obviously a little bit more leaning toward that, because it's such a short series. You get hot for a couple games, you have a commanding lead.

"But we've put ourselves in a good position by playing the way we did in the regular season, and now we have to win one game. If we win one game, we have a good chance with our guy on the mound."

Before they can get to their guy, Gio Gonzalez, in a decisive Game 5, the Nationals first need Ross Detwiler to lead them to victory in Game 4. That's easier said than done. The left-hander has enjoyed a breakthrough season in many ways, but he's still battle-untested, and the freshest memory of him with a ball in hand is the trouncing he took 10 days ago in St. Louis against the same lineup he'll face on Thursday.

"Det's capable of pitching a good game tomorrow," manager Davey Johnson said, shooting down any possibility of Gonzalez returning on short rest. "That's been our strength all year. These young guys have pitched great all year."

Great pitching is only one-half of the equation. It wouldn't matter who toed the rubber on Wednesday, because he couldn't have won a game when his teammates didn't score once.

A Nationals lineup that was among the most productive in the majors during the season's second half hasn't exactly gone ice-cold in the postseason. This team has put 36 men on base in the first three games of the series.

The problem, though, hasn't been putting men on base. It's been driving them in. After an 0-for-8 showing in Game 3, the Nationals are now a paltry 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position, stranding 30 total men on base.

The only three players who have come through in those situations: Kurt Suzuki, Tyler Moore and Jordan Zimmermann. Yes, the No. 8 hitter, a rookie off the bench and a pitcher.

Is that lack of playoff experience finally starting to show, with young hitters pressing at the plate in key spots?

"When you're down a few runs, you want to drive something in," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "You can get a little anxious then and try to take more than they give you. Probably later in the game, that was more the case, guys trying to do a little extra to spark something."

It's a natural tendency to try to do too much when the pressure is ramped up. How could anyone in a Nationals uniform not feel that when standing in the box on Wednesday with two men on base and two out, the crowd of 45,017 imploring him to do something special?

That, of course, is the last thing anyone wants to do in that situation. Yet there's no escaping the fact the Nationals have arrived at a moment of desperation.

After mostly cruising through their regular season with few hints of true adversity -- ie. facing a must-win situation -- they'll now arrive at the park on Thursday knowing this could be their final game of the year.

"I believe in this team, I believe in these guys," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "We've been here all year. Over a 162-game season, we were the best team in baseball. And I still feel that way."

The best team in baseball over 162 games, though, isn't always the best team in baseball over a five-game playoff series.

That's a lesson the Nationals hope not to learn over the next 48 hours.

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VIDEO: Nats pull off first ever 3-3-5 triple play

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VIDEO: Nats pull off first ever 3-3-5 triple play

It's not often you see something in a baseball game that has never happened before, as the sport has been played for over 100 years.

On Friday night, however, the Nationals accomplished something that has never been done before.

In the eighth inning of their win over the Giants, the Nats pulled off a 3-3-5 triple play. 

It looked routine, but it was something that no baseball player has ever pulled off before:

That's just crazy.

[RELATED: Nats place C Jose Lobaton on disabled list]

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Triple play helps Nationals hold off Giants 4-1

Triple play helps Nationals hold off Giants 4-1

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- The Washington Nationals made history by turning the first 3-3-5 triple play ever in the major leagues then watched as third baseman Anthony Rendon tossed the ball from the milestone moment into the crowd at AT&T Park.

Getting a second straight win over the Giants and securing their hold on the second-best record in baseball was far more important than the souvenir to manager Dusty Baker and his ballclub.

Washington turned the first triple play in its 12-season history, holding on in the eighth inning to help preserve a strong outing by Max Scherzer and beat San Francisco 4-1 on Friday night.

"Crazy," Zimmerman said. "Couldn't have happened at a better time for us. Great job by Sammy (Solis) coming in and getting two pitches and three outs."

The Giants loaded the bases in the eighth with two walks sandwiched around a single. Brandon Crawford then lined an 0-1 pitch from Sammy Solis to first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who had entered the game moments earlier as a part of a double switch.

Zimmerman quickly stepped on first base for the second out then threw to third baseman Anthony Rendon to catch Denard Span to complete the triple play.

"Once I caught it I knew I had the double play," said Zimmerman, who was moved a few steps back before Crawford swung. "Then Tony was jumping up and down with a smile on his face so I just tossed the ball over to him. Got out of a jam just like that."

It was the first 3-3-5 triple play in history, according to Sabr.org, and alos the first Baker has ever seen as a player or manager.

"There was one other one but I went to the bathroom and missed it," Baker said.

Scherzer (11-6) had lost four of his five career starts against the Giants and a no-decision in Game 4 of the 2012 World Series before holding San Francisco to one run over seven innings.

The four-time All-Star retired 14 of the final 16 batters he faced and finished with six strikeouts and two walks.

Over his last six starts Scherzer has allowed just five earned runs in 41 1/3 innings.

"Once we got that lead he knows how to smell the finish line," Baker said. "Max was awesome."

Four relievers combined to retire eight batters.

Four players had two hits apiece for the Giants. San Francisco fell to 2-11 since the All-Star break.

San Francisco put two runners on base in the ninth but Shawn Kelly struck out Eduardo Nunez -- making his Giants debut -- for his sixth save.

"We're just having a hard time getting runners in," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "It's a tough go but you have to be big boys and come out here and put your big boy pants on and keep fighting. That's all you can do."

Jayson Werth had two hits for the Nationals to extend his on-base streak to 32 games, tied with Boston's Dustin Pedroia for the longest active streak in the majors, and Ben Revere hit a tiebreaking single in the fifth.

Daniel Murphy added an RBI triple while Wilson Ramos doubled and scored to help the Nationals win their second straight in this four-game series between division leaders.

All of Washington's runs came off Giants starter Jeff Samardzija (9-7).

FAN CHARGES FIELD

The game was interrupted in the top of the seventh inning when a fan ran onto the field. The man avoided security guards for a few moments then dropped to one knee near Giants SS Crawford before being tackled and escorted away.

TRAINER' S ROOM

Nationals: Backup C Jose Lobaton was placed on the 15-day disabled list with left elbow tendinitis. The move is retroactive to July 20. ... Pedro Severino was called up from Triple-A Syracuse.

Giants: Nunez, obtained a day earlier in a trade from Minnesota, was added to the 25-man roster and was in uniform. To make room, OF Jarrett Parker was optioned down to Triple-A Sacramento. ... 3B Matt Duffy (left Achilles strain) took infield and ran the bases before the game in anticipation of beginning a rehab assignment.

UP NEXT

Nationals: RHP Reynaldo Lopez (0-1) will be called up from Syracuse to face San Francisco on Saturday. Lopez lost in his major league debut against the Dodgers on July 19.

Giants: RHP Jake Peavy (5-9) will make his 14th career start against the Nationals franchise. Peavy's first came during his rookie season of 2002 against the then-Montreal Expos.

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Turner and Zimmerman sit as Scherzer, Nats play at Giants

Turner and Zimmerman sit as Scherzer, Nats play at Giants

Nationals (60-42) vs. Giants (59-43) at AT&T Park

The Nationals hung on two beat the Giants in the opener on Thursday night despite a finish that was anything but smooth. On Friday, they will look to win their third straight game overall with Max Scherzer (10-6, 2.92) on the mound.

Scherzer has been brilliant as of late with just four earned runs allowed across his last five starts (34.1 IP). He struck out 10 in seven innings against the Padres his last time out.

Behind Scherzer will be a new-look lineup with Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa all getting the day off. Ben Revere is in center, Clint Robinson is at first base and Wilmer Difo is in at shortstop.

They will face Jeff Samardzija (9-6, 4.22), who has allowed at least four earned runs in five of his last six starts and in seven of his last 10.

First pitch: 10:15 p.m.
TV: MASN2
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats -Max Scherzer vs. Giants - Jeff Samardzija

NATS

CF Ben Revere
RF Bryce Harper
2B Daniel Murphy
C Wilson Ramos
LF Jayson Werth
1B Clint Robinson
3B Anthony Rendon
SS Wilmer Difo
RHP Max Scherzer

GIANTS

CF Denard Span
LF Angel Pagan
2B Joe Panik
SS Brandon Crawford
1B Brandon Belt
3B Connor Gillaspie
RF Gregor Blanco
C Trevor Brown
RHP Jeff Samardzija