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Nationals set to play defending champion Cardinals

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Nationals set to play defending champion Cardinals

If the Nationals are going to win their first-ever postseason series, they're going to have to take out the defending World Series champs.

The Nationals will face the Cardinals in the National League Division Series after tonight's wild Wild Card Game victory by St. Louis, a 6-3 triumph over the Braves aided in part by an apparent misapplication of the Infield Fly Rule.

That is, assuming Major League Baseball doesn't uphold Atlanta's formal protest of the game after the controversial call in the bottom of the eighth inning. With one out and runners on first and second, rookie Andrelton Simmons lofted a popup into shallow left field. Shortstop Pete Kozma backtracked and appeared ready to make the play but then pulled off as left fielder Matt Holliday came charging in, the ball falling to the turf as everyone advanced a base.

Left field umpire Sam Holbrook, though, signaled for the Infield Fly Rule, declaring Simmons out while allowing both runners to advance one base. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez raced out to argue with Holbrook, who didn't make the call until a split-second before the ball came down, and later filed a formal protest with crew chief Jeff Kellogg.

It's unclear how long it will take for MLB officials to rule on the protest, which if upheld would require the game to be resumed from that point. It appears unlikely that would happen, though, because protests can only be upheld if a rule was misinterpreted, not based on a judgment call like this.

UPDATE AT 9:40 P.M. -- MLB has denied the protest, on the grounds the play involved a judgment call, not a rules interpretation.

The crowd at Turner Field offered up its own protest, littering the field with bottles and garbage and forcing a lengthy delay as players retreated to their dugouts.

Ultimately, Cardinals closer Jason Motte entered to escape the eighth-inning jam and then another one in the ninth to win the game.

Thus, the Nationals are scheduled to fly to St. Louis late tomorrow morning in advance of an afternoon workout at Busch Stadium. The two teams will open the NLDS Sunday at 3:07 p.m. EDT, with Gio Gonzalez on the mound for Washington and Adam Wainwright starting for the Cardinals.

The Nationals were just in St. Louis last weekend, dropping two of three games and failing to clinch the NL East title. They did win the season series against the Cardinals, 4-3, with all seven games being played over the last month of the regular season.

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Wilson Ramos knows his knee injury could mean the end of Nationals' tenure

Wilson Ramos knows his knee injury could mean the end of Nationals' tenure

Wilson Ramos won't be on the field for the Washington Nationals when the team takes on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the N.L. Divisional Series next week.

The 2016 N.L. All-Star catcher will undergo surgery to repair the ACL he tore in his right knee on Monday night against the Diamondbacks

Ramos has been arguably the Nationals' most constant offensive threat this season, and had positioned himself as the team's backstop for the foreseeable future.

But the injury changed everything.

Not just because the surgery and rehab will stretch well into Spring Training, but because the 29-year-old Ramos will become a free agent at the end of the season. On top of that, a second ACL injury (He tore it in 2012 as well) means that taking the field everyday as a catcher may not be a viable option for him much longer.

"Unfortunately, this injury happened so close to the end and it may affect whether I’m able to stay with a National League team or not," Ramos told reporters prior to the Nationals' 5-3 win over the Diamondbacks on Thursday afternoon.

"But if it’s up to me, I definitely would like to keep playing for the Nationals and play as long as I can."

Ramos is a solid defensive catcher, but his biggest strength is at the plate. Being able to be a part of a lineup everyday is where he is most valuable, and that may mean playing in the American League, where he can serve as the designated hitter and fill in as catcher.

But this doesn't mean Ramos is done as a member of the Nationals, just that he's aware his time could be coming to an end. 

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Joe Ross takes step forward in Nats' win over Diamondbacks

Joe Ross takes step forward in Nats' win over Diamondbacks

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 5-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Thursday afternoon at Nationals Park.

How it happened: The Nationals beat the Diamondbacks on Thursday and in doing so took another important step towards locking up home field advantage in the NL Division Series against the L.A. Dodgers. But just as pertinent, if not more, were the little things the Nats accomplished in the victory, minor developments that bode well for October.

In Thursday's win, they checked off two important boxes - if you will - that would count as positive signs no matter the final result of the game. One was the leap forward starter Joe Ross took in building his workload. The other was an impressive offensive outing by catcher Pedro Severino, who will now be on the playoff roster as Jose Lobaton's backup with Wilson Ramos done for the season.

Ross stretched out to 90 pitches, the most he's thrown since injuring his right shoulder in a July 2 start against the Reds. He only made it four innings, but making sure he can handle a full start come playoff time is highly important for a team already missing Stephen Strasburg, and with concerns about Gio Gonzalez' ability to go deep in his own start.

Ross may have even showed enough to take Gonzalez' spot in Game 3, depending on what the Nats are looking for in these final games. With one run allowed, he was better than Gonzalez was on Wednesday, and that's despite beginning his day with 32 pitches in the first inning alone. Through three outings since returning from the DL, Ross has allowed three runs with 14 strikeouts and three walks in 9 2/3 innings.

Severino's highlight was a solo home run to left field in the third inning, a game-tying bomb off Arizona starter Robbie Ray. That got the Nats started in what turned into an all-around offensive effort. Fellow rookie Wilmer Difo also homered, the first of his career. Michael Taylor had three hits, one to drive in two runs.

Anthony Rendon remained hot with a single, a walk and a run. Ryan Zimmerman did the same. Jayson Werth walked and scored. 

Lefty Sean Burnett took over for Ross and got two quick outs, one on a strikeout. He has a 1.80 ERA through nine appearances. Reynaldo Lopez took over for him and was strong through most of his outing, until he gave up a two-run homer to Socrates Brito with one out in the ninth. Lopez finished with two runs allowed in 3 2/3 innings.

The Diamondbacks got their lone run off Ross in the third inning. That was on a single by Jake Lamb, one of three Ross allowed in the frame.

The Nationals got back in the win column and earned a series split against the Diamondbacks.

What it means: The Nationals moved to 93-66 on the season and dropped their magic number to secure home field against the Dodgers to just two games. 

Severino hits No. 2: Severino has only played in 14 games this season, but his impact on offense has been hard to ignore. He's now 8-for-24 (.333) with two homers, four RBI, five walks and five runs. He has a 1.092 OPS. Again, it's a very small sample size, but the Nationals don't need him to produce for months at a time. They just need him to keep swinging it well for a few more weeks. That would go a long way to offset the loss of Ramos.

[RELATED: Wilson Ramos hopes to be back with Nationals]

Difo's first homer: For Difo to make the playoff roster, it would likely require an injury like the one that paved the way for Severino. But the rookie should feel good about the way he's played this season in the opportunities he's been given. Through 28 games this year, Difo is batting .288/.362/.404 with 11 runs, six RBI and six walks. He also made a brilliant diving grab to end the top of the sixth and save a run with Lopez on the mound.

Turner cooling down: With his 0-for-4 effort against Arizona, Trea Turner is now hitting just .214 (9-for-42) in his last 10 games with 10 strikeouts during that stretch. He entered Thursday with a seven-game hitting streak, but because he doesn't draw walks often, his on-base percentage is just .227 in those 10 games. The Nats need him to get back on track before the playoffs, especially given they will be facing tough lefties like Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill without Ramos, who is arguably their best right-handed bat.

Up next: The Nats move on their final series of the regular season, a three-game set with the Miami Marlins in town. Rookie A.J. Cole (1-2, 5.09) will start that one, unless he drops his suspension appeal. And for the Marlins, it will be right-hander Andrew Cashner (5-11, 5.13).

[RELATED: Matt Belisle sounds like safe bet for Nats playoff roster]

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