Nats beaten, but still have a chance to clinch

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Nats beaten, but still have a chance to clinch

ST. LOUIS -- They picked just about the worst possible moment to play their worst ballgame of the season, a 2-hour, 51-minute stinker that ended in a 12-2 thumping at the hands of an opponent who looked far more ready for the postseason than they did.

So why weren't the Nationals completely down in the dumps at the end of a miserable night at Busch Stadium?

"That was a beating, there," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "But we're obviously watching the scoreboard, and the Braves finally lost a game this month. So I guess we can take that as a positive."

Yes, the best thing that happened to the Nationals Friday night took place 554 miles to the southeast in Atlanta, where the Braves blew a late lead to the Mets and lost 3-1 on Chipper Jones Night, failing to gain any ground in the NL East.

So, guess what, folks: The Nationals, with their magic number down to 2, have a chance to clinch their first-ever division title Saturday night.

That kind of takes the sting out of the most-lopsided loss of the season, doesn't it?

"Oh, yeah. Yeah," LaRoche said. "You know it's getting down to the wire. We know that. We obviously like our chances, but nothing's done until it's sealed up. So you're getting beat by 10 runs, you try to look at the positives in it. Forget about this one."

That was the overarching theme throughout the Nationals clubhouse, players and coaches trying to throw this monstrosity out the window and immediately shift their attention to the greater task at hand.

"I don't even want to talk about it," manager Davey Johnson said with a smile.

It may be relatively easy for the Nationals as a whole to brush this one off. It may not be quite as easy for the man most responsible for allowing it to happen: Edwin Jackson.

The veteran right-hander suffered through his worst start of the year, getting torched for nine runs (eight earned) in only 1 13 innings and putting his team in a 9-1 hole before many in the crowd of 39,166 had a chance to settle into their seats.

"Very disappointing and embarrassing," Jackson said. "When your club is in a pennant race and you have a game like that, it definitely leaves a bitter taste in your mouth that you did absolutely nothing to give your team a chance to win."

Jackson didn't mince words when described an utterly forgettable start. He faced 15 batters and managed to retire only three of them. One was a double-play grounder hit by the opposing pitcher. The other two still drove in runs with productive outs.

The Nationals felt this was an anomaly, a one-time blip that carries no significance in the bigger picture. But there are some red flags for Jackson that pre-date this game.

This was the 29-year-old's fifth appearance this month. Only one qualified as a quality start: last Saturday's eight-inning masterpiece against the Brewers. His ERA for the month: 7.92. His updated ERA for the season: 4.13.

Do the Nationals need to reconsider how Jackson (who seemed to be penciled in all along as their No. 3 starter for the postseason) figures into their October plans? Johnson insisted the answer is no.

"I just throw it out," the manager said of this start. "If he usually has trouble, it's early, and he couldn't right the ship. The Cardinals are in kinda playoff mode. They're going to jump all over him. Getting behind, walking people, just gets them more fired up."

Jackson, who owns a World Series ring as a member of St. Louis' 2011 championship rotation, has bounced back from enough bad starts in his career to start worrying now. This was the fifth time he failed to complete two innings, though the first time since 2007.

"Short-term memory, man," he said. "It's not the first game. Just shake it off. I'm not dead from this game. It just definitely leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. But I'm not going to go jump off a bridge or anything because of the game."

Nor should anyone in the Nationals clubhouse harbor such morose feelings right now.

They may have just suffered their worst beating of the season. But thanks to a surprising development in Atlanta, they'll show up at Busch Stadium on Saturday with an opportunity to do something no Washington baseball club has done in 79 years: Celebrate the clinching of a title.

"It wasn't happening tonight. Tomorrow's another day," Johnson said. "We got a little help from our friends. That was nice."

Gonzalez on recent skid: 'I can’t let it spiral out of control'

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Gonzalez on recent skid: 'I can’t let it spiral out of control'

On numerous occasions throughout Saturday night's disappointing start — four, to be exact — Gio Gonzalez found out first hand just how pesky the St. Louis Cardinals lineup can be. 

"We knew they could hit," manager Dusty Baker said. "It's not that easy to hit with runners in scoring position."

Despite striking out the side in the first inning, Gonzalez had trouble finishing off the Red Birds in the following frame. He had three Cardinal hitters in two-strike, two-out situations, and they responded with a flurry: A Jedd Gyorko walk, an RBI single by Greg Garcia, and an RBI double by Matt Carpenter (which came after an RBI double from pitcher Adam Wainwright) to make it 4-0. And a few innings later, Gio was once again one strike away from escaping before allowing another RBI two-bagger, this time to Randal Grichuk to extend the St. Louis lead to 6-2.  

"That out pitch, we didn't have it today with two strikes," said catcher Jose Lobaton. "We needed that fastball in or that curveball in the dirt. And sometimes he threw some curveballs that really got in the dirt, and they didn't swing.....you're gonna find some good hitters, or good days for the hitters, and it's gonna happen, what happened today." 

Indeed, Gonzalez' inability to put hitters away was the story of his night; five of the six earned runs he allowed came with two outs. The result was his shortest outing of the season at 4 2/3 innings. 

"My biggest [disappointment] right now is how much work I’m giving my bullpen," he said afterward. "I can’t stand it.

"I’m a way better pitcher than what I’m showing out there. And it sucks that [the bullpen] guys are constantly picking up my mess. As a pitcher, I pride myself on being the guy that can go the distance and work his tail off."

Gonzalez has now allowed 13 runs over his last two starts, a troubling trend for someone that to this point was having a bounce-back campaign. In the last two outings alone, he's had his ERA rise from 1.93 to 3.57. 

Of course, two poor starts does not a season make, and Gonzalez by and large has shown that he's an improved pitcher over what he was last year. That said, he'll have reclaim his good form sooner rather than later to quell any fears of a regression to 2015 Gio. 

"Just continue to be strong mentally," Gonzalez said. "Just keep finding a way. Eventually it will tilt over and things will start to go my way again. And I think that’s all it is. I’ve got to be more aggressive, more positive on that mound. I can’t let it spiral out of control." 

Gonzalez struggles for second straight outing as Nats fall to Cardinals

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USA TODAY Sports

Gonzalez struggles for second straight outing as Nats fall to Cardinals

Postgame analysis of the Nationals' 9-4 loss to the Cardinals on Saturday night at Nats Park. 

How it happened: The Cardinals offense didn't waste much time in this one, jumping on Nats starter Gio Gonzalez by building a 4-0 second-inning lead thanks to three straight two-out hits with men on base. Washington briefly got back in the game in the bottom of the frame as Ryan Zimmerman launched a two-run home run to cut the deficit to 4-2. 

However, the tough times continued for Gonzalez. He promptly yielded a solo shot to Matt Holliday in the third, and then in the fifth gave up an RBI double to Randal Grichuk to make it 6-2 St. Louis, ending the lefty starter's night earlier than he or the Nats would have liked.

Washington would get two runs back on solo home runs from Bryce Harper and Zimmerman, but the red-hot Cards lineup was simply too much on this night. Matt Adams came through with a pinch-hit two-run double to pad the lead to 8-4 and essentially put things out of reach. 

What it means: After starting the season series off with four straight against the Cardinals, the Nats have now dropped back-to-back games to St. Louis. At 29-21, Washington is still in a virtual tie for first place in the NL East with the New York Mets. 

Another rough outing for Gio: Well, so much for the idea of Jose Lobaton spurring a rebound start for Gonzalez. Even though he was throwing to his usual catcher this time, Gio struggled for the second straight outing, allowing six earned runs on six hits and four walks over 4 2/3 frames. What doomed him the most Saturday? His inability to finish innings when he was ahead in the count. Though he had multiple opportunities in two-strike, two-out situations to exit a frame unscathed, he instead allowed a series of crippling run-scoring hits. Indeed, five of the six runs Gonzalez yielded against the Cards came with two down, a frustrating stat considering that there were moments where he looked like he was going to settle down. 

Daniel Murphy, record breaker: In only his second regular season month with his new team, Daniel Murphy has already etched his name in the Nats record books. His second-inning single was his 41st hit in May, breaking Denard Span's club mark for hits in a month. Murphy's average on the season is now at an eye-popping .390 through nearly two months. 

Up next: The Nats will look to salvage a series split Sunday afternoon as they send Stephen Strasburg (8-0, 2.79 ERA) to the mound to oppose the Cardinals' Michael Wacha (2-5, 5.04). 

Despite hot streak, Anthony Rendon gets the night off versus Cardinals

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Despite hot streak, Anthony Rendon gets the night off versus Cardinals

Though Dusty Baker had already made the call earlier in the week to sit Anthony Rendon for Saturday's game against the St. Louis Cardinals, his third baseman's recent torrid stretch at the plate nearly gave the Nats' skipper second thoughts. 

"I hate to give a guy a day off when they're getting hits and starting to look good," Baker said before Saturday's game. 

Still, he stayed true to his word, giving Rendon the day off and tapping Stephen Drew to take over at the hot corner. 

"I told him [earlier] he'd be out Saturday. I said 'Give me all you got until your day off on Saturday,'" the manager said. "And he did." 

Rendon's hot streak has been a much-needed sigh of relief for the offense, as his previous struggles were reaching the point where Nats fans might have wondered if he'd ever reclaim his 2014 form. That guy —the then 24-year-old who finished fifth in National League MVP voting and was once nicknamed "Tony Two-bags" — had been missing for the last season-plus as he battled either injury or inconsistency. 

But since Rendon was dropped to sixth in the batting order, the almost 26-year-old has slowly started to resemble what he was two seasons ago. In the last 10 games, he's raised his average from .237 to .262 thanks to six multi-hit efforts that included four doubles, a home run and a triple. Baker noted that Rendon had been making great contact all along, and part of his breakout is simply getting those hits to drop. 

"He's kinda been our hard-luck guy," Baker said. 

Rendon had played all 49 of Washington's games prior to Saturday, prompting Baker to describe the day off as "much needed." And when he returns, the Nats have to hope he can continue to be a presence in a lineup that desperately needs someone other than Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy to produce consistently. 

"He's looking good," Baker said. "He's looking real good."