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Nats breathe sigh of relief

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Nats breathe sigh of relief

PHILADELPHIA -- For most relievers, the sight of a closer trotting out from the bullpen to pitch the ninth inning of a tight game brings with it a sense of calm.

"You bring in the closer and everybody's like: Whew," Craig Stammen said. "Take a little break."

These days, when Henry Rodriguez takes the mound for the ninth inning, the rest of the Nationals bullpen stands at the ready, knowing it may not be long before someone else's services are needed.

Monday night, it took only two wayward Rodriguez pitches before the phone rang inside the visitors pen at Citizens Bank Park. Sean Burnett immediately sprang into action.

"Once the phone rings," the left-hander said, "it's go time."

So for the second time in a week, Burnett was summoned to bail out Rodriguez. And for the second time in a week, he pulled it off, this time preserving a 2-1 victory over the Phillies.

Had Burnett not been able to do it, had he not stranded the tying runner on second base, everything positive that took place for the Nationals over the previous 2 hours and 40 minutes would have gone to waste.

Gio Gonzalez's six scoreless innings and nine strikeouts, giving him the major-league lead in punchouts, a 6-1 record and a sparkling 1.98 ERA to go along with it? Would've been thrown out the window.

Ian Desmond's continued power display out of the No. 5 spot in the lineup, highlighted in this game by his seventh home run of the season? Would've been an afterthought.

Two more scoreless innings of relief from Stammen, suddenly one of the most-dominant setup men in baseball? Would've become a footnote.

Yes, the Nationals owe Burnett a month's worth of free dinners after this one, even if he remained modest about the job he performed.

"I'm just going to do what they ask me to do, the way it's always been," he said. "I'm just trying to help the team out."

The scenario: Leading 2-0 in the bottom of the ninth and having dominated every aspect of this game, the Nationals needed only to record three more outs. As Davey Johnson has learned -- sometimes in painful fashion -- those final three outs are no picnic, especially when Rodriguez is involved.

Johnson, though, has seen his regular closer (Drew Storen) and his backup closer (Brad Lidge) succumb to injury, so he has tried to stand behind his third-string option and give Rodriguez opportunities to right his wayward ship. It nearly ended in disaster again, though.

It took only two pitches to John Mayberry -- neither of which could be handled by catcher Jesus Flores -- to realize Rodriguez didn't have it on this night. The call was placed to the bullpen and Burnett began warming up in a hurry as Rodriguez tried to hold down the fort.

"I've never done it before," Johnson said of having an emergency closer warming up so quickly after the ninth inning begins.

It's a good thing he did, though, because Rodriguez's inning continued to spiral out of control. He walked Mayberry on four pitches, retired Freddy Galvis on a flyball, uncorked a wild pitch, allowed a single to Mike Fontenot, then uncorked another wild pitch (his MLB-leading eighth in only 18 innings of work) to put the runners on second and third and bring Johnson from the dugout.

"Henry threw another wild pitch, and that was it for me," the manager said.

Burnett was thrust into quite a jam. Not only was the tying run now in scoring position, but the Phillies were going to send up a pair of right-handed pinch-hitters to face him in Ty Wigginton and Hector Luna.

What was Burnett's gameplan in that situation?

"You could give me one," he said with a laugh. "I don't have one. Just try to get two more outs before they get two runs. That was all I was trying to do. If it was groundballs, strikeouts, however it got done. Just looking to get outs before they scored."

Which he managed to do. Mayberry did tag up and score on Wigginton's sacrifice fly to right. And Luna did draw a walk to prolong the suspense. But Burnett ultimately got Placido Polanco to line out to second base, and the entire Nationals dugout could breathe a sigh of relief at last.

At the same time, there was concern and sympathy for Rodriguez, who officially has blown only three save opportunities but has now needed someone to bail him out twice in a week and faces an uncertain future.

"He's never been a closer before, on our team," Desmond said. "He's got to learn. It's not easy coming in in the ninth inning. Ask anybody. ... Coming from a guy that's booted more balls than probably anybody in the big leagues, it's a mental thing. You want to do so good, and you want to help the team win. Every time he comes up there, I'm rooting for him. I know the next time he comes out, he's going to do better. It's the same thing I went through, just different aspect, different position."

Whether Rodriguez gets another opportunity to pitch the ninth inning anytime soon remains to be seen.

"I'm going to sleep on it," Johnson said. "But I'm looking at alternatives."

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Dusty Baker on Bryce Harper's return and a potential playoff platoon at first base

Dusty Baker on Bryce Harper's return and a potential playoff platoon at first base

Though Dusty Baker isn’t a doctor, he apparently isn’t averse to using an old school method or two to diagnose his players’ injuries.

So when Bryce Harper, ailing with a jammed left thumb, recently told his manager he was ready to return to the lineup, Baker responded by giving it a little pinch.

“He said 'Ow, what'd you do that for?' and I said 'Okay, I got my answer,'" the Nationals’ manager said with a laugh.

Baker must be comfortable with how Harper is feeling lately, as the 23-year-old right fielder is back in the lineup after four days off.

"He might have been ready to go [on Thursday],” Baker said. “So if a guy tells me he's ready, if I have a luxury, I like to give them one more day off. I just noticed that a lot of guys say they're ready and you bring them back and they're really not ready. I would prefer that you be champing at the bit to get back [instead] of a person to just say that you're ready.

Prior to the injury, the reigning NL MVP had hits in five of his previous seven games. So with three games left, the Nats are hoping the reigning Harper can get back in a groove before the postseason begins next week.

Zimmerman a platoon bat? It’s a question that seemed unfathomable on Opening Day, but the veteran first baseman’s 2016 inconsistency-filled odyssey has some wondering if Baker might consider other options come October. The answer, for now, is no.  

“That hasn’t crossed my mind,” the skipper said.

Clint Robinson is starting at first in Friday night’s game against the Miami Marlins, but the move doesn’t appear to be a sign of things to come. Baker said the decision was merely to keep Zimmerman healthy and afford Robinson some at-bats while he can get them. Still, for an offense will be without Wilson Ramos (and a fully-healthy Daniel Murphy), the lineup will need a boost where it can get it.

“I don’t really believe in platoon, platoon," Baker said. "There’s certain guys that I feel that Clint may have a better chance of being successful against. But that’s not a platoon for me.”

In other words, Baker is staunchly in Zimmerman’s corner. And slowly but surely, the 31-year-old has been rewarding his manager's faith. Zimmerman has hits in six out of his last nine games, including a trio of two-hit efforts. It might be too late to salvage his career-worst .219 average, but the Nats still believe the one-time face of the franchise will show up when it counts the most. 

"I just keep in mind with Zim that ‘hey, man, you can be the man for a long period of time like we know that you’ve done,’" Baker said. "We’ve seen him do it before. So we need Zim. We need him badly.”

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Nationals Playoff Schedule 2016: MLB Postseason Dates and TV channel

Nationals Playoff Schedule 2016: MLB Postseason Dates and TV channel

The 2016 MLB Postseason begins the first week in October.

The N.L. East Division champion Washington Nationals face the N.L. West Division champion Los Angeles Dodgers in the N.L. Divisional Series. While the specific times and game locations have yet to be decided, here is what we know thus far.

2016 MLB N.L. postseason schedule:

When is the American League Wild Card Game?

Tuesday, Oct. 4.: Time TBD. TV Channel: TBS

When is the National League Wild Card Game?

Wednesday, Oct. 5: Time: TBD. TV Channel: TBS

 

When is the American League and National Lague Divisional Series? (Best of five series)

*  If necessary

Thursday, Oct. 6:

- ALDS A, Game 1. TV Channel: TBS
- ALDS B, Game 2. TV Channel: TBS

Friday, Oct. 7

- ALDS A, Game 2. TV Channel: TBS
- ALDS B, Game 2. TV Channel: TBS

- NLDS A, Game 1. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1 or MLB Network
- NLDS B, Game 1. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1 or MLB Network

Saturday, Oct. 8

- NLDS A, Game 2. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1 or MLB Network
- NLDS B, Game 2. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1 or MLB Network

Sunday, Oct. 9

- ALDS A, Game 3. TV Channel: TBS
- ALDS B, Game 3. TV Channel: TBS

Monday, Oct. 10

- ALDS A, Game 4*. TV Channel: TBS
- ALDS B, Game 4*. TV Channel: TBS

- NLDS A, Game 3. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1 or MLB Network
- NLDS B, Game 3. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1 or MLB Network

Tuesday, Oct. 11

- NLDS A, Game 4*. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1
- NLDS B, Game 4*. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1

Wednesday, Oct. 12

- ALDS A, Game 5*. TV Channel: TBS
- ALDS B, Game 5*. TV Channel: TBS

Thursday, Oct. 13

- NLDS A, Game 5*. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1
- NLDS B, Game 5*. TV Channel: Fox Sports 1

 

When is the ALCS? When is the NLCS? (Best of 7. Times TBD)

Friday, Oct. 14

- ALCS Game 1. TV Channel: TBS

Saturday, Oct. 15

- ALCS Game 2. TV Channel: TBS

- NLCS Game 1. TV Channel: Fox or Fox Sports 1

Sunday, Oct. 16

- NLCS Game 2. TV Channel: Fox or Fox Sports 1

Monday, Oct. 17

- ALCS Game 3. TV Channel: TBS

Tuesday, Oct. 18

- NLCS Game 3. TV Channel: Fox or Fox Sports 1

- ALCS Game 4. TV Channel: TBS

Wednesday, Oct. 19

- NLCS Game 4. TV Channel: Fox or Fox Sports 1

- ALCS Game 5*. TV Channel: TBS

Thursday, Oct. 20

NLCS Game 5*. TV Channel: Fox or Fox Sports 1

Friday, Oct. 21

- ALCS Game 6*. TV Channel: TBS

Saturday, Oct. 22

- NLCS Game 6*. TV Channel: Fox or Fox Sports 1

- ALCS Game 7*. TV Channel: TBS

Sunday, Oct. 23

- NLCS Game 7*. TV Channel: Fox or Fox Sports 1

 

When is the 2016 World Series? (Best of 7. Times TBD)

Tuesday, Oct. 25

- Game 1: NL at AL. TV Channel: Fox

Wednesday, Oct. 26

- Game 2: NL at AL. TV Channel: Fox

Friday, Oct. 28

- Game 3: AL at NL. TV Channel: Fox

Saturday, Oct. 29

- Game 4: AL at NL. TV Channel: Fox

Sunday, Oct. 30

- Game 5*: AL at NL. TV Channel: Fox

Tuesday, Nov. 1

- Game 6*: NL at AL. TV Channel: Fox

Wednesday, Nov. 2

- Game 7*: NL at AL. TV Channel: Fox