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Nats can't shine on big stage

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Nats can't shine on big stage

For nearly five hours, Bryce Harper had flailed away at pitches out of the zone, taken borderline strikes and glared at plate umpire Tim Timmons and otherwise looked exactly like a 19-year-old overwhelmed to be in the big leagues.

Yet when the Nationals' rookie stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 14th inning late Saturday afternoon, every remaining soul among the once-sellout crowd of 41,287 couldn't help but dream about how Harper's otherwise awful game might end in dramatic fashion.

Even the players wearing the road uniforms admitted the thought crossed their minds.

"It's like one of those kind of storybook endings; you're hoping it wasn't going to be," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "That would've just been too good to be true, for Harper to hit a walk-off right there. The place might've fallen down."

Harper didn't hit a walk-off, and the place did not fall down. With a routine groundball to second on the first pitch he saw from New York closer Rafael Soriano, Harper completed a miserable, 0-for-7, five-strikeout day and officially sealed the Nationals' frustrating 5-3, extra-inning loss.

There were plenty of defining moments in this game, countless opportunities for the Nationals to push across the one run they needed to pull out a victory and some controversial calls that cost them along the way. But it was Harper's performance -- by far his worst in seven weeks as a big leaguer -- that left everyone shaking their heads by day's end.

It wasn't just that Harper struck out five times. It was the surprising manner in which he consistently chased pitches out of the strike zone from Andy Pettitte and three Yankees relievers. It was the disgusted look and words he directed toward Timmons after questionable calls. And it was the uncharacteristic lack of composure from a player who to date has relished every opportunity to star on the big stage.

"I thought he probably was really amped up," manager Davey Johnson said. "He came in there against Pettitte, and I've never seen him swing at balls out of the zone. He was chasing balls. Got in that mode where (he was) trying to make something happen. That's part of the youth."

Harper declined to comment after the game, saying "I don't want to talk." Teammates tried to offer the rookie reassurance.

"Shake it off," first baseman Adam LaRoche told him. "It's not the last time you're going to have a bad game. If you're lucky, you'll have lots of bad games because you're playing for a long time. Shake it off and hurt them tomorrow."

This will be a tough game for the entire Nationals roster to shake off, a second straight loss to the American League's best team and one that was eminently winnable.

The Nationals gave the Yankees an unearned run during a sloppy fourth inning that featured one official error (by shortstop Ian Desmond) and two other miscues (a blooper to shallow left field that fell untouched, a missed scoop at first base by Tyler Moore on what should have been an inning-ending double play).

Jordan Zimmermann gave the Yankees two runs in the sixth, turning a slim lead into a slim deficit.

For a moment in the bottom of the eighth, though, the Nationals thought they had retaken the lead and were three outs from victory. Desmond's homer off reliever Cory Wade tied the game 3-3, and shortly after Moore came scampering around the bases on LaRoche's pinch-hit single to right.

As catcher Russell Martin hauled in the throw from DeWayne Wise, Moore attempted a headfirst slide, brushing his left hand across the plate. Timmons, though, called Moore out on the bang-bang play, and it wasn't clear until after the fact that Moore's hand had narrowly beaten Martin's tag.

"I thought I got in there," Moore said. "But you know, I haven't seen the replay yet. It's just unfortunate it didn't go our way."

"We had other opportunities to win that ballgame," Desmond said.

Indeed they did, thanks in large part to some brilliant relief work from Ross Detwiler, Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Craig Stammen, who combined to toss seven scoreless, hitless innings against one of the most-feared lineups in baseball.

But through it all, the Nationals lineup was unable to push across the winning run, going a collective 0-for-15 with five strikeouts from the ninth through the 13th innings.

So the game entered the 14th, at which point Johnson handed the ball to Brad Lidge, less than 24 hours removed from a shaky outing that contributed to a series-opening, 7-2 loss. The veteran right-hander was plagued Friday night by a seeing-eye, infield single, and he couldn't believe his misfortune when the same thing happened again Saturday. Jayson Nix led off with a single to deep shortstop. Derek Jeter then added a grounder through the left-side hole.

"I'm in a bit of bad luck right know where they're kind of hitting them where they ain't," Lidge said. "They're the groundballs you want, but they're hit perfectly between guys. It's tough, but you just try to do the best you can to get out of it."

Lidge did strike out Curtis Granderson, but he then left a 2-1 slider over the plate and watched as Teixeira laced it down the right-field line for the two-run double that gave the Yankees the lead for good and raised Lidge's ERA to an unsightly 9.64.

The Nationals nearly bailed him out in the bottom of the 14th thanks to one-out singles from Jesus Flores and Steve Lombardozzi. But Danny Espinosa flied out to right and Harper couldn't summon any magic to erase his dreadful afternoon and lift his team to an inspiring victory.

Suddenly, the Nationals' six-game winning streak has morphed into a two-game losing streak. And the most-anticipated series in the team's brief history has already been won by the Yankees, who will go for the sweep Sunday afternoon against a young ballclub that has to learn how to brush off a pair of demoralizing losses.

"Right now, obviously they seem bad," Lidge said. "These games are magnified. But at the end of the season, these are two of 162 games we play. They're regular-season games. And hopefully, if nothing else, we can learn from whatever we take from these two games and get better from it."

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Papelbon's struggles continue, Ramos and Rendon heating up for Nats

Papelbon's struggles continue, Ramos and Rendon heating up for Nats

Leftover notes and observations from the Nats' 7-6 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night…

Papelbon's rough ninth: Jonathan Papelbon crumbled again in the ninth inning by allowing three runs to the Indians, who saw Francisco Lindor single home the winning run against Oliver Perez in the bottom of the ninth. It was a crushing loss for the Nats and their second reminder in as many games that their bullpen may be a problem, perhaps even one worth addressing before the trade deadline.

Papelbon's timing is at least good in that he's not doing this next week, that it's coming before Monday's non-waiver trade deadline. There is still time for the Nats to add a reliever, though if they want to bring in a new closer, the price will likely be high. One has to wonder if the last few days have changed the Nats' thinking when it comes to parting with one of their top prospects in order to shore up the backend of their bullpen for the pennant race.

Papelbon has now allowed seven earned runs in his last two outings. He took the mound on Sunday with a 2.56 ERA, but now has a 4.45 mark after two straight uneven spots.

Ramos hits No. 15: Wilson Ramos appeared to be cooling off earlier this month, but lately has picked up the pace. On Tuesday he not only homered in the sixth inning - his second in as many games - he also doubled and later scored in the fourth. It was Ramos' fourth multi-hit game in his last six outings. He has reached base in 13 straight appearances.

Ramos' homer was his 15th of the year, which puts him one away from the career-high he set back in 2013. This is the fourth time in his career that he's reached 15 homers in a season.

Rendon's No. 12: Despite missing two games last week with the flu, Anthony Rendon continues to swing a hot bat. He went 2-for-4 on Tuesday night with a homer, two RBI and two runs. His home run was his 12th of the season, a two-run shot that scored Ramos in the top of the fourth. After going 0-for-14 in four games split by the All-Star break, Rendon is 9-for-28 (.321) with three homers and five RBI in the seven games since.

Rivero's streak snapped: Felipe Rivero gave up his first earned run in 11 appearances on Tuesday to snap a 17 1/3 scoreless innings streak, the longest for a Nats reliever this season. Rivero found trouble early, as Jason Kipnis led off the bottom of the eighth with a double and Lindor followed with a single. Mike Napoli then brought Kipnis home on a double play groundball. 

Lindor shows his stuff: The Nationals got their first look at one of the best young players in baseball. At just 22 years old, Lindor has become a superstar shortstop in a very short period of time and on Tuesday demonstrated in several ways what all the hype is about. Not only did he single in the game-winning run, he also made a terrific play in the field in the top of the seventh. Lindor fell down while gloving a hard groundball by Ben Revere, got up and threw a strike to first for the out.

Lindor also singled in the bottom of the third on a Gio Gonzalez pitch that came in chin-high. It was a pitch no one should ever swing at, but he smoothly poked a single to opposite field. Vladimir Guerrero would have been impressed. Lindor, who bats .307 on the season, had three hits in the game.

[RELATED: Papelbon again implodes in ninth as Nats lose to Indians]

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Near trade deadline, former National Drew Storen again on the move

Near trade deadline, former National Drew Storen again on the move

It was back in January that the Nationals acquired Ben Revere from Toronto in exchange for reliever Drew Storen. The former National won't even spend a year north of the border. 

With the trade deadline approaching, Toronto made a move on Tuesday to send Storen and cash considerations to Seattle in exchange for pitcher Joaquin Benoit. 

Storen posted a 6.21 ERA for Toronto in 33.1 innings this season. Benoit has a 5.18 ERA in 24.1 innings. 

MORE NATIONALS: PAPELBON IMPLODES AGAIN IN LOSS

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Papelbon again implodes in ninth as Nats fall to Indians in walk-off loss

Papelbon again implodes in ninth as Nats fall to Indians in walk-off loss

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 7-6 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night at Progressive Field.

How it happened: After Jonathan Papelbon imploded in the ninth inning on Sunday, manager Dusty Baker took some of the blame, saying he should not have pitched his closer for the third straight day. Papelbon denied he was tired, but Baker felt it was worth mentioning.

Despite that, Baker went back to Papelbon on Tuesday night in a key spot. It came after an off-day, but Papelbon did not look himself against the Indians. His fastball was regularly topping out at 89 miles per hour and Cleveland jumped all over it.

Papelbon allowed a leadoff walk then an RBI double to Tyler Naquin. Ryan Zimmerman then committed a costly throwing error to first on a Chris Gimenez sacrifice bunt to score Naquin. And then, with Oliver Perez on the mound and the bases loaded, young superstar Francisco Lindor singled in the winning run for an Indians walk-off victory.

Papelbon has now failed the Nats in the ninth inning of two consecutive games. The one positive may be that he's done this before the Aug. 1 trade deadline and not after it, as the Nats' need for bullpen help is becoming more and more obvious.

The Nats had a solid day on offense, led by Trea Turner in the leadoff spot. He singled, walked, stole a base, reached on an error and scored a run in another all-around effort. The rest of the Nats' lineup followed suit, as Wilson Ramos hit his 15th homer of the season, Anthony Rendon clubbed his 12th and Jayson Werth added two doubles to extend his streak of reaching base to 29 games, matching a career-high. 

The Nats knocked Danny Salazar - one of the AL's best pitchers - out after just four innings of work. He gave up four runs (3 ER) on four hits and two walks. Nats starter Gio Gonzalez overcame a rocky first inning to go 6 1/3 frames with three runs (2 ER) allowed.

The Nationals began their long road trip with a tough, 7-6 loss and have now lost six of their last eight games. 

What it means: The Nats fell to 58-42 on the season. With the Marlins' win on Tuesday, the Nats are now just four games up in the NL East.

Turner mostly good in CF, great at plate: Known for his prodigious speed on the base paths, apparently Trea Turner is also a fast learner.

With Zimmerman back from the disabled list, the Nationals rookie played center field for the first time in a big league game on Tuesday night and the early returns were overall quite good. Turner for the most part looked competent at his new position, despite having one key moment where he showed his inexperience. Perhaps more important, the Nats kept his bat and his legs in their lineup and again saw the impact he can provide at the top of their order.

Turner wasn't tested much in center field on Tuesday night, but he did make one very impressive play in the first inning on a long flyout by Jose Ramirez. Turner covered over 112 feet according to StatCast and caught the ball on a full sprint just a step away from the right-center field wall. It was a difficult play and he made it look easy, registering a 97.8% efficiency score. Turner also made another catch at the warning track in the seventh inning. He displayed good instincts around the wall at a park he's never played before. 

That was the good. There was also some bad, including a mistimed dive attempt in the bottom of the eighth that resulted in a Jason Kipnis double. Turner dove while running in towards the infield, only to have the ball bounce in front of him and then over his head. Kipnis later scored on a double play ball hit by Mike Napoli.

Gio starts slow, rebounds: Tuesday will go down as another step in the right direction for Gonzalez, but it didn't start that way. He ran into major trouble in the first inning by throwing 13 balls in his first 17 pitches. That stretch included a leadoff walk to Rajai Davis and then a ground-rule double by Kipnis. Davis scored after that on a passed ball and Kipnis came home on a Carlos Santana sacrifice fly. Gonzalez barely got out of the first inning and was lucky only two runs came across.

After that, though, he was better. Gonzalez held the Indians scoreless for the next five innings before leaving in the seventh. He finished with three runs allowed (2 ER) on five hits, two walks and four strikeouts. The second earned run charged to Gonzalez came on a tough-luck play. Gonzalez exited after giving up a one-out double to Abraham Almonte. Almonte then scored on a Lonnie Chisenhall groundball hit against Blake Treinen that bounced off Rendon's glove and into center field.

Gonzalez has now allowed eight earned runs in his last four games across 24 innings since July began. That equals an even 3.00 ERA, which is solid considering his struggles through May and June.

Zimmerman returns: Zimmerman came back, but didn't carry over the momentum from his hot-hitting minor league rehab games. Zimmerman went 0-for-4 and left three men on base. That was in addition to his mistake in the field.

Scary moment: There was an unfortunate sequence in the first inning on Tuesday night, as a fan in the crowd at Progressive Field was hit in the face by a Daniel Murphy line drive. The 75-year-old woman was quickly rushed to the hospital, but it sounds like she suffered some serious facial injuries at the very least.

Up next: The Nats and Indians play the finale of their two-game interleague series with a 12:10 p.m. start on Wednesday afternoon. Stephen Strasburg (13-1, 2.83) will square off with right-hander Carlos Carrasco (7-3, 2.31).

[RELATED: Former Nats 1st rd. pick set to make MLB debut with Mets]

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