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Nats can't survive high-wire every night

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Nats can't survive high-wire every night

They've been walking a tightrope for three weeks now, occasionally teetering from side-to-side for a moment or two but always finding their center of gravity just in the nick of time.

Even the best acrobats, though, lose their balance every once in a while. So we shouldn't have been too surprised last night to see the Nationals slip and take a tumble, blowing a late lead to the Padres en route to a 2-1 loss.

Try as they might to defy the odds, you just can't win every single one-run ballgame, especially when you seem to find yourself in those nailbiters five or six times a week.

Thus, the Nationals wasted another superb outing by a member of baseball's best rotation. Edwin Jackson tossed 6 23 innings of scoreless ball, refusing to be the weak link of the bunch, and in the process helping his teammates establish a new, mind-boggling record.

For those who have lost track, that's now eight times a Nationals starting pitcher has allowed zero earned runs in 19 games this season. They're the first rotation in modern history to accomplish that.

Jackson, though, had nothing to show for his effort, because setup man Tyler Clippard (asked by manager Davey Johnson to record four outs) served up the two-run double to Mark Kotsay that determined the outcome of this game.

It's easy to point the finger at Clippard, who did not look sharp last night and hasn't looked particularly sharp at all early this season. But it's hard to place blame for a loss on a pitching staff that gives up only two runs.

How about a Nationals lineup that managed all of four hits off San Diego right-handers Edinson Volquez, Andrew Cashner and Huston Street? This was already the seventh time the Nats have been held to five or fewer hits this season, a disturbing trend.

What's missing from Johnson's lineup? Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse. It's tough to score runs when your No. 3 and No. 4 hitters are out with injuries, especially when the replacements for those stalwarts leave so much to be desired.

As nice a job as general manager Mike Rizzo did in adding depth to this roster over the winter and spring, the Nationals' simply don't have adequate replacements for Zimmerman or Morse.

The guy who started at third base (and hit third) last night was Chad Tracy, the veteran infielder who has provided three very clutch hits off the bench already this season but overall is batting .136.

More disturbing is the lack of production from Morse's usual spot. After an 0-for-4 showing last night, Nationals left fielders are now hitting a collective .097 with a .207 on-base percentage and a .125 slugging percentage. That's beyond pathetic.

Look, nobody expects a team to be able to lose a .303-31-95 cleanup hitter for two months and not suffer a bit. But this team simply must get better production out of its left fielders than it's gotten so far.

As bad as that all sounds, the Nationals still woke up this morning alone in first place in the NL East, still boasting the NL's best record heading into a big-time weekend series against the 13-6 Dodgers. That's directly attributable to their pitching staff, specifically a rotation that is doing things right now that have never been done before.

But even the best pitching staff in baseball needs a little run support. The Nationals lineup has managed to cobble together enough far more times this season than it hasn't. But that's not going to get the job done every single night.

Sometimes, you really do need to score more than two runs to win a ballgame. Even though the Nationals have tried on a regular basis this season to disprove that theory.

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Nationals rally against Rivero, beat Pirates 10-7

Nationals rally against Rivero, beat Pirates 10-7

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The tag was clearly fake. What happened next was all too real for the NL East champion Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper got hurt and needs X-rays.

Harper injured his left thumb making an awkward slide to avoid a pretend tag by Pittsburgh third baseman Jung Ho Kang, and the teams later cleared the benches Sunday in Washington's 10-7 win.

Nationals manager Dusty Baker said Harper was "sore" and would have X-rays on Monday. The reigning NL MVP had surgery to repair a torn ligament in the same thumb in 2014.

Harper led off the third inning with a triple. As he neared third, Kang acted as if a throw was coming and feigned a tag.

Harper went down, was checked by a trainer and stayed in. He scored on Anthony Rendon's double and was replaced in the field in the bottom half by Chris Heisey.

Kang insisted he merely intended to keep Harper from scoring when right fielder Josh Bell's throw was way off line.

"First of all, I meant no harm," Kang said through a translator. "During the relay play, I tried to hold the runner on third base. That's all I tried to do."

The next time Kang came up, Nationals starter A.J. Cole threw a fastball behind him and was immediately ejected by plate umpire Jordan Baker as the benches emptied.

Cole said he was trying to pitch inside to Kang. Baker said the entire situation wasn't ideal for a team that is focusing on a playoff run.

"We don't want guys suspended," Baker said. "But you know, boys will be boys, and you've still got to defend your teammates."

Washington's Jayson Werth was in the middle of the skirmish. Pirates outfielder Sean Rodriguez was ejected.

"I was very surprised I was the only one ejected considering," Rodriguez said. "I got blamed for being the one that instigated, but you can watch the film yourself."

Werth had a pinch-hit, two-run homer and Heisey had a go-ahead single during a five-run burst in the eighth. The Nationals' rally came against former teammate Felipe Rivero (1-5).

Rivero had allowed just four earned runs in his previous 25 innings since being traded from Washington to the Pirates.

Kang hit a two-run homer off Koda Glover to give the Pirates the lead in the seventh.

Shawn Kelley (3-2) wound up with the win. Former Pirates closer Mark Melancon pitched a scoreless ninth for his 43rd save.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Pirates: C Francisco Cervelli did not play after taking a foul ball off his wrist Saturday. ... RHP Neftali Feliz (arm) threw off flat ground but is not yet ready for a return to the mound.

UP NEXT

Nationals: Tanner Roark (15-9 2.70 ERA) had his start pushed back one day after the Nationals clinched the NL East on Saturday night. He'll looking for his career-best 16th win as Washington hosts Arizona for a four-game series.

Pirates: Chad Kuhl (5-3, 3.73 ERA) will start as Pittsburgh begins a four-game series against the NL Central champion Chicago Cubs. Kuhl has allowed seven earned runs in 7 1/3 innings in his two previous starts against Chicago this season.

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Benches clear in confrontation between Nats and Pirates

Benches clear in confrontation between Nats and Pirates

With the division title clinched the night before, it seemed the Nationals were poised for an uneventful series finale against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday afternoon. 

That wasn't to be, as the two clubs engaged in a benches clearing altercation in the bottom of the third inning. The tension started in the top of the frame, when Bryce Harper was injured while sliding to third base on a triple. The Nats took exception to Pirates third baseman Jung-ho Kang faking a tag on Harper, which may have led to the injury. 

So when Nats starter A.J. Cole threw behind Kang in the bottom of the inning, the near-fracas was ignited.

Cole was immediately ejected from the game, benches cleared, and each side exchanged words. The Pirates' Sean Rodriguez was also ejected from the game.