Nats caught napping in Philly

Nats caught napping in Philly

PHILADELPHIA -- For nearly five months, they've cruised along with no real hint of adversity, ascending to their sport's best record and putting themselves in position to reach the playoffs and win their division for the first time.

The Nationals, though, haven't actually accomplished any of that yet, lest anyone forget. There are still 35 games to be played, and nothing has been assured other than the fact they're in a better position than any other club to accomplish their goal.

If they needed a reminder of that, perhaps this weekend's series did the trick. Facing a Phillies club that has little left to play for except for pride, the Nationals came out flat and got swept, dropping Sunday's series finale 4-1 to extend their losing streak to four games.

Time to panic? Well, no. This team still boasts baseball's best record at 77-50 and still holds either a 4 12- or 5 12-game lead over the Braves (pending the outcome of Atlanta's late contest in San Francisco).

Perhaps, however, it's time for a bit more sense of urgency from a club that has maintained an even-keel all season and has insisted it's still too early to think about the standings.

"At no time did I think we were out of those games," right fielder Jayson Werth said after seeing his team lose three straight by scores of 4-2, 4-2 and 4-1. "So, no, I don't think there's any panic or anything like that. Although, when you're in a pennant chase and you're getting into September, there definitely should be a sense of urgency."

There didn't appear to be much sense of that this weekend, certainly not during Sunday's finale that featured a fifth-inning meltdown by Jordan Zimmermann and then a seventh-inning brain cramp from Werth and Adam LaRoche that cost the Nationals at least one run, maybe more.

Zimmermann had been mowing down the Phillies lineup for four innings, matching Cliff Lee's mastery, before he made a couple of crucial mistakes. First, he served up an RBI double to Lee, who drilled the ball to deep center to bring the day's first run home. Then moments later, he grooved a 3-1 fastball to Jimmy Rollins and watched the ball fly into the right-field bleachers to give the Phillies a sudden 3-0 lead.

"The first four innings were kind of a breeze," said Zimmermann, now 1-2 with a 4.05 ERA in five August starts. "In the fifth inning, I just hit a wall and got in a little bit of trouble. I definitely felt strong, which is a good thing. The stuff was pretty sharp. I got to take some positive out of it."

Laynce Nix's solo homer off Tom Gorzelanny in the sixth -- the slugger's first off a left-hander in eight years -- increased the lead to 4-0, but the Nationals appeared to have a rally going in the seventh, only to have it quashed by Werth and LaRoche's mental gaffe.

The situation: With Werth on second base and nobody out, LaRoche launched a high drive to right field. The ball struck a railing just above the fence and bounced back onto the warning track. First base umpire Gerry Davis immediately signaled the ball was in play -- the correct call according to the Citizens Bank Park ground rules -- but LaRoche and Werth each assumed it was a home run and began to trot around the bases.

The Phillies, on the other hand, realized the actual situation and got the ball back into the infield, ultimately getting LaRoche into a rundown between second and third, with Werth stuck on third base.

"I screwed up," LaRoche said. "I should've stopped at second there. Got a little confused coming around second. Looked up and saw Jayson breaking for home, and then was going to try to get into third and he came back. Just a cluster."

"I guess I saw -- what I thought I saw -- was the ball hitting the walkway above the fence," said Werth, who has plenty of experience with right field in this ballpark. "So I had no indication it wasn't a homer until I was halfway home, and for some reason third base coach Bo Porter was screaming about something, and I look up and the ball's on the way home. I obviously messed up the play, cost Rochie an easy RBI and potentially cost us a win."

Who knows what would have transpired had Werth and LaRoche responded appropriately, but the gaffe did feel worse when Tyler Moore followed with a double down the left-field line that would have scored LaRoche had he still been on base.

"I mean, this is a game you never take anything for granted," manager Davey Johnson said. "My two veteran players took it for granted that the ball was out. ... That's kind of a mental mistake, because you can always review it. You never put yourself in position with the ball still on the field, and two veteran players messed that up."

The Nationals never threatened again and went down quietly against the Phillies bullpen, dropping three in a row to a club that knows its streak of division championships will end at five but is still playing with some fire down the stretch.

In the visiting clubhouse afterward, Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo wound up in heated discussion, but nothing that seemed to linger 15 minutes later. Asked if he felt his players had eased off the gas pedal this weekend or if he felt the need to hold a team meeting, Johnson emphatically said no.

"These guys ain't easing off the gas pedal," the manager said. "They're grinding. You're never as bad as you look when you lose, and you're never as good as you look when you win. Just remember that, you know? These guys don't need a pep talk, they don't need anything. A couple guys need to get healthy, and we'll be fine."

Ross dominates, Nats hit four homers in win over Phillies

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Ross dominates, Nats hit four homers in win over Phillies

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 5-1 win over the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park.

How it happened: Daniel Murphy wasn't signed by the Nationals to be a home run hitter, but that's exactly what he's become through two months of the 2016 season. And after his power surge last October, maybe we shouldn't be surprised. Murphy has looked like a completely different player since late last fall and the Nats are now gladly reaping the benefits.

Murphy homered for the second straight night on Tuesday in the Nationals' 5-1 win over the Phillies. That capped off the best month of his career and one of the best months for a player in franchise history.

Jayson Werth, Danny Espinosa and Stephen Drew also homered, and Joe Ross turned in seven strong innings as the Nationals moved to 4-4 against the Phillies on the season.

What it means: Winners of three straight, the Nationals moved to 32-21 on the season Tuesday night. They now have a chance on Wednesday to win four in a row for the first time since April 29-May 2. They can also get their first sweep since they beat the Cardinals three times in a row April 29-May 1. A sweep of the Phillies would put them 12 games above .500 for the first time this season.

Danny Ballgame does it again: Murphy's homer was his ninth of the season and his seventh in the month of May alone. The only time Murphy has hit seven homers in one month was last October during his postseason tear with the Mets. Murphy is now on pace to club 27 home runs this season. Over his last 81 games played - including the 2015 postseason - Murphy has 20 homers, 59 RBI and a .366 batting average. That's not quite his .397 average for this year, but it's pretty darn good for what equates to half an MLB season.

Murphy ties franchise record: Murphy also reached on a single in the eighth for his 47th hit in the month of May. That tied a Nats/Expos franchise record for hits in a month. Al Oliver did it in August of 1982 and Marquis Grissom accomplished the feat in June of 1994, both with the Expos of course. Murphy now has 26 multi-hit games in 51 total outings this season. He gets multi-hit games more often than he doesn't.

Ross keeps rolling: Ross was dominant through seven innings of one run ball with three hits and two walks allowed. The right-hander now has a 2.37 ERA on the season, which is best on the Nats and 10th-lowest in the majors. This was the second straight outing for Ross where he went seven innings and only allowed one run. The lone score the Phillies got off him was on an RBI triple by Cesar Hernandez in the third. Hernandez scored David Lough all the way from first and it was on a line drive to right-center that may have been fielded by Ben Revere if the Nats had not been in an outfield shift. 

Werth also homers: Werth hit his eighth homer of the season and his second in the last three games. It was a solo shot that put the Nationals up 1-0 in the first inning. It was Werth's second homer off Nola, as he also got him on Sept. 14 of last year. 

Up next: The Nationals and Phillies close their three-game series with a 7:05 p.m. first pitch on Wednesday night. Max Scherzer (5-4, 4.05) will get the start for the Nats opposite Phillies lefty Adam Morgan (1-3, 6.67).

NL East: For one day, Harvey silences critics with dominant outing

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NL East: For one day, Harvey silences critics with dominant outing

In New York, where your every move is dissected to a T by fans and media, achieving and maintaining sports stardom can be difficult to do. Just ask Matt Harvey, who went from being the toast of the town while helping the Mets to the World Series last October to having his ability (and character) roundly criticized after his rough start to the 2016 season. And after he lost back-to-back outings against the Nationals recently, it seemed like he had reached rock bottom. 

But for one outing, the man known as "The Dark Knight" managed to silence his critics with a vintage performance against the Chicago White Sox on Memorial Day. He allowed just two hits over seven shutout frames, striking out six and issuing just one walk in the Mets' 1-0 win. The victory raised his record to 4-7 and lowered his ERA to 5.37. 

And unlike his previous start, he addressed the media after the game. Per MLB.com: 

"There's a lot of emotion....It's been a while.…The idea is to do everything you can to help the team, and I felt like I wasn't doing that very well. Today, to be able to go out in a one-run ballgame like that and be able to put up zeros, was very exciting."

The difference for Harvey on Monday was establishing his dominant fastball that had been missing for most of the first two months of the season. His heater was clocked as high as 98 mph, a marked improvement over his previous starts. 

Harvey was considered a hero in 2015, his first full campaign post-Tommy John surgery, as he pitched a total of 216 innings between the regular season and the playoffs. No pitcher had ever thrown that many innings in the first season following the procedure. And it's precisely that fact that many have pointed to when discussing whether or not the 27-year-old right hander is still feeling the effects from last year's overuse. 

So will Harvey return to form? Can he reclaim his status at the Mets ace? It's too early to tell, but Monday's outing was the first that provided a light at the end of the tunnel. Just don't expect the circus to end anytime soon.  

"I think it's a first step," Harvey said. "Obviously, this isn't going to mean anything unless I continue to do this and stay with what we've been working on. It's a work in progress, but I'm happy that I was able to go out there, feel comfortable in my mechanics and get the job done."

Bryce Harper out of Nats lineup day after getting hit vs. Phillies

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Bryce Harper out of Nats lineup day after getting hit vs. Phillies

Nats (31-21) vs. Phillies (26-25) at Citizens Bank Park

Fresh off their comeback victory on Monday night, the Nationals will look to make it three straight wins overall as the continue their series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Bryce Harper is out of the Nationals' lineup on Tuesday after he took a pitch off his right leg on Monday night. Harper was diagnosed with a contusion on his right leg and, as of last night, was considered day-to-day according to what manager Dusty Baker told reporters in Philly.

Pitching for the Nats will be Joe Ross (4-4, 2.52) in his 10th start of the season. He's coming off a strong performance of seven innings and just one earned run against the Cardinals. Ross saw the Phillies back on April 15 and tossed 7 2/3 scoreless frames in a Nationals win.

Former seventh overall pick Aaron Nola (4-3, 2.86) will take the mound for Philly. He's faced the Nats twice this season, once allowing seven earned runs in five innings on April 16 and then the other time going seven shutout frames in a Phillies win on April 28.

First pitch: 7:05 p.m.
TV: MASN2
Radio: 106.7 The Fan, XM 869
Starting pitchers: Nats - Joe Ross vs. Phillies - Aaron Nola

NATS

CF Ben Revere
RF Jayson Werth
2B Daniel Murphy
1B Ryan Zimmerman
LF Clint Robinson
3B Anthony Rendon
C Wilson Ramos
SS Danny Espinosa
RHP Joe Ross

PHILLIES

CF Odubel Herrera
SS Freddy Galvis
3B Maikel Franco
C Cameron Rupp
1B Ryan Howard
LF Tyler Goeddel
RF David Lough
2B Cesar Hernandez
RHP Aaron Nola

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