Quick Links

Nats getting close, but not quite there yet

898593.png

Nats getting close, but not quite there yet

PHILADELPHIA -- They've won 95 games, matching the franchise record. They've won more games than they've lost every month this season. They've played .643 ball since snapping a five-game losing streak in Miami on August 29, clubbing 51 homers during those 28 games.

But as the final week of the regular season arrives, the Nationals have yet to celebrate anything, aside from the fact they're guaranteed to play at least one playoff game in October.

Even with Thursday night's 7-3 thumping of the Phillies, the Nationals only inched closer to the NL East title. Their magic number now at 3, they can't clinch the division until Saturday night in St. Louis at the earliest.

For that, they can thank the scorching-hot Braves, who simply won't concede the East without putting up a fight right down to the wire. Winners in 10 of their last 12, they remain four games back with six to play, still needing a miracle to overtake Washington but refusing to help their rivals finish the job.

"Take nothing for granted," manager Davey Johnson said. "I know if we win three more, we're in, we win the pennant. That's all I want everybody in that room to figure on."

Knowing they can't count on Atlanta for much help these days, the Nationals (95-61) are pretty much throwing everything they have at the opposition each night, with Johnson doing whatever he thinks necessary to win a game and reduce that magic number by a single digit.

To win Thursday night, Johnson needed to weather a rocky first inning from Gio Gonzalez, coerce his lineup to put the hammer to Phillies rookie Tyler Cloyd and then fire his three best bullets out of the bullpen late, despite the fact his team lead by a fairly comfortable four runs.

The way this ballgame began, you might not have expected it to finish the way it did.

Five days after notching his 20th win of the season, Gonzalez was all over the place during a three-run, three-walk, 37-pitch first inning that left the hurler muttering to himself on the mound.

"I mean, if you looked at me, I looked like I had a split personality," he said. "I was talking to myself. I was just out there trying to beat myself up. I was just trying to get in my head a lot, just trying to figure it out, take myself out of the game as a third person and talk to myself every inning."

Gonzalez made it through the second inning without surrendering a run, but his pitch count was already at 55, and he had allowed seven of the first 11 batters he faced to reach base.

In the dugout, the left-hander approached his manager and sought to ease his concerns.

"Skip, I got this," Gonzalez said. "Stay with me."

Johnson's reply: "I plan on it," even though he later admitted his starter "about gave me a heart attack the first two innings."

With some help from catcher Kurt Suzuki and other teammates, Gonzalez managed to right his ship just in time and earn his 21st win. He wound up retiring 14 of the last 16 batters he faced, keeping the Phillies from scoring again and winding up with a quality start by the time he departed following the sixth.

"I think a lot of people can pitch well when things are going good," Suzuki said. "But it's the guys that can really bear down when they need to, when things aren't going their way or they aren't feeling their greatest. That showed Gio the maturity, how comfortable he feels out there. That shows tonight."

It certainly helped that the Nationals lineup got back the three runs Gonzalez allowed and then some, thanks to Bryce Harper's 21st homer and Michael Morse's 15th and 16th homers of the season.

Morse's second blast -- a 451-foot missile to right-center -- left everyone in the Nationals dugout (and especially the bullpen) celebrating. Why the bullpen? Not so much because Morse destroyed Cloyd's final pitch of the night, but because reliever Tom Gorzelanny managed to catch the ball on the fly in his cap.

"It was awesome," fellow reliever Tyler Clippard said. "That was fun. I was a little late on the jump. I might've tried to steal it from him, but ... good thing he caught it. If he missed it, that would've been pretty bad heckling for a few days."

With his pair of homers, Morse emphatically stated his lingering left wrist injury is not as much of a concern as it was a week ago, before he received some anti-inflammatory shots to help relieve the pain.

"It's more stable," he said. "Which makes it more, I guess, strong, back to normal. I don't have to think about it, which is good."

Johnson didn't have to think much about his bullpen, either, because the late-inning trio of Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen shut the door on the Phillies and quashed any possibility of a reversal of fortune, retiring nine of the 10 batters they faced.

Thus sealed the Nationals' 95th victory, matching the 1979 Expos for the franchise record. That Montreal squad never got even a sniff of postseason play, finishing two games behind the Pirates in the NL East, with no Wild Card in place at the time.

This Nationals squad is guaranteed of at least a Wild Card berth. It's been counting down the days to a division title. But it's not quite there yet. There's still some work to be done this weekend in St. Louis.

And until that happens, they don't intend to take their foot off the gas pedal.

"Every game -- I don't care if it's a save situation or whatever -- we're putting our best foot forward. I told the guys: We've got three more we've got to win. Unless you
can't go, tell me you can't go."

Quick Links

Nats option Giolito, Taylor to make room for Zimmerman and Solis

Nats option Giolito, Taylor to make room for Zimmerman and Solis

Less than 90 minutes after their 10-6 loss to the San Diego Padres, the Nationals wasted no time in making a pair of roster moves to pave the way for the expected returns of first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and reliever Sammy Solis from the disabled list.

The two casualties were starter Lucas Giolito, who struggled earlier in the day in his third MLB appearance, and outfielder Michael Taylor, who went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in the loss. Both were optioned to Triple-A Syracuse.

Zimmerman and Solis are expected to return to the Nationals on Tuesday when they play at the Cleveland Indians. The Nats are off Monday before they begin an 11-day, nine-game road trip with stops also in San Francisco and Arizona.

Zimmerman will rejoin the Nats after rehabbing from a left rib cage strain. He has been on the disabled list since July 7. He went 5-for-12 with a homer and five RBI in three minor league rehab games with the Single-A Potomac Nationals.

Solis has been on the DL since July 8 with right knee inflammation. He pitched two rehab games, one with Potomac and one with Single-A Hagerstown. Solis gave up one run on a homer in his two total innings of work.

Giolito goes back down to Triple-A after making one start with the Nats. He allowed four runs, two of them earned, in 3 2/3 innings against San Diego. Giolito has given up six earned runs in 11 total big league innings this season.

Taylor also returns to Syracuse. He was called up on July 8 when Zimmerman was placed on the DL. Taylor is hitting .222 with seven homers and 14 RBI in 66 games this season.

With Zimmerman back in the infield, Trea Turner is expected to be the odd man out. That could mean a return to the Nats' bench, or an experiment with him in center field. Turner began learning the position several weeks ago by playing six games at center in Triple-A. With Taylor now out of the mix, he could be at the very least the team's backup option at the position.

Whether they will start him there soon, though, is hard to tell. 

"I got to get Zim back in the lineup. He’s a big part of our offense," manager Dusty Baker said. "We just got to try to find a place with Zim coming back, find a place for [Turner] to play."

"I did it in Syracuse and I'll do it here if they need me to," Turner said of playing center.

"It's something that I've embraced. It's something that I'll do if they need me to."

[RELATED: Aaron Barrett suffers major setback in TJ recovery]

SCROLL DOWN FOR MORE NATIONALS STORIES

Quick Links

Baker wonders if fatigue played role in Papelbon's collapse vs. Padres

Baker wonders if fatigue played role in Papelbon's collapse vs. Padres

Sunday was not a banner day for a Nationals bullpen that has for the most part exceeded expectations this season.

First, setup man Shawn Kelley - who has been reliable for most of this year - allowed two solo home runs in the top of the eighth. That vanished a two-run lead for the Nats, allowing the Padres to tie it at 6-6.

Then, in the ninth inning it was Jonathan Papelbon, who hadn't allowed a run in eight straight outings since returning from the DL. His luck run out with a four-run frame, one that sunk the Nats with a 10-6 deficit.

That Kelley-Papelbon combination looked mighty good just one night before against the same team. But they couldn't close the deal in a game the Nationals held a two-run advantage entering the eighth inning.

Both pitchers blamed location for their problems. Manager Dusty Baker, though, offered one theory for Papelbon.

"I don’t like to make excuses, but I don’t like to use my closer three days in a row. And this was three days in a row for Pap," he said. "But we didn’t have a choice. The ball wasn’t coming out today the way it had been since he came back from the injury."

Papelbon shot down the premise that he was running out of gas.

"No, I was not tired," he said matter of factly.

It was, to be fair, just the second time this season he's been used for three straight days.

For Papelbon, his trouble started with a one-out walk to Wil Myers. From there, Yangervis Solarte landed an RBI single, and Alex Dickerson and Ryan Schimpf then singled to load the bases. That set up a bases-clearing double by Alexei Ramirez to end Papelbon's day.

The closer, soaked in sweat on a 96-degree day, walked slowly off the mound and to the dugout to a cascade of boos from Nationals fans. It was his first uneven outing in a while, but it was an ugly one and the crowd let him hear all about it.

"It boiled down to location. Coming in there in a situation where we've gotta preserve everything we can, every pitch matters in that situation," Papelbon said.

Kelley's homers were hit by Dickerson and Schimpf. Both players took advantage of similar mistakes.

"Just two pitches that weren't up enough," Kelley said. "Both balls were on the corners in the right direction, I just wanted them a few balls higher. I just didn't get them there. I was just looking at them and talking to some people. They were not bad pitches, but to those two guys, they like the ball in those spots. Just gotta be better right off the bat and execute better with the heater."

Kelley and Papelbon have both enjoyed solid seasons and have formed an above average late-innings duo. But that may not stop the Nationals from pulling off an aggressive move before the trade deadline. They have already shown strong interest in Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman and seem intent on adding at least something to their relief corps.

How Kelley and Papelbon will be affected is unclear. It will depend, of course, on what caliber pitcher they acquire, if they choose to bring one in.

For now, however, the Nats bullpen is focused on bouncing back Tuesday when the team travels to Cleveland to play the first-place Indians.

"We come out and whip their butts. That's what we do," Kelley said. This is a great team. We've got a resilient bullpen. A little blip today, but we'll be right back out there on Tuesday."

[RELATED: Aaron Barrett suffers major setback in TJ recovery]

SCROLL DOWN FOR MORE NATIONALS STORIES

Quick Links

Ken Griffey Jr. wears impressive suit to Hall of Fame induction

Ken Griffey Jr. wears impressive suit to Hall of Fame induction

Ken Griffey Jr. was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame Sunday. If there was a suit Hall of Fame, Griffey's getup for the occasion would be first-ballot worthy. 

HOF 2016

A photo posted by Ken Griffey Jr (@therealkengriffeyjr) on

Check out the pinstripes on the jacket. If you look closely, you'll see they read "Hall of Fame Class of 2016."

Now examine the tie. There's the outline of Griffey, backwards hat and all, taking a swing in the gold pattern. 

That hat made another appearance in Cooperstown Sunday. 

The look Junior made famous. #HOFWKND

A video posted by MLB ⚾ (@mlb) on

What else would you expect from the Kid?