Nats' last man delivers

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Nats' last man delivers

As the Nationals' designated backup catcher for the night, Wilson Ramos knew he could lounge around in the dugout, pop sunflower seeds into his mouth and goof around with teammates. But as this game progressed, as the Nationals and Phillies kept trading blows with neither side able to deliver the knockout punch, Ramos began to realize his services might actually be needed at some point.

Sure enough, as the bottom of the 11th arrived, manager Davey Johnson got Ramos' attention at the other end of the dugout and held up five fingers. Translation: If reach the No. 5 spot in our lineup in this inning, you're hitting for the pitcher.

And just like that, Ramos transformed from his lazy-night-off mindset to emergency pinch-hitter mode.

"In that moment, I just take my batting gloves and say: 'OK, I'm the man,'" he said. "Go out and hit the ball hard."

Which is exactly what he did. With the bases loaded and two outs in a 3-hour, 42-minute marathon, Ramos fell behind in the count 0-2, then took a ball, then fouled two more pitches off before drilling a slider from Phillies reliever Michael Schwimer over shortstop Jimmy Rollins' head. Steve Lombardozzi came racing home and then took off to join the celebration near first base as Ramos was mobbed by teammates upon delivering the base hit that gave the Nationals' a 4-3 victory over their hated division rivals.

"The at-bat didn't start out too good," Johnson said. "But it ended good."

A crowd of 34,377, lured by a team-sponsored promotion to take back their park from the Phillies fans who in the past have invaded South Capitol Street, let out a roar previously heard only a handful of times in this facility. Having waited through nearly four hours of baseball, watching as the home team threatened to push across the go-ahead run but was unable to do it despite 23 men on base, those fans were rewarded with one of the more-satisfying of the Nationals' NL East-leading 17 victories.

"It speaks about the character of this team," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We want to win. It was nice, obviously, to have the crowd behind us tonight. I'd give it 70-30 probably. But better than 20-80 the other way."

Truth be told, the Nationals couldn't have drawn up a much better script for the first game of a weekend series they've been hyping for months. With young stars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper both in the lineup for a surprising club that has spent the last 24 days in first place, there was plenty of anticipation in the stands when the game began.

That anticipation only built up over the course of 11 innings, experiencing some early downs when Strasburg served up two home runs but bouncing back up when role players Chad Tracy and Jesus Flores produced the three RBI necessary to keep this game alive.

Not that the Nationals didn't have plenty of opportunities to put the Phillies away earlier. They stranded 14 men on base, including two in the sixth and three in the eighth.

All the squandered chances left players frustrated and perhaps at times even defeated. Their manager, though, looked at the situation in a different light.

"Actually, at this point I really like it, because we're threatening," Johnson said. "A lot of times this year we've been awful quiet with the bats. I knew it's coming, and it was nice to see quality at-bats from some guys that haven't been doing it."

Reinvigorated by five scoreless innings from five different relievers -- Tom Gorzelanny, Craig Stammen, Henry Rodriguez, Tyler Clippard and Ryan Perry -- the Nationals came up to bat in the 11th, determined to push that final, winning run across.

They managed to do it all with two outs, the rally jump-started by Lombardozzi's single to right. That brought Harper to the plate with a chance to win the game with one swing, and the crowd rose in anticipation of a magical moment. Instead, everyone had to settle for another quality at-bat out of the 19-year-old, who fell behind 0-2 and then battled his way to his third walk of the night.

Jayson Werth also drew a free pass from Schwimer, loading the bases for Ramos and setting the stage for the catcher.

"I was the last guy on the bench," Ramos said. "And, you know, I just was thinking: 'Try to get the runners in.'"

He did, setting off a mad celebration that players were still trying to process nearly an hour later.

"I was freaking out," Lombardozzi said. "I threw my helmet and got to Ramos as fast as possible. I was saying to myself: 'Did I hit home plate? I hope I did.'"

He sure did. And because of it, the Nationals gave themselves -- and their fans -- a heart-stopping victory, and perhaps even more reason to believe this is merely the first step toward even bigger things.

"Right now, it's just a game," Desmond said. "It's just one game. We've got to go out and play 'em hard tomorrow, and we've got to play the rest of the games for the rest of the season hard. And hopefully there's meaningful baseball between both of us teams towards the end of the year."

Ross strong in return as Nats roll past Cardinals in St. Louis

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Ross strong in return as Nats roll past Cardinals in St. Louis

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 6-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday afternoon at Busch Stadium: 

How it happened: Sometimes baseball can be so unpredictable that it almost doesn't even make sense. Trends can reverse in an instant and make all those who cast predictions look like fools. Baseball laughs at your 'educated' guess.

Take this weekend and the Nationals for instance. Somehow, after getting swept at home by the worst team in baseball in 2015, they now find themselves one game away from sweeping a team that led the majors with 100 wins a year ago. The Nats looked like no match for the Phillies in D.C., but now they're dominating the juggernaut Cardinals in St. Louis. Okay, sure. That makes sense.

Amazingly, that's where the Nats find themselves after Saturday's 6-1 win. Joe Ross closed his excellent April with six strong innings, Jayson Werth smacked a three-run homer in the top of the first and the Nats rolled past the Cardinals in St. Louis for the second straight day. They have won their first series at Busch Stadium since 2007. 

What it means: The Nats are off to a terrific start on their toughest road trip of the season. With two wins against the Cardinals, they have a chance to sweep before heading to Kansas City to face the defending champion Royals. These have been two very impressive wins and the Nats are proving well so far that their hot start against bad teams this season was not a mirage.

Ross strong in return: Ross returned from an injury - albeit a minor one - and it was not an easy situation for the right-hander to transition back, on the road at the Cardinals who boast one of baseball's best lineups. The right-hander, though, showed no rust at all from skipping his last start. Ross threw six innings of one-run ball on six hits and two walks. The one run - on a sac fly in the fifth - was the first charged to Ross since the first inning of his season debut. He had a 20 1/3 scoreless innings streak snapped, which is the second-longest in the NL so far this season only to Jake Arrieta's 23-inning streak. Ross now has a 0.79 ERA through four outings.

Werth comes through again: Werth added two hits (and 4 RBI) on Saturday including his big swing in the first inning to give the Nats a nice early lead. His three-run homer was his fourth of the season through 21 games. That's a 31-homer pace over a full 162. Power numbers were a concern for Werth after his shoulder surgery last offseason, but he now has 13 homers in his last 55 games dating back to last August. That's a 38-homer pace over a full season. He needs to get on base more, but lately he's been a significant home run threat.

Harper in a mini-slump: It's not often you see Bryce Harper struggle for several games in a row, but that has been the case over his last four outings. Harper had one walk and a run, but went hitless again on Saturday. He is now 0-for his last 11 at-bats and has one hit in his last four games. Harper's batting average dipped to .289 after Saturday's game, but he still holds a 1.128 OPS, which shows how good he has been overall this season.

Murphy keeps hitting: Daniel Murphy added two singles for his MLB-best 11th multi-hit game in 22 outings this season. His first single drove in the Nats' first run of the afternoon ahead of Werth's homer. Murphy is now batting .370 with a 1.013 OPS.

Up next: The Nationals have a chance to sweep the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon with another 2:15 p.m. first pitch. Max Scherzer (2-1, 4.35) will try to rebound after an uneven start to the season, while 24-year-old budding star Carlos Martinez (4-0, 1.93) will pitch for St. Louis.

Can the Marlins compete in the NL East without Dee Gordon?

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Can the Marlins compete in the NL East without Dee Gordon?

Through the first month of the 2016 season, the NL East looks like it could be deeper than it was a year ago. That is, of course, excluding the Atlanta Braves, who are currently MLB's worst team with a .217 win percentage after 23 games.

The Nationals and Mets look very good. The Phillies are 13-10 and winners of three straight. Whether they can keep that up, though, is doubtful.

On paper, the Marlins have the third-best roster in the division and in terms of starpower can measure up to just about any team in baseball. With Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez, in particular, they have two superstars in their prime.

Depth was the biggest concern for Miami heading into this season and now it's about to be seriously tested. All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon, who won the NL batting title in 2015, has been suspended for 80 games for performance enhancing drugs. His loss is a big one.

The Marlins' lineup is impressive, but it looks a lot better with Gordon at the top setting the table for Stanton, Christian Yelich and Justin Bour. Few players in baseball can provide the threat Gordon can not only as a leadoff hitter, but as a baserunner as well. Gordon led the league each of the last two years in steals, with 58 last year and 64 the season before that.

It's only logical to think Gordon's loss will have a profound effect on the Marlins, that his absence alone could pave the way for the Phillies to be the third-best team in the NL East. But, interestingly enough, the Marlins are red-hot right now. They've won six straight and just swept the Dodgers in L.A. The Dodgers had one of baseball's best records prior to the series and won the NL West last year.

Miami may appear okay right now, but they will have to stay afloat for three full months without Gordon. He can't return until late July and by then it could be too late. 

At 11-11, the Marlins have an average record and rank as a pedestrian team in many categories. They aren't scoring a ton of runs and no part of their pitching staff has stood out as above average. Their starting rotation, in particular, does not appear to be a strength, especially if Fernandez pitches the way he has to begin this season. Wei-Yin Chen hasn't been very good, either.

If the Marlins have been a middle of the road team overall with Gordon, it's hard to see them proving to be anything more than that without him. Miami had the best chance of making the NL East a three-team race this season and Gordon's suspension may have sealed their fate. Now the division now looks even more like a direct battle between the Nationals and Mets, unless the Phillies have something to say about it.

Ross returns to mound as Nats continue series at Cardinals

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Ross returns to mound as Nats continue series at Cardinals

Nats (15-7) vs. Cardinals (12-11) at Busch Stadium

Joe Ross returns to the mound for the Nationals today after leaving his last start and getting his turn in the rotation skipped due to a blister on his right hand. The Nats and Ross called the move precautionary, but it will still be interesting to see how he returns to action.

Ross will be facing a Cardinals lineup that looks much different today. He won't see Jedd Gyorko, Randall Grichuk or Stephen Piscotty, who all played on Friday night. The Nationals have their expected lineup set to play with Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia on the mound.

First pitch: 2:15 p.m.
TV: MASN
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Joe Ross vs. Cardinals - Jamie Garcia

NATS

CF Michael Taylor
3B Anthony Rendon
RF Bryce Harper
1B Ryan Zimmerman
2B Daniel Murphy
LF Jayson Werth
SS Danny Espinosa
C Jose Lobaton
RHP Joe Ross

CARDINALS

CF Jeremy Hazelbaker
3B Matt Carpenter
LF Matt Holliday
1B Matt Adams
C Yadier Molina
RF Brandon Moss
SS Ruben Tejada
2B Kolten Wong
LHP Jaime Garcia

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