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Nats' lineup keeps on clicking

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Nats' lineup keeps on clicking

There was a time -- not all that long ago, really -- when the Nationals fielded a lineup that if lucky might scrape together just enough runs to make a fantastic pitching performance hold up.

That was one week ago. It only feels longer.

These days, the Nationals lineup can't stop scoring runs in bunches. With a 9-3 drubbing of Tim Lincecum and the Giants Tuesday night, they extended their recent offensive barrage and made it clear they're no longer a team that relies solely on its pitching staff.

"If they keep hitting the way they're hitting now, I don't see why we can't just run away with this in the second half," right-hander Jordan Zimmermann said. "And if we keep pitching the way we are ... I mean, it's going to be tough to beat us."

It certainly looks tough to beat them right now. Winners in five of their last seven, the Nationals (46-32) now own the NL's best record by 2 12 games, having just beaten up on the club that entered the day with the league's second-best record.

And this burst of offense isn't coming from only one or two players. Sure, the re-emergence of stalwarts Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse has been a key difference over the last week, but that's also opening the door for Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa to step up their games.

"Those guys are obviously well renowned big leaguers," Desmond said of Zimmerman and Morse. "For them to be swinging the bat the way they are, it's contagious."

Tuesday night's game -- which included a 1-hour, 25-minute rain delay in the top of the seventh -- saw the Nationals take down a former two-time Cy Young Award winner who barely resembles himself these days. Lincecum entered with a 5.60 ERA and that number only skyrocketed to 6.08 after he was tagged for eight runs (seven earned) and nine hits in 3 13 innings.

It marked the first time in his illustrious career that Lincecum gave up eight runs.

"That's just lack of command," manager Davey Johnson said. "Some guys were saying he looks underweight. But, to me, with any pitcher if your command is off, you're going to have problems. Hitters get to see more pitches, you're able to time more pitches. Command is the key up here."

No one has timed Lincecum's pitches out as well as Desmond, who singled and crushed a two-run homer (his 14th of the season) to improve to a staggering 9-for-11 in his career against the San Francisco ace.

"He's a good pitcher," Desmond said. "I think I just kind of rise to the occasion when I face him. That adrenaline that we talk about, I can't really fake it. It just shows up. I know he's one of the best pitchers in the game, and that gets my blood flowing a little bit."

The biggest beneficiary of this explosion was Zimmermann, who over the last two seasons has received some of the worst run support in baseball but who has happily accepted the 20 runs the Nationals have supplied him the last two times he's taken the mound.

"It's definitely nice," the right-hander said.

It's also nice for the Nationals to know what they're going to get from Zimmermann every time he's handed the ball. The 26-year-old has now made 16 starts this season and has pitched at least six innings all 16 times. Fourteen of those outings have been quality starts.

"As long as I can stay out there and keep the team in the ballgame and keep it close, I feel like I'm doing my job," he said.

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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.