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Nats still feel no love in Philly

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Nats still feel no love in Philly

PHILADELPHIA -- For all the agony they have suffered in this town, the lopsided losses and the taunting fans and especially the division titles clinched against them, the Nationals arrived in Philadelphia on Tuesday knowing they could leave town Thursday having celebrated on enemy turf.

First things first, though. They needed to win their series opener against the Phillies, which proved perhaps a more daunting task than hoped.

A two-inning meltdown by Ross Detwiler left the Nationals in a deep early hole. Then, despite knocking out ace Cole Hamels after five innings, they couldn't touch a parade of relievers that trotted out of the Philadelphia bullpen.

Combine this 6-3 loss with the Braves' simultaneous walk-off, 4-3 victory over the Marlins and suddenly the Nationals' path to the NL East crown looks a bit bumpier. Their lead is down to four games with eight to play. Their magic number remains five. And they can no longer clinch here in Philly. The celebration can't take place until Friday night in St. Louis at the absolute earliest.

"You take a lot of pride getting a win down the stretch like this," Detwiler said. "That's what we all play for. It could have been a big step. We could have celebrated on their field, like they have on our field, and I didn't let that happen."

The notion of the Nationals dancing in the middle of the diamond at Citizens Bank Park -- just as the Phillies did at Nationals Park upon clinching the 2010 NL East title and just as they did right here with the Nats in attendance in 2007 and 2008 -- maybe was too perfect. The poetic symmetry might have been too much to expect.

But if they couldn't wrap this thing up in front of their own fans on South Capitol Street, the Nationals would have loved to do it in South Philly. Just one problem: The local ballclub may not reach the postseason for the first time since 2006, but it's still a mighty tough club to beat.

Indeed, the Phillies remain a major thorn in the Nationals' side. Washington owns a 33-21 record against everyone else in the division but is now 5-8 against the five-time reigning champs.

"They've got a lot of quality players over there," manager Davey Johnson said. "Great pitching staff. Good team."

They also possess several potent bats, especially with Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz all healthy at the same time at last. But opposing pitchers know they can be beat, provided they aren't simply handed free bases.

That's what left Detwiler kicking himself at the end of this night. He could've been most upset about the two home runs he surrendered: one to rookie Darin Ruf, an old college adversary in the Missouri Valley Conference, and one to Ruiz, who tattooed a third-inning fastball into the left-field stands for a three-run homer that blew the game wide open.

The home runs, though, were less of a concern to Detwiler than the three walks he issued over a four-batter span in the second and third innings. The first was a four-pitch walk to Hamels; the second two opened the next frame and set the stage for Ruiz's homer.

"When I don't even have a fastball, that's what happened," he said. "I was kinda out there throwing the ball the other batter's box. It wasn't even close. You can't even expect a swing and miss at that point."

Unable to get ahead in the count with his fastball, Detwiler couldn't then turn to his offspeed pitches to finish off hitters, frustrating his manager.

"He's got a great fastball, but he's also got a good changeup and good curveball," Johnson said. "He's got to learn to pitch with them instead of just trying to overthrow. And that's what he was doing, just trying to overthrow. What'd he walk, five guys or something? You've got to learn. That's that learning process."

Detwiler did manage to right his ship and retired the last nine batters he faced following the Ruiz homer. At that point, the Nationals trailed 5-1, though they still liked their chances after knocking out Hamels (who threw a whopping 99 pitches in only five innings) and forcing Phillies manager Charlie Manuel to go to his suspect bullpen early.

The Nationals, though, couldn't touch that relief corps. They went 1-for-13 against Josh Lindblom, Justin DeFratus, Antonio Bastardo, Phillipe Aumont and Jonathan Papelbon and never seriously threatened to mount a comeback.

"You definitely want to get to the bullpen, especially in those middle innings," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "But sometimes you can't do it."

As this was all playing out, the Nationals might not have been able to help but notice the out-of-town scoreboard along the right-field wall. The Braves were three outs from a 3-2 loss to the Marlins, then suddenly came back to life and won in dramatic fashion on Freddie Freeman's game-winning homer off Mike Dunn.

Thus Atlanta officially clinched a playoff berth, while also trimming the Nationals' lead in the division to four games, the smallest margin they've owned since August 28.

"I think the worst thing you can do is look at the standings," Suzuki said. "A loss is a loss. Losses always hurt. You definitely want to win more games than you lose. But it's just one of those games. Put it behind you, look forward to tomorrow and give us a chance to win the series."

The Nationals still control their own destiny, with even some margin for error. If they go 4-4 the rest of the way, the Braves would need to go 8-0 to force a one-game tiebreaker to determine the NL East champ and the Wild Card.

An Atlanta loss or two wouldn't be frowned upon, either.

"All year long, we've won, they've won, we've won, they've won," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "For them to get one up on us today, it's no big deal. We've still got eight games to go, and I think we feel pretty good about ourselves."

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Gio Gonzalez has plenty to work on before Nats playoffs begin

Gio Gonzalez has plenty to work on before Nats playoffs begin

Gio Gonzalez' seesaw 2016 regular season is officially in the books. Next stop: the NL Division Series where he will face the L.A. Dodgers, likely in Game 3 and possibly with one of the two teams' season on the line. Either way, it will be important.

Over the years, teams have trotted out far less accomplished pitchers in playoff games, ones with nothing close to the track record of Gonzalez. And for long stretches this season, he has been effective, like in July and August when he held a 3.16 ERA across 11 starts.

But a lot has happened since August for Gonzalez, both on the field and off of it. In his five starts since, he's given up 19 runs in 23 innings. That stretch includes his 3 2/3 innings on Wednesday night against the Diamondbacks, when he gave up three runs on eight hits and three walks and threw a whopping 100 pitches.

Just in time for the playoffs.

The Nationals have an unenviable situation without Stephen Strasburg, who is rehabbing a right flexor strain, and with Joe Ross still building his workload. They better hope the version of Gio Gonzalez they see in the NLDS is better than the one they have witnessed over the last several weeks.

“It wasn’t that good, but we didn’t score any runs either. He had a lot of pitches in a short period of time," manager Dusty Baker said after the Nats' 3-0, rain-shortened loss.

"They ran his pitch count up. They didn’t swing at very many balls and it looked like they were trying to wait on his fastball."

Gonzalez will now have to make adjustments in bullpen sessions over the course of the next 12 days. He will have to do that with a lot on his mind. Gonzalez heads to the funeral of close friend Jose Fernandez on Thursday and was pitching with extra emotion against Arizona. 

“He’s an emotional-type guy," Baker said. "I talked to him a little bit about Fernandez and he was pitching for him and for us. Just wasn’t a very good night."

Now Gonzalez will have plenty of time to grieve and recalibrate before he sees the Dodgers. Whether that hurts or helps has yet to be determined.

“It can [help]. Just depends on, not only can it reset him, but after things have subsided some… they say time heals all wounds, but some wounds take longer to heal," Baker said.

"It probably won’t really set in until after the season when he’s back in Miami and around and Jose’s not around. Hopefully, he can have a couple good ‘pens and get it back together because we’re certainly going to need him come playoff time."

Gonzalez does have some success against the Dodgers to build off of. He holds a 1.69 ERA across 32 innings vs. L.A. since 2012 and held them to one run through six earlier this season.

Gonzalez is also just ready for a fresh start.

"You start the postseason with a zero ERA. It's a new series. New way to look at it," he said.

[RELATED: Podcast: Can Nationals win without Wilson Ramos?]

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Gio Gonzalez bounced early as Nats fall to Diamondbacks

Gio Gonzalez bounced early as Nats fall to Diamondbacks

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 3-0 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: The Nationals will be starting Gio Gonzalez in the NL Division Series against the Dodgers whether it's their preference or not. That's not to say they aren't at all comfortable with having him on the mound in the playoffs. He's been there before and happens to have plenty of recent success against the very team he'll face.

It's just that with Stephen Strasburg injured and Joe Ross not yet stretched out since returning from the disabled list, Gonzalez is essentially their third starter by default. And with how inconsistent he's been lately, that produce an interesting dynamic in the postseason. It's Gio Gonzalez roulette: who will take the ball and stare down Corey Seager and Adrian Gonzalez, Good Gio or Bad Gio?

The latter was on display Wednesday night in the Nats' 3-0 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks, a game shortened to 6 1/3 innings by unrelenting rain. He managed just 3 2/3 innings on 100 pitches. That's not an MLB record for pitches in such a short start, but it's not far off. Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia, for instance, threw 107 pitches in 3 2/3 just five years ago.

Gonzalez' latest outing may not go down in the annals of history, but it was a troubling sight for the Nationals. The next time he will pitch is against the Dodgers, either in L.A. or Washington. And given the nature of a five-game series, their season could be on the line.

Gonzalez needed 24 pitches to get out of the first inning and was fortunate to give up just one run in the frame, that on a groundout by Paul Goldschmidt. Gonzalez needed 24 more in the second after giving up a single and a walk, but no runs. 

He threw 29 more in the third, including an RBI double to Brandon Drury. In the fourth, he tossed 23 more pitches and was pulled after Goldschmidt landed an RBI single, Gonzalez' third run of the evening. He allowed eight hits and three walks in total.

Gonzalez has been bounced after 4 1/3 innings or less in four of his last nine starts. In his last five outings, he's surrendered 19 earned runs in 23 innings. He's trending in the wrong direction after a strong July and August, and it's not good for the Nats.

Gonzalez didn't go deep in his start, but he wasn't necessarily terrible either. The Nats' offense fell closer to that description. They managed zero runs on five hits and one walk against Arizona starter Shelby Miller. His 6.15 ERA through 20 starts this season makes his 2015 All-Star nod seem like a distant memory.

The Nationals lost their second game of this series against the Diamondbacks and will now hope for a four-game split on Thursday. Washington has dropped seven of their last 11 games.

What it means: The Nationals fell to 92-65 not the year with four games remaining. Their magic number to clinch home field advantage in the NLDS stands at three thanks to the Dodgers' loss to the Padres.

Rendon lands two: Anthony Rendon was once again a standout for the Nats on offense with a pair of singles in two plate appearances. That came one night after he led the Nats to victory with a three-run homer. Rendon now has six hits in his last five games and appears to be heating up as the Nats enter the final four games of the regular season. With Wilson Ramos out, Rendon is even more important as one of the Nationals' most potent right-handed bats.

Belisle keeps it up: He may not pitch in high-leverage spots, and he may not bring electric stuff out of the bullpen, but veteran Matt Belisle just continues to produce in whatever role the Nats ask of him. He replaced Gonzalez in the fourth inning on Wednesday and tossed 1 1/3 perfect frames. He got four outs on seven pitches, a nice change of pace from the 100 pitches Gonzalez needed to record 11 outs. Belisle was even checked on by trainer Paul Lessard before he began the fifth inning, but he didn't show any problems afterwards.

Gio playing with a heavy heart: Gonzalez was pitching with a lot on his mind Wednesday night following the death of his friend Jose Fernandez over the weekend. Gonzalez was in tears while warming up in right field before the game and plans to fly to Florida in the morning to attend the funeral services of the late Marlins star. 

Up next: The Nats and Diamondbacks finish of their series with a 1:05 p.m. start on Thursday afternoon. Joe Ross (7-5, 3.48) will pitch opposite former Nats prospect Robbie Ray (8-14, 4.77).

[RELATED: Podcast: Can Nationals win without Wilson Ramos?]

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