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Nats survive their first postseason experience

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Nats survive their first postseason experience

ST. LOUIS -- Twenty-one of the 25 players on their roster had never experienced this before. Neither had approximately 99 percent of their fan base back home in Washington.

Jayson Werth, though, had been here. He's been through the meat grinder of the postseason, and he knows what kind of toll it can take on teams and players who are entering uncharted territory.

"A lot of times you see teams in their first games, the first time they're there, and they crack or buckle," the veteran right fielder said. "I feel like we definitely gave a little bit, but we didn't break."

Oh, the Nationals gave plenty to the Cardinals Sunday afternoon in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. If not for the giant scoreboard in center field at Busch Stadium, a casual observer might well have thought they were trailing by a touchdown in the top of the eighth inning, not by a single run.

This, though, is what postseason baseball is all about. It's a roller-coaster of emotions. One minute you're sky-high, the next you're cursing yourself after a squandered opportunity.

The postseason is about hitting in the clutch, making big pitches with runners in scoring position and coming up big in the field with everything on the line.

For seven innings, the Nationals failed in just about every manner possible. And then they flipped a switch and thrived in all three facets, escaping with a 3-2 victory that felt like the most important victory in team history.

Which, of course, it was. After a 98-win season, the NL East title and all sorts of new-found attention for a franchise that had never even spent a day on the fringes of the spotlight, the Nationals entered this series with a bullseye squarely on their chests.

Forced to open on the road against the defending World Series champs, they suddenly found themselves facing real pressure for one of the first times in their charmed season. And -- despite everything their manager and they insisted in the days leading up to it -- they played like a team that was caught up in the moment.

Gio Gonzalez couldn't find the strike zone. Werth couldn't drive in a run. Danny Espinosa couldn't make contact. Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche couldn't make routine plays. Craig Stammen couldn't avoid plunking opposing batters.

Yet in spite of themselves, the Nationals trailed most of the afternoon by only one run, 2-1, with those two runs scoring entirely as a result of Gonzalez's extreme wildness.

There were plenty of opportunities where the deficit could have grown. Gonzalez himself managed to keep the damage to a relative minimum, escaping his 37-pitch nightmare of a second inning only allowing those two runs.

"I think that was a big positive," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "Instead of down, say, 5-1, we're down 2-1. We're still in the ballgame. That was a big, big job by Gio."

Which set the stage for some really big jobs performed by a Nationals bullpen that combined to throw four scoreless innings and strand five Cardinals in scoring position.

No one, of course, performed better than Ryan Mattheus, who entered facing the ultimate jam -- bases loaded, nobody out -- and somehow managed to record three outs on all of two pitches. The right-hander walked off the mound with a roar, one of several displays of emotion from Nationals players during the final, frenzied innings of this game.

"Yeah, there was definitely some emotion," Mattheus said. "That's the biggest game I've been in. Those are the biggest three outs and the two biggest pitches I've ever made. So being down one run, I wanted to pump the team up and hopefully get some momentum back in our direction."

The pendulum immediately swung back in the Nationals' favor. Their game-winning rally began with a break: shortstop Pete Kozma taking a bad hop grounder off his face (reminiscent of the Yankees' Tony Kubek late in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series) to allow Michael Morse to reach first base.

Ian Desmond, one of the few young Nationals who looked composed from the first pitch, followed with his third single of the day, but he and Morse were able to advance only one base a piece after Espinosa's surprising sacrifice bunt and Suzuki's strikeout.

With two outs now, the tying run on third and the winning run on second, Johnson sent his best pinch-hitter to the plate: Chad Tracy. The 69-year-old skipper, though, knew Tracy would never actually get into the batter's box. Sure enough, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny signaled for his bullpen, summoning his lone left-hander (Marc Rzepczynski) to face Tracy.

Johnson immediately countered, pulling Tracy back and sending to the plate 25-year-old rookie Tyler Moore, whose lack of experience is overshadowed by his ability to hit the baseball like a true pro.

"I'd rather have the veteran player in that situation than a rookie," Johnson said. "But rookies have been doing a heck of a job, and Moore has got some big hits for us, as he did tonight."

That he did. After flailing at a 2-1 pitch way out of the zone, Moore composed himself and dumped the biggest hit of his life into shallow right field. Morse and Desmond came around to score, Moore celebrated as he advanced to second base and the Nationals dugout went bezerk.

"To battle with two strikes and throw one out there in a huge situation, he picked us up," LaRoche said. "A bunch of us had opportunities today to drive some runs in and it didn't happen, so he saved all of us."

That, though, is what great teams do. That's what successful teams in October do.

Sometimes the star players deliver in the biggest spots. Sometimes it's a 28-year-old middle reliever and a 25-year-old rookie off the bench.

"That's playoff baseball," said Drew Storen, who earned the save with a 1-2-3 ninth. "Nothing goes to plan in the playoffs. The good teams are the ones that can handle it and really grind it out and get the victory. That's what we expect. We don't expect it to go by the book."

No, very little about this game went by the book. And it's entirely possible very little about the rest of this playoff run will, either.

That's just the way this works. In the regular season, a 3-2 game is completed in less than three hours and features maybe one or two moments of mild pressure. In the postseason, it takes a full 3 hours and 40 minutes, a never-ending stream of big and bigger moments where it feels like everything is on the line.

And when it's all over, everybody heads back to their team hotel, tries to get their blood pressure back to normal levels, tries to get something resembling a good night's sleep ... and comes right back to the park the next day ready for another date with the meat grinder.

Game 1 is in the books. The Nationals and their fans could experience this 18 more times before the season ends.

Hope everyone packed their beta-blockers.

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Nats name Giolito as Sunday starter vs. Padres, Ross to rehab soon

Nats name Giolito as Sunday starter vs. Padres, Ross to rehab soon

The mystery of who will pitch the series finale for the Nationals against the Padres on Sunday is over, as manager Dusty Baker revealed the team's plans to call up top prospect Lucas Giolito to make his third career MLB start.

With Giolito on his way to Washington, the Nationals will have to determine a corresponding move. And three players - Ryan Zimmerman, Joe Ross and Sammy Solis - all nearing their returns from the disabled list, there could be a lot of shuffling on the Nats' roster in the coming days and weeks.

Giolito, 22, joins the Nats after making one start at Triple-A Syracuse. Through two big league starts this season he has a 4.70 ERA across 7 2/3 innings. Both of his outings came against the New York Mets.

Zimmerman (left ribcage strain) has made two rehab appearances with the Single-A Potomac Nationals. He went 2-for-4 with a double in his first game and 1-for-5 with two RBI and a run in his second. He was set to play his third game with the P-Nats on Saturday evening.

Solis also played with Potomac on Friday night and struck out three in a scoreless inning. He will now move on to Single-A Hagerstown to continue his rehab back from right knee inflammation.

"Solis, he pitched yesterday and said it went well. He's going to throw again tomorrow," Baker said. "Him and Joe are both going to throw at Hagerstown. We'll keep our fingers crossed that that works out well, too."

Ross will be making his first rehab appearance with Hagerstown on Sunday as he works his way back from right shoulder inflammation. He has been on the disabled list since July 3.

The Nationals chose Giolito to start over Reynaldo Lopez, one of their other hard-throwing prospects. Lopez pitched against the Dodgers on Tuesday and gave up six earned runs in 4 2/3 innings.

Lopez was brought up to replace Giolito's spot in the rotation for his July 19 debut after the Nats determined Giolito needed more work in the minors. They sent him to Syracuse hoping he could work on his fastball command and his curveball. Giolito responded with 6 2/3 innings and only one unearned run in his lone outing in Triple-A.

[RELATED: Nats' Trea Turner on his speed and how he got so fast]

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Scherzer, Nats face off against Padres, former Nats P Edwin Jackson

Scherzer, Nats face off against Padres, former Nats P Edwin Jackson

Nationals (57-40) vs. Padres (42-55) at Nationals Park

Losers of four out of their last five, the Nationals are back at it on Saturday night hoping to get back on track against the San Diego Padres. Working in their favor is the fact Max Scherzer (10-6, 2.94) is on the mound.

Scherzer has been excellent recently with a 2.16 ERA in his last 13 starts. He struck out 10 in six innings of one-run ball against the Padres back on June 18, albeit in a Nats loss.

Pitching for the Padres will be former Nationals starter Edwin Jackson, who was a member of the 2012 club that won 98 games and the NL East.

First pitch: 7:05 p.m.
TV: MASN
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Max Scherzer vs. Padres - Edwin Jackson

NATS

CF Ben Revere
LF Jayson Werth
2B Daniel Murphy
RF Bryce Harper
C Wilson Ramos
1B Clint Robinson
3B Anthony Rendon
SS Danny Espinosa
RHP Max Scherzer

PADRES

CF Travis Jankowski
1B Wil Myers
RF Matt Kemp
3B Yangervis Solarte
LF Melvin Upton
2B Ryan Schimpf
C Christian Bethancourt
SS Alexei Ramirez
RHP Edwin Jackson

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Mired in a tough season, Revere hopes he can become table setter Nats need

Mired in a tough season, Revere hopes he can become table setter Nats need

Prior to 2016, the notion of having a down season was completely foreign to Ben Revere. All he had been as a big leaguer was the prototypical leadoff man. He was a sparkplug for the offenses of his previous three teams, and hadn't finished a season with a batting average lower than .305 since 2013.

But ever since his first regular season swing as a member of the Nationals — one that resulted in an Opening Day oblique injury and a month-long disabled list stint — it seems the 28-year-old centerfielder has spent much of his inaugural campaign in D.C. simply trying to reclaim his old self.

“All [my teammates] say its tough to get your good rhythm in the middle of a season, but I'm out there battling my tail off,” Revere said after an 0-for-5 in Friday night’s 5-3 loss to the San Diego Padres. “[I’m] definitely coming off a serious injury that could jeopardize your swing a little bit.”

In the two and a half months since Revere’s return from the DL, he hasn’t set the table atop the order like the Nats need him to, slashing .214/.259/.298 with 19 RBI and 10 stolen bases in 60 games. His strikeouts are down, which is the norm for him, but he’s been unusually ineffective when he does make contact. His batting average of balls in play (BABIP) is .230 — the lowest for any Nats hitter with at least 130 at-bats. A big reason for that is because pitchers have negated his speed by inducing him to hit the ball in the air more often. According to Fangraphs.com, his fly ball percentage is up to 27.1, by far a career-high.

“That’s not his game. They want him up in the air,” manager Dusty Baker said. “They don’t want him on the ground. They don’t want him to the opposite field. They want him in the air.”

“I'm seeing the ball good, just results ain't happening,” Revere said. “Missing some pitches, fouling them off usually, I'll hit the other way, hit it up the middle and bean balls into the ground, usually I get out but at least I hit them hard.”

What’s even tougher for Revere is that the team no longer appears willing to wait out his struggles. Not only has Baker replaced him with Michael Taylor on days when the Nats face off against a lefty starter, but top infield prospect Trea Turner has been learning to play center as a way to get his bat into the lineup instead. And with the non-waiver trade deadline fast approaching, there’s talk that Washington could be in the mix to add another outfielder.

All those factors have added up to a season of frustration for a player who’s rarely faced this kind of adversity.

“[This is my] first time I've gone through this struggle in my professional career,” he said, “I'll be on my knees, keep praying [it gets better]. Hopefully one of these games will get me going and help this team get some more W's.”

The January trade to acquire Revere from the Toronto Blue Jays for struggling reliever Drew Storen was widely viewed as a steal for Nats GM Mike Rizzo. The move doesn't look as good six months later, but there's still a third of the season left to change the narrative. 

“Dusty's going to give me plenty of at-bats and I'm going to do everything I can to bust my tail, no matter what," Revere said. "This team, they have my back.”