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Nats swept by Braves, lead down to 5 12

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Nats swept by Braves, lead down to 5 12

ATLANTA -- Davey Johnson ambled through an otherwise silent clubhouse late Sunday night -- black sweater, khaki slacks, white sneakers -- and started cracking jokes to every player he encountered.

The Nationals had just lost a sloppy game to the Braves, 5-1, had just been swept by their lone remaining challenger in the NL East and had seen their once insurmountable, 8 12-game lead shrink to 5 12 games at the end of a difficult weekend.

Their left fielder has been out since Tuesday with a left hand injury. Their second baseman is now likely to miss at least the next series with a left shoulder injury that will require an MRI. What had been baseball's best pitching staff all season is starting to show some cracks in the foundation. And what had been the league's most-potent lineup for the last month was silenced the last three days by Atlanta's pitching staff.

None of that, Johnson believes, should overshadow what the Nationals have done over the last 5 12 months, nor give them reason to worry about the 2 12 weeks they still have left in a pennant race that is far from over.

"I feel fine about where we're at," the 69-year-old manager insisted.

That sentiment was echoed among Nationals veterans, who while discouraged by the weekend's events aren't ready to hit the panic button.

"We've put ourselves in a great position," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We've played well all year. There's two weeks left of playing baseball. Everything's right in front of us."

With 16 games to play, the Nationals still hold a magic number of 11 for the division title, a magic number of 3 to clinch at least a wild-card berth. But there are a handful of reasons to be concerned, the latest Espinosa's just-revealed left shoulder issue, which could prove significant.

After missing Wednesday's series finale in New York to attend his grandmother's funeral in Arizona, Espinosa rejoined his teammates for this weekend showdown but looked lost at the plate throughout. He wound up 0-for-11 with nine strikeouts, a pop-up and a double-play grounder. And when his spot in the lineup came up with two outs in the ninth Sunday night, he was surprisingly replaced by Steve Lombardozzi (who struck out to end the game).

Turns out Espinosa has been dealing with left shoulder pain, which he finally revealed to the Nationals coaching staff late in the game, requesting he be benched.

"He's hurting," Johnson said. "I was going to hit for him, and he mentioned to one of the coaches, Rick Eckstein, that he was underwater and he was hurting the team. For him to want to come out ... he's my little Iron Man."

Johnson said Espinosa will be examined Monday afternoon in Washington by team orthopedist Wiemi Douoguih, who will administer an MRI. The club won't know for sure the extent of the injury until the results of that test come back, but Johnson said his second baseman will "probably" miss this week's series against the playoff-contending Dodgers.

Espinosa, through a team spokesman, declined to take questions after the game.

"I'm very concerned about him," said Johnson, who hopes to have left fielder Michael Morse (bone bruise in left hand) back in his lineup Tuesday.

Though the Nationals were silenced at the plate Sunday night and throughout the weekend, they were equally as ineffective on the mound and in the field during the series finale.

Gio Gonzalez, seeking to become the majors' first 20-game winner and bolster his Cy Young Award hopes, labored his way through five-plus innings, needing an astounding 83 pitches just to get through the bottom of the third before settling down somewhat and reaching the sixth.

The left-hander walked four, went to a 3-ball count to eight of the first 14 batters he faced and was yanked without retiring a batter in the sixth. But he somehow managed to only surrender two runs during that time, keeping his team in the game.

"You've just gotta make the adjustment, gotta pitch better," Gonzalez said. "You gotta learn how to pound that strike zone. I think that's where my biggest mistake today was. I wasn't being as aggressive in the first three innings. Then the next two, it was exactly what I should've been doing off the bat."

Trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh -- and with Atlanta's lights-out closer Craig Kimbrel unavailable after pitching the previous two nights -- the Nationals were in position to mount a late rally. But then they were done in by two problem areas that hadn't really been problems all year: the bullpen's inability to throw strikes, and the infield's inability to make plays at crucial moments.

Right-hander Craig Stammen got the ball rolling by issuing a one-out walk to Michael Bourn. Reed Johnson then hit a chopper to third, leaving Zimmerman facing a quandary: Charge in and try to make a short-hop grab of the ball and fire either to first or second base for the out, or sit back and wait to catch the ball on a full hop and hope he still had enough time to make the throw.

"With Bourn on first base, if I take a step back and get a big hop, it's going to be tough for me to get the lead runner," he explained. "And then it's going to be a tough play to get Reed running at first, too. It's one of those plays where before the play happens, you say if it goes up, you've got to do whatever you can to get the ball and have a chance to get either one of those guys."

Zimmerman wasn't able to get either guy. He misplayed the short-hop. Worse, he lost sight of the ball as it skipped away into foul territory. By the time he retrieved it, Bourn had raced all the way around to third base.

"I just didn't know where it went after it hit off my glove," he said.

With runners now on the corners and one out, Johnson summoned Sean Burnett to face Jason Heyward in a big spot. The left-hander got what he wanted -- a sharp grounder to first base -- but now Adam LaRoche had to make a decision. Did he have enough time to turn an inning-ending double play? And if so, should he try to get Bourn at the plate or instead try for a 3-6-3 twin-killing?

LaRoche felt his best option was to step on first base and then fire to plate in an attempt to get Bourn. His throw, however, was a bit up the line and prevented catcher Kurt Suzuki from applying the tag in time.

"You know, if I try and roll it the conventional way and we don't get him, that's a run," LaRoche said. "Got some fast guys on the bases, so close to first, try and touch it and go home. Just kind of pulled it up the line. I think if I put in on the money, we've probably got him."

The meltdown continued when Burnett (after intentionally walking Chipper Jones) plunked Freddie Freeman to load the bases with two outs. Dan Uggla then delivered the nail in the coffin: a two-run single that gave the Braves a four-run lead and all but extinguished any hope of a comeback.

Thus the Nationals retreated to their silent clubhouse, concern growing on their faces as banged-up players walked around with ice packs on various injured body parts.

Johnson tried to lighten the mood and remind everyone they're still in the driver's seat. But there, too, was an understanding there's still plenty of work to be done, and the team that just swept them over the weekend isn't going to concede the division title.

"We've had some battles against them," LaRoche said. "They're the team that came back when we were up nine runs in a July game. They're pretty relentless. Watch the scoreboard all year and see how they continue to win and win, and we expected that coming in. It was going to be a dogfight."

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Tanner Roark and Jayson Werth lead Nationals past Phillies 4-0

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USA Today Sports

Tanner Roark and Jayson Werth lead Nationals past Phillies 4-0

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Tanner Roark threw seven impressive innings, Jayson Werth hit a solo homer and the Washington Nationals beat the Philadelphia Phillies 4-0 on Monday night.

Roark (14-7) allowed four singles and struck out five. Marc Rzepczynski tossed a perfect eighth and Mark Melancon finished off the four-hitter.

Phillies rookie Jake Thompson (1-4) allowed two runs and seven hits in seven innings. It was the longest and best of his five career starts.

Werth lined a solo shot to left in the first against his former team. A member of Philadelphia's 2008 World Series championship team, Werth was greeted by boos, as usual.

Bryce Harper raced home from first on Anthony Rendon's single to left-center to make it 2-0 in the first. Clint Robinson and Trea Turner had RBI singles off Frank Herrmann in the ninth.

Thompson settled in nicely after a rough start. His last pitch was a nasty curve that froze Turner for strike three.

Roark didn't need much support. The righty stifled the Phillies again. He's 3-0 with a 0.64 ERA against them this season.

The NL East-leading Nationals snapped a two-game losing streak.

RELATED: NATS MAKE TWO ROSTER MOVES

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Nats look to get back on track as Roark starts at Phillies

Nats look to get back on track as Roark starts at Phillies

Nats (75-55) at Phillies (60-70) at Citizens Bank Park

Having lost six of their last eight, the Nats now hit the road to face the Phillies for three games. This could be a good opportunity to collect some wins against a lesser team, as the Nats swept each of their last two head-to-head series.

Also working in the Nats' favor is that Tanner Roark is on the mound. Roark is 13-7 with a 2.99 ERA and is very good at going deep into games, having pitched at least seven innings in 15 of his 25 starts.

Ryan Zimmerman gets the day off as manager Dusty Baker looks to get him some rest. Clint Robinson is instead playing first base.

First pitch: 7:05 p.m.
TV: MASN2
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Tanner Roark vs. Phillies - Jake Thompson

NATS

CF Trea Turner
LF Jayson Werth
2B Daniel Murphy
RF Bryce Harper
3B Anthony Rendon
C Wilson Ramos
1B Clint Robinson
SS Danny Espinosa
RHP Tanner Roark

PHILLIES

TBA
RHP Jake Thompson

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Nationals option Lucas Giolito to AAA Syracuse, recall Michael A. Taylor

Nationals option Lucas Giolito to AAA Syracuse, recall Michael A. Taylor

The Nationals have optioned pitcher Lucas Giolito to AAA Syracuse and recalled outfielder Michael A. Taylor, the team announced Monday. 

Giolito will return to the minors after starting Sunday in Washington's 5-3 loss to Colorado. He pitched a career-high five innings, allowing four runs on six hits (two HRs) and four walks. 

As Nationals Insider Chase Hughes noted, the rookie pitcher's velocity hasn't lived up to expectations. 

His fastball is supposed to sit comfortably in the high-90s and occasionally touch triple digits ... On Sunday against the Colorado Rockies, Giolito sat consistently around 93 miles per hour. That's not bad at all, but it's a far cry from the prodigious speed he used to have.

Taylor, meanwhile, last played for the Nationals on July 24 against the Padres. He went 0-4 at the plate in the 10-6 loss. 

MORE NATIONALS: Nats to add veteran Mat Latos when rosters expand on Sept. 1