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Nats win an emotional ballgame

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Nats win an emotional ballgame

The range of emotions inside the Nationals' clubhouse Monday night following a wild, 8-5 victory over the Padres was on display for all to witness.

In one corner stood Bryce Harper, proudly talking about the first home run of his career and the curtain call that followed. Across the room, Sandy Leon gingerly maneuvered around with his right leg in a brace and propped up on a cart, a severe ankle sprain having derailed his big-league debut in less than four innings.

Over in another corner stood Sean Burnett, the surprise hero of the night after entering with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth and inducing a game-ending, 1-2-3 double play off the bat of San Diego's Jesus Guzman. Only a few feet away, Henry Rodriguez's locker sat empty, the right-hander having kept himself out of sight after loading the bases on three walks in that ninth inning and getting unceremoniously yanked by Davey Johnson to a chorus of boos.

How does one club deal with so many mixed emotions in such a short time span? From the deflation of Sunday night's crushing loss in Cincinnati to the elation of Harper's first home run to the devastation of Leon's frightening injury to the resignation of Rodriguez's latest misadventure to the jubilation of Burnett's escape act to the realization the Nationals are back in first place at 22-13.

It's almost too much for the mind to process.

"I know. It's crazy," said reliever Craig Stammen, who wound up earning the win. "We've got a very short memory in this clubhouse, with all the guys that are getting hurt and then the crazy game like we had last night. It was good to get this one under our belts and finish the way we did."

The dramatic and happy conclusion to the night certainly made it a lot easier for (most) everyone inside that clubhouse to smile, none more so than Harper.

In the 15th game of his career, the 19-year-old finally delivered what he built his reputation on: power. Mashing a 2-1 slider from right-hander Tim Stauffer in the bottom of the third, Harper sent the ball sailing on a line to straightaway center field, depositing it well up the grass batter's eye at Nationals Park, perhaps 420 feet way.

Before the announced crowd of 19,434 -- it actually was much smaller due to the ever-present threat of rain -- even realized what happened, Harper was nearly all the way around the bases, sprinting the 360 feet so as not to appear to show up Stauffer.

"I'm going to get my butt around those bases as fast as I can," the rookie outfielder said. "Pete Rose tried to get around every single bag before the ball landed. That's what I want to do."

The crowd continued to roar after Harper returned to the dugout, doling out high-fives to everyone in sight, until it became clear the masses wanted an acknowledgement from the kid. Danny Espinosa, the next batter, stepped out of the box multiple times, trying to delay things and give Harper the opportunity to take his curtain call.

Harper, though, wasn't sure if this was an appropriate move on his part.

"I don't want to show up those guys in the other dugout," he said. "I didn't want to show up that guy at all. I was just waiting until someone said something like: 'Go ahead.'"

That someone was Jayson Werth, the injured right fielder who was in the dugout for the first time since breaking his wrist May 6 and told Harper: "Go get up there, kid."

"It was pretty cool," Harper said. "I was pretty excited about that."

The jubilation over the home run, though, was short-lived, because only minutes later Leon was barreled over by Padres third baseman Chase Headley and got his right leg caught underneath him. Helped off the field by assistant trainer Mike McGowan and bench coach Randy Knorr, the 23-year-old catcher later learned he suffered a high right ankle sprain less than four innings into the first game of his career.

"Such an outstanding young man," Johnson said. "His first big-league game, all pumped up, and have to get hurt in his first game. That's tough."

The Leon injury forced Jesus Flores into the game and perhaps threw starter Ross Detwiler out of whack. The left-hander proceeded to give up four runs between the fourth and fifth innings, letting the Padres take a 5-4 lead.

"It kind of throws you off, because it's something that doesn't always happen," Detwiler said of pairing up with a new catcher in mid-inning. "You just kind of have to adapt, and I didn't."

No worries, though, because Detwiler's teammates rallied to his cause, with Ian Desmond delivering a two-run double in the sixth and Chad Tracy and Xavier Nady each homering in the eighth to put the Nationals up 8-5.

That should've been a comfortable cushion for Rodriguez, but the inexperienced closer continued his recent downward spiral and nearly blew his fourth save in seven tries. After walking two of the first three batters he faced in the ninth, Rodriguez saw Burnett start to warm up in the home bullpen. After walking yet another batter to load the bases and bring the go-ahead run to the plate, he got the unceremonious hook from Johnson, who earlier in the day gave an impassioned endorsement to the struggling right-hander.

"I still have a lot of confidence in him," Johnson said even after pulling Rodriguez (who has issued 12 walks and six wild pitches in 15 23 innings). "I went up to him after the game, I said: 'Henry, you're my man. I've still got a lot of confidence in you.' I mean, that's the first time he's actually been wild."

So in came Burnett, trying to pitch his way out of the worst possible jam. And then managed to escape the jam in the best possible way: on a comebacker that resulted in a 1-2-3, game-ending, double play.

"As the inning starts to unfold, you realize that the phone may ring and it might be you," said Burnett, who was credited with his ninth career save. "You're always prepared, but you're never expecting to go in there. I was just trying not to do too much, just trying to get three outs before they score some runs."

Burnett did just that. And because of it, the Nationals were able to smile at the end of a long, strange, emotional night.

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Nats weight home field advantage against staying healthy as playoffs near

Nats weight home field advantage against staying healthy as playoffs near

Though they’re still fighting for home field advantage in next week’s division series, the Nationals understand they’re in a strange part of their season.  

Sure, playoff seeding is plenty important. These last regular season games count, et cetera et cetera. But Washington already clinched the NL East title, and already knows its playoff opponent is going to be the Los Angeles Dodgers. So it’s not a surprise that players are willing to admit how difficult it can be to keep their foot on the gas pedal these days.

“Once you win the division, there’s that exhale, that sigh of relief,” said Jayson Werth after Friday night’s 7-4 loss to the Miami Marlins.”..You kind of let off the throttle a little bit.”

And when a team takes that approach, health becomes the top priority. It’s a mindset that was on full display Friday night when Werth was removed from the game in the seventh inning as a precaution due to back and side tightness.

 “We can't afford to lose anybody else,” manager Dusty Baker said. “So we decided that, it was wet, on the chilly side, and I decided I couldn't take a chance on him being injured too.”

Werth said that team trainers ruled out a strain or a pull, and that he’d be surprised if he wasn’t in the lineup on Saturday afternoon.  

Still, any injury the Nats suffer this time of the year feels magnified, especially given the last week: Bryce Harper jammed his left thumb, Wilson Ramos tore his ACL and Daniel Murphy was shut down until the playoffs with a glute strain. Not to mention that Stephen Strasburg will likely miss the club’s entire October run.

“The biggest thing is right now is to get everybody healthy for the postseason,” Stephen Drew said. “I think that's key. We got some guys out and hopefully we'll be ready for the playoffs.”

So while every team says it’d like to head into the postseason firing on all cylinders, the Nats’ case shows that it’s not always realistic. Bottling up momentum and carrying into the biggest games of the year is the ideal, of course. But sometimes heading into the tournament with all your horses in tact works too — seeding be damned.

“Obviously home field advantage is important to us, and we want that,” Werth said. “But at the same time, we also feel like we’ve done our job a little bit. So there’s a balance there.....you don’t want to do something where you can put yourself in jeopardy, where you can really get hurt.”

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Cole struggles early, bullpen cracks late as Nats fall to Marlins

Cole struggles early, bullpen cracks late as Nats fall to Marlins

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 7-4 loss over the Miami Marlins on Friday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: If the Nationals want to sew up home field advantage in their first playoff series, they still have more work to do — and only have two more games to do it.

The Nats were unable to help their cause Friday night, falling to the Marlins 7-4 in a rain-soaked affair that began nearly two hours after its scheduled start time.  

While the offense couldn’t come through late, it was starter A.J. Cole that put the Nats in a bind in this one. The 24-year-old rookie right hander forcing Dusty Baker to go to his bullpen early after yielding four runs (two earned) on six hits in just three innings of work.

But all it took was one inning for the Nats to even things up. Anthony Rendon and Stephen Drew opened the fourth with back-to-back solo home runs, and RBI hits by Jose Lobaton and Trea Turner make it 4-4 heading into the fifth.

The bullpen subsequently cracked, however, yielding a runs in the sixth, seventh and ninth innings to give the Marlins a 7-4 edge. The offense couldn’t mount a late rally, and that was all she wrote.

What it means: The magic number for home field advantage in the NLDS remains at two. As of this post, the Dodgers have yet to complete their game against the Giants, so there’s still a chance it could fall to one by Saturday morning.

Rendon reaches homer milestone: With his fourth-inning solo shot, Rendon became the latest Nats hitter join the 20 home run club. In fact, the Nats tied the 1965 and 2003 Braves as the only National League clubs with six players with 20-plus long balls in a season. (Interestingly enough, the Cardinals mathed that feat the Nats later in night after a Matt Holliday home run.)

But back to Rendon: For all the talk that the Nats offense sans Wilson Ramos will suffer, remember that Rendon has been one of the team’s best hitters since the All-Star break. Since then, he’s notched 11 homers, 20 doubles and 51 RBI. In other words, he’s fully returned to his ‘Tony Two-Bags’ form of 2014.

More accolades for Turner: D.C.’s favorite rookie had another one of his patented performances Friday night, going 2-for-3 with an RBI single, a triple and two stolen bases. He became the fourth player in MLB history to notch 10 home runs and 30 steals in less than 100 games, joining Rickey Henderson, Bobby Bonds and current Nats first base coach Davey Lopes. Since the break, he leads the team in both extra-base hits and steals. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Harper struggles: In his first game back since injuring his left thumb, Bryce Harper looked looked very much like a hitter trying to regain his timing at the plate. In four at-bats, he struck out four times — three of them swinging. It’s just one game, of course, but he and the Nats are quickly running out of time to rev up for October.

Up next: The Nats will continue their quest to gain home field advantage in the middle game of this three-game set. Washington will send Tanner Roark (15-10, 2.86 ERA) to the hill to oppose Marlins lefty Wei-Yin Chen (5-4, 5.02 ERA).