Nats win marathon in dramatic fashion

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Nats win marathon in dramatic fashion

In a marathon ballgame that featured plenty of young players in Nationals uniforms experiencing pennant race baseball for the first time in their lives, who would have thought the winning run would wind up scoring because of a brain cramp by the Braves' three-time All-Star and seven-year veteran?

Maybe there truly is something special about the 2012 Nationals, who kept trying to find ways to lose Monday night's showdown with Atlanta yet managed to hang around long enough to watch Dan Uggla butcher Chad Tracy's sharp grounder in the bottom of the 13th, allowing Danny Espinosa to slide across the plate with the run that gave the home team a thrilling 5-4 victory in the most significant game in the club's brief history.

"We're very young," manager Davey Johnson said. "This is great. This is the learning curve. This is experience."

The opener of a three-game series that could see the Nationals all but bury the Braves in the division race -- or allow their lone remaining competitor to close the gap -- turned into an epic battle deep into the night.

By the time Espinosa slid across the plate at 12:28 a.m., much of what had transpired up to that point -- a 56-minute rain delay, a 4-run first inning for the Nationals, a ragged start for Jordan Zimmermann, countless missed opportunities for both teams to win -- felt like ancient history.

All that seemed to matter was the fact the Nationals found some way to emerge victorious, and in the process ascend to 30 games over .500 for the first time while also extending their lead over Atlanta to six games with 40 to play.

"This was almost like a playoff atmosphere," Tracy said. "These are the type of teams you're going to be playing. Why not prepare for them now?"

If anything, the less-experienced Nationals played much of the night like a team that hasn't been in this position before.

Zimmermann, the majors' ERA leader at the start of the night, labored through five innings, throwing 102 pitches and giving up four runs.

"I was terrible," the right-hander said.

Shortstop Ian Desmond dropped a pair of routine throws that could have proved costly but ultimately didn't factor into the outcome.

After pouncing on Tim Hudson for four runs in the bottom of the first, the Nationals' lineup was stone-cold silent over the next 11 innings, totaling six hits (and zero runs) until the final rally in the 13th.

And a bullpen that was completely maxed out put runners in scoring position in the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and 11th innings yet managed somehow not to let any of them score.

"A lot of us have never played in an important baseball game since college or high school or maybe the minor leagues," said Craig Stammen, the last of seven Nationals relievers to appear in the game. "So I think it's important to get a little nervous or anxious, a little more adrenaline going on. I think it's definitely important to play games like that."

It helps, though, when you go on to win, which the Nationals did in bizarre fashion.

With one out and a man on first, catcher Kurt Suzuki tapped a high chopper over the mound and toward the left side of the infield. By the time Chipper Jones wound up fielding the ball, Suzuki was able to leg out the single. More importantly, Espinosa (who had been breaking off first base on the pitch) noticed nobody covering third base and thus raced all the way around without drawing a throw.

"I saw everyone kind of break for the ball," Espinosa said. "And once I saw everybody break, I hit second and I saw that there was no one at third. I just kept going."

With the winning run now 90 feet away and only one out on the board, the Braves were forced to bring their infield in with Tracy at the plate.

Though the veteran was the logical choice to pinch-hit for Stammen in that spot, his use would have forced the Nationals into turning to an unlikely pitcher for the 14th inning: Edwin Jackson, who two days ago threw 103 pitches during a seven-inning start. Jackson was scheduled to throw his between-starts bullpen session on Tuesday, so Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty asked if he'd be willing to pitch a couple of innings of relief in this game instead.

"I wasn't doing it for heroism," Jackson said. "But the bullpen was done. It was a game that we could possibly win. It's definitely a game where they don't want to throw position players. It's not a giveaway game. So I guess I was the next best option to legitimately have a chance to win."

Turned out Jackson's services were never needed, though when Tracy drilled Cristhian Martinez's pitch into the ground on the right side of the infield, it appeared for a moment like the Braves might escape the jam.

Uggla had to go down to a knee to get the ball hit just to his left, but he appeared to have time to throw to the plate and retire Espinosa, who was running on contact. But the veteran second baseman froze, thinking he might have a better shot at a double play that would end the inning.

Just one problem: Suzuki, the runner on first base, made a heads-up move to freeze and not give Uggla an easy opportunity to tag him and then toss to first base for the double play. Confounded, Uggla bobbled the ball and watched as it fell harmlessly to the ground without him ever making a throw or tagging anyone.

"I was going over pretty much every situation that might or could happen," he said. "I was like, if he hits a ball to my left, or hits a ball hard right at me, I can just tag Kurt and touch first and we can be out of it. He hit me a tough groundball that I had to drop to my knees to catch, and I didn't exactly know where Kurt was. Once I got up and I just tried to throw the ball home, I couldn't get the thing out of my glove."

As Espinosa slid in safely and Tracy crossed first base, the ball remained sitting in the infield grass. What remained of a small-yet-boisterous crowd of 21,298 let out one final roar, then headed for the exits knowing Washington's baseball team had just reached new heights in most stunning fashion.

Thirty games over .500. Six games up in the division. Ten games up in the wild-card race.

All thanks to a wild finish to the most important ballgame this town had hosted in a long time.

"That's the way to set the tone for the series," Tracy said. "We would have liked to have been out of here in nine innings. But, hey, we'll take the win."

Harvey struggling, Murphy thriving as Nats-Mets rivalry heats up

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Harvey struggling, Murphy thriving as Nats-Mets rivalry heats up

The NL East division will not be decided in the month of May, but the contrast in fortunes for the Nats and Mets was dramatic on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.

Yes, the Nats only lead the Mets by 1 1/2 games in the division after homering them to death in a 7-4 series-tying victory. But they beat them once again with a huge contribution from ex-Met Daniel Murphy and once again at the expense of beleaguered super hero Matt Harvey.

From the moment Murphy left the Mets to sign a three-year deal with the Nationals, it became part of the fabric of one of baseball's best contemporary rivalries. And the way he's played not just overall this season, but in head-to-head matchups with the Mets, has only stoked that fire.

Murphy went 2-for-4 with his seventh homer of the year on Tuesday night and now has two homers in four at-bats against Harvey. He has two RBI in each of his last three games against his former team and has quickly become a pest for the organization he spent 10 distinguished years with.

Harvey, on the other hand, has allowed 11 earned runs combined in his last two starts, both against the Nationals. He is in the midst of a shocking downfall and the Nats are playing a hands-on role.

Only four times did a Nationals hitter swing and miss at a pitch Harvey threw on Tuesday. That matched a season-low. The three homers he surrendered matched a career-high. This is all just one start after the Nats scored nine runs (6 ER) on Harvey, which set a new career mark.

“His velocity started out good," manager Dusty Baker said. "He was 95, 96 miles per hour, then his velocity dropped to 92, 93. His slider wasn’t as sharp as it usually is. You gotta get them when they’re down.”

Murphy, on the other hand, is carrying over the power surge the Mets themselves witnessed last fall. After hitting seven homers in 14 postseason games, Murphy has seven in 45 outings this season. That puts him on pace for 25 homers, nearly double his career-best of 14 set just last year.

Having spent five years around Harvey in New York, Murphy has a unique perspective of his former teammate now facing him from the other side.

"It's tough to tell," Murphy said. "I have all the confidence in the world that he's gonna throw the ball well... I hope it's not against us, or me personally. But we know how good he is, we saw it all year last year. And again, as a pitcher or a hitter, we're never as far away as we think."

Murphy isn't the only player on the Nats who wishes Harvey well, despite his presence in the NL East.

"I know he’s still going to be their go-to guy coming down the stretch and coming down the stretch these guys are going to be right there," center fielder Ben Revere said. 

"Fastball seems the same. He’s throwing strikes. It’s baseball. We’ve been getting the key knocks. Nothing we can do about it. Just goes to show that every pitcher in the big leagues is going to have some rough stretches."

"His stuff is electric. To me he's still the same pitcher that comes after you," third baseman Anthony Rendon said. "Like anybody else, you go through a rough patch, and I'm pretty sure he'll find his way out like every other good pitcher does."

Murphy's two hits on Tuesday - the second against reliever Antonio Bastardo - gave him his 23rd multi-hit game of the season. That means more than half of his games this year have featured multiple hits. He's now batting an MLB-best .392. Only one batter (Yoenis Cespedes) on the Mets is hitting better than .283 at this point in the season.

“I've seen some pretty good hitters, George Brett, Tony Gwynn, Paul Molitor," Baker said. "[Murphy] hasn’t had a down time the entire year. He’s concentrating. He’s at a very high concentration level. When he’s getting his pitch he’s not missing many. Murph’s been the acquisition of the year in baseball. I’m just glad that we have him.”

Harvey's matchups with the Nats over his last two starts have put his career at a momentary crossroads. After his last outing, Tuesday's start was in question. The Mets ultimately decided to keep him in the rotation, but what about his next start? Will he take the mound?

His previous outing was so bad it convinced Mets fans - who booed him at home five days ago - to organize a social media campaign to bus droves of New Yorkers down to D.C. for Tuesday's game. About a hundred of them gathered in right field and were heard loudly before the game and through the first several innings with chants in support of Harvey.

By the fifth inning there were chants of 'Harrrr-veyyy' coming from the crowd, but not from Mets fans. Nationals fans turned the tables and made for yet another embarrassing moment for the Dark Knight of Gotham.

Harvey, for what it's worth, declined to speak to reporters after his latest disaster. Not facing the New York media who are ready to pounce all over you? That may feel good for a night, but it won't go over well in the coming days. Might be wise to avoid the tabloids, Matt.

Strasburg notches another win as Nats rough up Harvey again

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USA TODAY Sports

Strasburg notches another win as Nats rough up Harvey again

Postgame analysis of the Nationals' 7-4 victory over the Mets on Tuesday night: 

How it happened: With both Stephen Strasburg and Matt Harvey looking sharp through the game's first three innings, this looked every bit like the pitchers duel we were expecting to see last week when the two aces faced off in New York. 

But like last Thursday's game, the Nats eventually pounced on Harvey and ended his night earlier than he would have liked. Their home run barrage started in the fourth inning, when Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon delivered back-to-back solo shots to give Washington a 2-1 lead. The next inning, after Bryce Harper hit a sac fly to make it 3-1, Daniel Murphy (who else?) delivered the big blow with a a two-run shot to give the Nats a 5-1 cushion and essentially yank Harvey from the game. 

After the Mets gone a run back in the seventh, Ben Revere hit his first home run as a member of the Nats to extend the lead to 6-2. The long ball parade continued in the eighth as Wilson Ramos got into the act with a solo shot. 

What it means: The Nats were able to bounce back after Monday night's blowout loss. At 28-18, they're 1 1/2 games up on the Mets for first place in the NL East. While it's clear that these are the two best teams in the division, there's plenty of season left before it can be determined which club is truly superior.  

Strasburg extends winning streak: It's pretty simple at this point: if Strasburg takes the mound, the Nats win. That's been the case now for 14 consecutive starts — extending a franchise record. Once again, Strasburg was solid against the Mets, allowing two earned runs on four hits over 6 2/3 innings. His 11 strikeouts on the night marked the fifth time this season that he has registered double digit punch outs in a start. Strasburg is now 8-0 on the year with a 2.79 ERA and 86 strikeouts. Not too shabby. 

Nats rough up Harvey again: For the second time in less than a week, Washington's offense put up a few crooked numbers on the scoreboard to chase Harvey early in the game. Including Tuesday's outing, the Mets struggling ace has allowed 14 runs on 16 hits over 7 2/3 innings against the Nats in two starts. Ouch. If Harvey winds up temporarily removed from New York's rotation, Mets fans can thank their division rivals from D.C. 

Murphy keeps hurting his old club: With yet another solid performance, the Nats second baseman might be making the Mets wish they would have kept him around a little while longer. In five games against his former team, Murphy is hitting 8-for-21 (.380) with two home runs — both coming off Harvey — and 6 RBI. 

Up next: The rubber match in this series will be a matinee tilt on Wednesday at 1:05 p.m. The Nats will send Tanner Roark (3-3, 2.89 ERA) to oppose Mets rookie Steven Matz (6-1, 2.81 ERA).

Dusty Baker says Nats have to 'ride the wave' of Strasburg's win streak

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Dusty Baker says Nats have to 'ride the wave' of Strasburg's win streak

The formula has been a simple one for the Nationals of late: if Stephen Strasburg takes the mound, Washington will emerge victorious. It's been the case in the 27-year-old right hander's last 13 outings, a streak that sets a new franchise record for wins during a pitcher's starts. 

Whether or not Strasburg's remarkable run is sustainable, Dusty Baker is willing to enjoy it for however long it lasts. 

"Whatever Stras is doing," the Nats manager said, "you just ride it. It's like surfing. You ride the wave to the beach and jump off and just catch another wave."

Strasburg is 7-0 on the year with a 2.80 ERA — a very good mark, but still not up there with the National League's elite arms such as Jake Arrieta (1.29) and Clayton Kershaw (1.48). Baker said that one of the reasons the Nats have flourished with Strasburg on the mound is that he continues to be the beneficiary of good run support. Take his last outing, for instance, where the offense jumped on Mets starter Matt Harvey in the third inning to create a 9-1 cushion to pitch through the rest of the way. 

But Baker was quick to point out that, run support aside, Strasburg is displaying an important trait that many aces around the game show when they're on a roll. 

"I don't care what it is, he's still 7-0," Baker said. "I'm sure everybody would trade to do that.....part of the reason he's 7-0 is because he's been out there without his best stuff and still managed to keep us in the ballgame until our offense came through."

If Strasburg is to extend the streak to 14 wins in a row, he'll need to do so against a Mets lineup that will get a second look at him in less than a week. That scenario didn't work out so well for rotation mate Gio Gonzalez, who was throttled Monday night for seven earned runs after faring well against New York's offense just a week ago.

But, sticking with the wave analogy, Baker says Strasburg and the Nats should adopt the surfer's mentality of not worrying about impending disaster. 

"If you think about falling off, you gonna fall," Baker said. "So don't think about falling, don't think about when it's going to end."