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No panic from Nats after 3 straight losses

No panic from Nats after 3 straight losses

PHILADELPHIA -- It may be difficult to remember these things, but the Nationals actually have endured through several losing streaks this season. Indeed, they've experienced five streaks of at least three losses in 2012, and even once lost five straight games.

And how did they respond to each mini-slump? By winning four in a row, three in a row, nine of 11, three of four and six in a row.

Suffice it to say, nobody inside the Nationals' clubhouse following Saturday night's 4-2 loss to the Phillies -- their third straight -- was ready to jump off the Ben Franklin Bridge.

"Three! Ugh, we're ready to quit," Ryan Zimmerman said with tongue firmly planted in cheek. "Everything's going to go into shambles."

Taken out of context, Zimmerman's blase response to a losing streak might be seen as overconfidence on the Nationals part. No one is declaring themselves NL East champs quite yet, though, not with 36 games still to be played, the Braves still lurking 5 12 games back and the Phillies suddenly playing like their old selves again.

"People forget that's a good team over there," Zimmerman said. "I mean, I know they've traded some people away, but any time you have to come in and face their pitching staff it's going to be a tough series. We have our work cut out for us, but as far as a losing streak, I don't think anyone in here is panicking just yet. We'll be OK."

Insignificant losing streak or not, the first two games of this series have exposed a couple of concerns: The importance of Michael Morse and Ian Desmond to the Nationals' lineup, and the continued inability to prevent opposing runners from stealing bases at will.

With Morse (bruised hand) and Desmond (mild hamstring strain) sidelined for the second straight night, the Nationals' lineup was mostly silent against Roy Halladay and two Phillies relievers. Only Steve Lombardozzi's two-out single in the fifth brought any runs home, and the entire lineup struck out a combined 11 times while drawing only one walk.

Some of that, obviously, has to be attributed to Halladay, who after an injury-plagued season is starting to look more like his old self. He exhibited pinpoint control during this start, throwing an astounding 86 of 105 pitches for strikes, hardly any of them thrown on a straight path.

"You know, he's pretty good," Zimmerman said. "He's not throwing as hard as he used to, but that doesn't really make a difference when you can make it move like he does."

Even when the Nationals got Halladay out of the game and got a chance to take their hacks against the Phillies bullpen, they were whitewashed. Left-hander Antonio Bastardo, owner of a 5.26 ERA, struck out Bryce Harper, Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche in succession in the eighth. Closer Jonathan Papelbon then retired the side with two strikeouts in the ninth to earn his 29th save.

Would Morse andor Desmond have made a difference? Who knows, but the Nationals do know they'll be without both guys for Sunday's series finale against Cliff Lee and have to rely on backups to produce as they have through much of this injury-plagued season.

"That's the reason we're in the position we're in," LaRoche said. "We've had guys that filled in all year and kept us in games and won a lot of games. It's nice to have Morse and Desmond in there, but we can get by without them with the bench we've got."

If there's another cause for concern, it's the Nationals' recurring penchant for giving up stolen bases in huge sums. As a team, they've caught only 15 of 107 basestealers after giving up three more during Saturday's game (including two in a row by Chase Utley that led to a key insurance run for the Phillies in the bottom of the eighth).

The Nationals hoped the acquisition of Kurt Suzuki (who led the AL with a 38 percent caught-stealing rate at the time of his trade) would help make a difference. But Suzuki has thrown out only 1 of 15 basestealers as a National, evidence that the problem doesn't lie with this catching corps but with its pitching staff.

On Saturday, reliever Sean Burnett took the blame for allowing Utley to swipe both bases.

"He's beating himself up on it," manager Davey Johnson said. "I mean, the guy was running before he even made a move, and Burnett didn't check him. That can't happen. Those are mental mistakes, not physical mistakes."

In the end, those are relatively minor issues for a ballclub that still owns the game's best record at 77-49, the league's best pitching staff and as much raw talent as any roster in the majors.

Which is why the word "panic" was never uttered once inside the clubhouse following the Nationals' latest loss in a rare losing streak.

"Luckily we haven't had a lot of them this year," LaRoche said. "We've been really good at fighting back after we lose a couple and haven't had that huge skid where everything falls apart. Again, I don't see it happening here."

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Nationals rally against Rivero, beat Pirates 10-7

Nationals rally against Rivero, beat Pirates 10-7

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The tag was clearly fake. What happened next was all too real for the NL East champion Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper got hurt and needs X-rays.

Harper injured his left thumb making an awkward slide to avoid a pretend tag by Pittsburgh third baseman Jung Ho Kang, and the teams later cleared the benches Sunday in Washington's 10-7 win.

Nationals manager Dusty Baker said Harper was "sore" and would have X-rays on Monday. The reigning NL MVP had surgery to repair a torn ligament in the same thumb in 2014.

Harper led off the third inning with a triple. As he neared third, Kang acted as if a throw was coming and feigned a tag.

Harper went down, was checked by a trainer and stayed in. He scored on Anthony Rendon's double and was replaced in the field in the bottom half by Chris Heisey.

Kang insisted he merely intended to keep Harper from scoring when right fielder Josh Bell's throw was way off line.

"First of all, I meant no harm," Kang said through a translator. "During the relay play, I tried to hold the runner on third base. That's all I tried to do."

The next time Kang came up, Nationals starter A.J. Cole threw a fastball behind him and was immediately ejected by plate umpire Jordan Baker as the benches emptied.

Cole said he was trying to pitch inside to Kang. Baker said the entire situation wasn't ideal for a team that is focusing on a playoff run.

"We don't want guys suspended," Baker said. "But you know, boys will be boys, and you've still got to defend your teammates."

Washington's Jayson Werth was in the middle of the skirmish. Pirates outfielder Sean Rodriguez was ejected.

"I was very surprised I was the only one ejected considering," Rodriguez said. "I got blamed for being the one that instigated, but you can watch the film yourself."

Werth had a pinch-hit, two-run homer and Heisey had a go-ahead single during a five-run burst in the eighth. The Nationals' rally came against former teammate Felipe Rivero (1-5).

Rivero had allowed just four earned runs in his previous 25 innings since being traded from Washington to the Pirates.

Kang hit a two-run homer off Koda Glover to give the Pirates the lead in the seventh.

Shawn Kelley (3-2) wound up with the win. Former Pirates closer Mark Melancon pitched a scoreless ninth for his 43rd save.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Pirates: C Francisco Cervelli did not play after taking a foul ball off his wrist Saturday. ... RHP Neftali Feliz (arm) threw off flat ground but is not yet ready for a return to the mound.

UP NEXT

Nationals: Tanner Roark (15-9 2.70 ERA) had his start pushed back one day after the Nationals clinched the NL East on Saturday night. He'll looking for his career-best 16th win as Washington hosts Arizona for a four-game series.

Pirates: Chad Kuhl (5-3, 3.73 ERA) will start as Pittsburgh begins a four-game series against the NL Central champion Chicago Cubs. Kuhl has allowed seven earned runs in 7 1/3 innings in his two previous starts against Chicago this season.

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Benches clear in confrontation between Nats and Pirates

Benches clear in confrontation between Nats and Pirates

With the division title clinched the night before, it seemed the Nationals were poised for an uneventful series finale against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday afternoon. 

That wasn't to be, as the two clubs engaged in a benches clearing altercation in the bottom of the third inning. The tension started in the top of the frame, when Bryce Harper was injured while sliding to third base on a triple. The Nats took exception to Pirates third baseman Jung-ho Kang faking a tag on Harper, which may have led to the injury. 

So when Nats starter A.J. Cole threw behind Kang in the bottom of the inning, the near-fracas was ignited.

Cole was immediately ejected from the game, benches cleared, and each side exchanged words. The Pirates' Sean Rodriguez was also ejected from the game.