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No sweep, but no worries for Nats

No sweep, but no worries for Nats

For a split-second at the end of the eighth inning Wednesday night, as Ian Desmond awkwardly pulled up lame at first base, the fact the Nationals had just squandered another golden scoring opportunity seemed insignificant.

"Being out wasn't real important in that moment," said Desmond, who grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to quash a potential rally.

"I forgot about the game when I saw him," manager Davey Johnson said. "I thought for sure he pulled a hammy."

Once Desmond realized he hadn't actually injured himself -- he thinks he just hyperextended his knee -- he could return to kicking himself over making two outs on one swing of the bat in a crucial moment of what was at that point a one-run game.

"I mean, I'm probably doubly frustrated over my at-bats tonight," he said. "This the knee isn't really much of a concern to me. I think it was more of a scary, in-the-moment type of thing."

Frustrating as their eventual 5-1 loss to the Braves was, the Nationals at night's end were pleased simply to have taken two of three from their lone remaining challenger for the NL East crown and come out of this crucial series with everybody in one piece.

That wasn't a sure thing at a couple of points in this game. In addition to Desmond's brief scare, catcher Kurt Suzuki had team officials worried he broke his right hand after getting struck by a foul ball in the fourth inning. Suzuki's hand remained swollen throughout the game, but X-rays were negative and he insisted he'll be fine moving forward.

Not that the Nationals were overly pleased with their on-field performance. With an opportunity to sweep Atlanta and seize a commanding, eight-game lead in the division, they instead were stifled for seven innings by under-appreciated right-hander Kris Medlen, squandering what few scoring opportunities they had before turning sloppy in the field during the ninth inning.

"Obviously we don't like to make mistakes, but they happen," said Ryan Zimmerman, whose error allowed an unearned run to score. "It's going to happen, and we don't want it to happen, but it is what it is. It happened. We won two out of three and we move on."

As was the case the previous two nights, this was a tightly contested ballgame with an added element of tension thrown in because of the two clubs' current standing. Unlike the previous two nights, the Nationals were unable to make pitches when they needed, were unable to produce clutch hits when they were needed and were unable to make plays in the field when they really were needed.

Their biggest infraction in the latter category came via Bryce Harper in the top of the fifth. Starter Ross Detwiler had just walked Medlen on four pitches to bring up Martin Prado with two outs and two on, then served up a well-struck line drive to deep right-center. Harper took a circuitous route to the ball, moving several steps in before circling back, and ultimately couldn't recover in time. Prado wound up on second base with the two-run double that put the Braves ahead for good.

"I thought I had a good read on it," Harper said. "He hit it off his front foot, got some backspin on it, hit it hard and I had to bust my butt. I came in a little bit, just because he was off his front foot. But he back-spinned it. It was a good hit."

Those two runs proved important because the Nationals were unable to get anything going against Medlen, a Tommy John surgery survivor who is just now re-establishing himself as a front-line starting pitcher for Atlanta. The Nationals had opportunities to make a dent in Medlen, but they simply couldn't produce a big hit in a big moment.

Suzuki grounded into a double play with two on and one out in the second. Adam LaRoche popped out on the first pitch he saw with the bases loaded in the sixth. And Desmond grounded into his killer double play on the first pitch he saw from reliever Eric O'Flaherty in the eighth.

"That's just young hitters," Johnson said. "They get a little too excited. Desi's been pretty good about getting a pitch he really likes. He had a good swing at it. We're going to be a little anxious in those situations. We've gotten a whole lot better from last year, but we're still going to be a little over-aggressive."

A three-run ninth off Tom Gorzelanny -- with assists to Zimmerman and Suzuki for their throwing errors -- put this one out of reach and might have left the Nationals feeling less than totally satisfied with the night's outcome.

Then again, they entered this showdown holding a five-game lead over the Braves and they exited it holding a six-game lead with 38 to play. That's still a comfortable position to be in, right?

"Of course," Michael Morse said. "It's still a six-game lead. It's awesome."

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Gio Gonzalez has plenty to work on before Nats playoffs begin

Gio Gonzalez has plenty to work on before Nats playoffs begin

Gio Gonzalez' seesaw 2016 regular season is officially in the books. Next stop: the NL Division Series where he will face the L.A. Dodgers, likely in Game 3 and possibly with one of the two teams' season on the line. Either way, it will be important.

Over the years, teams have trotted out far less accomplished pitchers in playoff games, ones with nothing close to the track record of Gonzalez. And for long stretches this season, he has been effective, like in July and August when he held a 3.16 ERA across 11 starts.

But a lot has happened since August for Gonzalez, both on the field and off of it. In his five starts since, he's given up 19 runs in 23 innings. That stretch includes his 3 2/3 innings on Wednesday night against the Diamondbacks, when he gave up three runs on eight hits and three walks and threw a whopping 100 pitches.

Just in time for the playoffs.

The Nationals have an unenviable situation without Stephen Strasburg, who is rehabbing a right flexor strain, and with Joe Ross still building his workload. They better hope the version of Gio Gonzalez they see in the NLDS is better than the one they have witnessed over the last several weeks.

“It wasn’t that good, but we didn’t score any runs either. He had a lot of pitches in a short period of time," manager Dusty Baker said after the Nats' 3-0, rain-shortened loss.

"They ran his pitch count up. They didn’t swing at very many balls and it looked like they were trying to wait on his fastball."

Gonzalez will now have to make adjustments in bullpen sessions over the course of the next 12 days. He will have to do that with a lot on his mind. Gonzalez heads to the funeral of close friend Jose Fernandez on Thursday and was pitching with extra emotion against Arizona. 

“He’s an emotional-type guy," Baker said. "I talked to him a little bit about Fernandez and he was pitching for him and for us. Just wasn’t a very good night."

Now Gonzalez will have plenty of time to grieve and recalibrate before he sees the Dodgers. Whether that hurts or helps has yet to be determined.

“It can [help]. Just depends on, not only can it reset him, but after things have subsided some… they say time heals all wounds, but some wounds take longer to heal," Baker said.

"It probably won’t really set in until after the season when he’s back in Miami and around and Jose’s not around. Hopefully, he can have a couple good ‘pens and get it back together because we’re certainly going to need him come playoff time."

Gonzalez does have some success against the Dodgers to build off of. He holds a 1.69 ERA across 32 innings vs. L.A. since 2012 and held them to one run through six earlier this season.

Gonzalez is also just ready for a fresh start.

"You start the postseason with a zero ERA. It's a new series. New way to look at it," he said.

[RELATED: Podcast: Can Nationals win without Wilson Ramos?]

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Gio Gonzalez bounced early as Nats fall to Diamondbacks

Gio Gonzalez bounced early as Nats fall to Diamondbacks

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 3-0 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: The Nationals will be starting Gio Gonzalez in the NL Division Series against the Dodgers whether it's their preference or not. That's not to say they aren't at all comfortable with having him on the mound in the playoffs. He's been there before and happens to have plenty of recent success against the very team he'll face.

It's just that with Stephen Strasburg injured and Joe Ross not yet stretched out since returning from the disabled list, Gonzalez is essentially their third starter by default. And with how inconsistent he's been lately, that produce an interesting dynamic in the postseason. It's Gio Gonzalez roulette: who will take the ball and stare down Corey Seager and Adrian Gonzalez, Good Gio or Bad Gio?

The latter was on display Wednesday night in the Nats' 3-0 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks, a game shortened to 6 1/3 innings by unrelenting rain. He managed just 3 2/3 innings on 100 pitches. That's not an MLB record for pitches in such a short start, but it's not far off. Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia, for instance, threw 107 pitches in 3 2/3 just five years ago.

Gonzalez' latest outing may not go down in the annals of history, but it was a troubling sight for the Nationals. The next time he will pitch is against the Dodgers, either in L.A. or Washington. And given the nature of a five-game series, their season could be on the line.

Gonzalez needed 24 pitches to get out of the first inning and was fortunate to give up just one run in the frame, that on a groundout by Paul Goldschmidt. Gonzalez needed 24 more in the second after giving up a single and a walk, but no runs. 

He threw 29 more in the third, including an RBI double to Brandon Drury. In the fourth, he tossed 23 more pitches and was pulled after Goldschmidt landed an RBI single, Gonzalez' third run of the evening. He allowed eight hits and three walks in total.

Gonzalez has been bounced after 4 1/3 innings or less in four of his last nine starts. In his last five outings, he's surrendered 19 earned runs in 23 innings. He's trending in the wrong direction after a strong July and August, and it's not good for the Nats.

Gonzalez didn't go deep in his start, but he wasn't necessarily terrible either. The Nats' offense fell closer to that description. They managed zero runs on five hits and one walk against Arizona starter Shelby Miller. His 6.15 ERA through 20 starts this season makes his 2015 All-Star nod seem like a distant memory.

The Nationals lost their second game of this series against the Diamondbacks and will now hope for a four-game split on Thursday. Washington has dropped seven of their last 11 games.

What it means: The Nationals fell to 92-65 not the year with four games remaining. Their magic number to clinch home field advantage in the NLDS stands at three thanks to the Dodgers' loss to the Padres.

Rendon lands two: Anthony Rendon was once again a standout for the Nats on offense with a pair of singles in two plate appearances. That came one night after he led the Nats to victory with a three-run homer. Rendon now has six hits in his last five games and appears to be heating up as the Nats enter the final four games of the regular season. With Wilson Ramos out, Rendon is even more important as one of the Nationals' most potent right-handed bats.

Belisle keeps it up: He may not pitch in high-leverage spots, and he may not bring electric stuff out of the bullpen, but veteran Matt Belisle just continues to produce in whatever role the Nats ask of him. He replaced Gonzalez in the fourth inning on Wednesday and tossed 1 1/3 perfect frames. He got four outs on seven pitches, a nice change of pace from the 100 pitches Gonzalez needed to record 11 outs. Belisle was even checked on by trainer Paul Lessard before he began the fifth inning, but he didn't show any problems afterwards.

Gio playing with a heavy heart: Gonzalez was pitching with a lot on his mind Wednesday night following the death of his friend Jose Fernandez over the weekend. Gonzalez was in tears while warming up in right field before the game and plans to fly to Florida in the morning to attend the funeral services of the late Marlins star. 

Up next: The Nats and Diamondbacks finish of their series with a 1:05 p.m. start on Thursday afternoon. Joe Ross (7-5, 3.48) will pitch opposite former Nats prospect Robbie Ray (8-14, 4.77).

[RELATED: Podcast: Can Nationals win without Wilson Ramos?]

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