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With or without Harper, Nats aren't scoring

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With or without Harper, Nats aren't scoring

Bryce Harper found himself at Dodger Stadium over the weekend, and at Nationals Park Tuesday night, because his team desperately needed an offensive spark.

No matter how well the 19-year-old plays -- and he's playing pretty darn well three games into his big-league career -- the Nationals' offensive woes extend far beyond that. As was all too evident during a 5-1 drubbing at the hands of the Diamondbacks, it's mighty difficult to win games when almost nobody in your lineup is producing at a level of competence.

"I think the last five or six games, we've been averaging two runs or something," Davey Johnson said. "That's just not going to cut it."

Actually, it's even worse than the manager realizes. During what has now become a five-game losing streak, the Nationals have scored a total of seven runs (1.4 per game). They've compiled 25 total hits (five per game). And they've struck out 45 times while drawing only 11 walks.

Even if Harper was taking the majors by storm, it wouldn't be enough to make up for the lack of offense elsewhere in the Nationals' lineup.

What should have been a coronation for the most-touted hitting prospect in a generation instead turned into a 2-hour, 38-minute snore-fest. Harper drew multiple standing ovations from the disappointingly small crowd of 22,675 in his home debut, but those fans barely had reason to clap at any other juncture of the evening.

"It's good to go out there and everybody's cheering, yelling and screaming," he said. "They're excited. They want us to win, and that's what we want to do."

Harper didn't provide any theatrics at the plate; he went 0-for-3 with a strikeout, though his fifth-inning hard grounder up the middle looked like a sure base hit until he realized shortstop John McDonald was perfectly positioned to make the play.

The former No. 1 draft pick did, however, dazzle the crowd with another jaw-dropping throw from left field. With one out and the bases loaded in the seventh, he retreated to catch Justin Upton's flyball and then fired a 300-foot strike to nearly gun down McDonald at the plate. Actually, replays appeared to show catcher Wilson Ramos making the tag just before McDonald slid across, though plate umpire Jeff Nelson disagreed.

"I just thought I had a shot," Harper said. "Reared back and gave it my all. That's what I try to do, make plays like that."

The crowd serenaded Harper with a standing ovation, even though his play resulted in a run scoring for the opposition.

"He's got an unbelievable arm," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "He showed it a couple times. Another throw at the plate tonight that I don't think anybody thought was going to be close, and he made it a bang-bang play."

In the end, that was the highlight of Harper's night. Not exactly the home debut he envisioned. Then again, neither he nor the Nationals envisioned a club that stood 10 games over .500 last Wednesday would suddenly lose five in a row.

The common theme throughout the losing streak has been the lack of production at the plate, and Tuesday night's game was no different. Johnson's No. 1 and No. 2 hitters (Ian Desmond and Steve Lombardozzi) went a combined 4-for-8; everyone else went 2-for-24.

Afterward, the manager praised those two top-of-the-order batters for their aggressive approach and then praised the Diamondbacks for taking the same tact against right-hander Jordan Zimmermann (leading to four runs in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings).

"A perfect example: We had a very good pitcher on the mound, and they were very aggressive," Johnson said. "Guys were swinging the bat early trying to drive the ball. I'd like to see us get a little more aggressive like that. I think we will."

With an entire lineup struggling at once, it's easy for players to start pressing and trying to get out of their comfort zones. That's a mental battle they have to fight.

"This is the big leagues. We all know what we're capable of. Stick to that," Desmond said. "I don't think Lombo's going to try and go up there and go 4-for-4 with four homers. I'm not going to go up there and try to walk six times. You've just got to go out and play your game. The end result is the end result. You win some, you lose some. We all understand that."

At the moment, though, the Nationals are only losing. Three days into his career, Harper has yet to experience a postgame clubhouse with music and upbeat chatter.

"We want to win every day," he said. "That's our goal, to come in here and have good ABs. It's going to happen for us. We're going to turn it around."

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What will Joe Ross' role be for Nationals in playoffs vs. Dodgers?

What will Joe Ross' role be for Nationals in playoffs vs. Dodgers?

It was just a few weeks ago that Joe Ross' postseason availability was in question, and if he could return in time, whether he would pitch out of the Nationals' bullpen and or as a starter wasn't clear. Manager Dusty Baker wondered aloud if he would get his young right-hander back, even as Stephen Strasburg dealt with elbow injuries.

The progress Ross has made in a short period of time since is remarkable and after his 90-pitch outing on Thursday afternoon against the Diamondbacks, the 23-year-old looks and feels ready for the playoffs, and not just to pitch in relief, either.

"I'm hoping I get the opportunity to start, but that's up to them," Ross said. "But I'll take any opportunity I get to pitch and go out there and compete. I just want to help the team in any way I can."

Ross wasn't great on Thursday in his third start back from the disabled list. He only made it four innings, as his pitch count soared early. But in giving up just one run, he's now pitched 9 2/3 innings in three games back. During that stretch he's allowed three runs and struck out 14.

[RELATED: Wilson Ramos hopes to be back with Nationals]

It has been a process of baby steps for the Nats starter, a slow progression back from right shoulder inflammation, an injury rehab that featured a setback in late July. Now, though, he is essentially back to normal, just in time for the NL Division Series which begins next week.

"I feel good. I felt really good today. I felt really good last start. I guess it's just a point of executing pitches," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind really on whether I can go out and compete."

Baker mentioned that Ross could pitch in releif early in the NLDS against the Dodgers. That could keep him available for a start later on, if it's kept short like a normal bullpen session.

But one has to wonder if Ross has improved his case enough to pitch Game 3 of that series, given Gio Gonzalez' recent struggles. The lefty has allowed 19 earned runs in his last 23 innings going back five starts.

Regardless, Ross has certainly come a long way in just three MLB outings.

"He looks ready," second baseman Wilmer Difo said through an interpreter.

With all the negative injury news the Nationals have received in recent days, between Wilson Ramos' season-ending injury and Strasburg essentially ruled out for the NLDS, having Ross fully back in the mix is a nice change of fortune for the NL East champs.

[RELATED: Matt Belisle sounds like safe bet for Nats playoff roster]

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Wilson Ramos knows his knee injury could mean the end of Nationals' tenure

Wilson Ramos knows his knee injury could mean the end of Nationals' tenure

Wilson Ramos won't be on the field for the Washington Nationals when the team takes on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the N.L. Divisional Series next week.

The 2016 N.L. All-Star catcher will undergo surgery to repair the ACL he tore in his right knee on Monday night against the Diamondbacks

Ramos has been arguably the Nationals' most constant offensive threat this season, and had positioned himself as the team's backstop for the foreseeable future.

But the injury changed everything.

Not just because the surgery and rehab will stretch well into Spring Training, but because the 29-year-old Ramos will become a free agent at the end of the season. On top of that, a second ACL injury (He tore it in 2012 as well) means that taking the field everyday as a catcher may not be a viable option for him much longer.

"Unfortunately, this injury happened so close to the end and it may affect whether I’m able to stay with a National League team or not," Ramos told reporters prior to the Nationals' 5-3 win over the Diamondbacks on Thursday afternoon.

"But if it’s up to me, I definitely would like to keep playing for the Nationals and play as long as I can."

Ramos is a solid defensive catcher, but his biggest strength is at the plate. Being able to be a part of a lineup everyday is where he is most valuable, and that may mean playing in the American League, where he can serve as the designated hitter and fill in as catcher.

But this doesn't mean Ramos is done as a member of the Nationals, just that he's aware his time could be coming to an end.