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A pennant race comes to Washington

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A pennant race comes to Washington

The crowd of 34,827 -- which certainly looked and sounded more like a sellout crowd -- began to rise as Michael Morse stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in the bottom of the fourth Friday night.

The crescendo grew as Morse took a ball inside from Johan Santana, then broke his bat fouling another one off, then took a mighty hack at an 89 mph fastball at the letters.

As the ball sailed over the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center, the first grand slam of the season by the Nationals, the roar turned deafening. And it didn't let up until Morse was coaxed out of the dugout for a two-arms-raised-followed-by-a-twirling-fist-pump curtain call that brought the emotions out of even the most-hardened members of the Nationals.

"That was awesome," Jayson Werth said. "From third base, I was probably just as excited as all the fans."

Why shouldn't they all be excited? Morse's four-run blast put the Nationals on top and put them on course for a 6-4 victory over the Mets to start this homestand off in fine fashion and catapult the local ballclub to 29 games over the .500 mark.

So this is what a pennant race feels like.

Welcomed home after a long, three-city road trip that featured enough highlights to warrant a 3-minute video on the stadium scoreboard before they took the field, the Nationals unofficially kicked off the home stretch of a remarkable season in style.

They saw Bryce Harper club a two-run homer of his own off Santana. They saw Ross Detwiler overcome some first-inning jitters to produce a quality start. They saw All-Star Ian Desmond return from a four-week stint on the disabled list. And they saw Tyler Clippard escape another harrowing ninth inning to seal their league-best 74th victory in 119 games.

And perhaps most significantly, they did it all in front of a boisterous fan base that is beginning to turn South Capitol Street into the site of a nightly block party, a fact that wasn't lost among the players.

"Absolutely," Detwiler said. "It makes you a little kid again to kind of look around. It's one of the best feelings in the world."

We can only imagine what it felt like for Morse to round the bases and receive a curtain call, because the slugger sneaked out of the postgame clubhouse without making himself available to reporters. His teammates and manager were left to speak about the impact he's made on what has become one of the sport's deepest and most-productive lineups.

"The whole first half of what he was here was like 70 percent of what he was last year," Davey Johnson said. "But he's in a good spot right now. The whole middle of the lineup is really in a good spot, and that's why we've been scoring a lot of runs."

It certainly helped to have seven key regulars (Morse, Werth, Harper, Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa) together in one lineup for the first time this season. With Werth (who now boasts a .509 on-base percentage in 14 games since returning from a broken wrist) taking over leadoff duties and Desmond and Espinosa providing some thunder from the No. 6 and No. 7 spots, this is no longer a team that must rely on top-flight pitching every single night.

"It's great," said Desmond, who went 0-for-4 in his return but hit a couple of balls hard. "When you can put a guy who has done what he's done like Jayson Werth in the leadoff spot with no complaints, when he comes out and produces, that speaks volumes about the kind of character we have in here. Guys are just willing to do whatever they have to do to, by any means."

It took that lineup a little while to get itself going Friday night. Santana, the two-time AL Cy Young Award winner who tossed a 134-pitch no-hitter on June 1 but hasn't been the same since, retired the first nine batters he faced.

But then Werth laced a sharp single up the middle to open the bottom of the fourth. And then Harper and Zimmerman followed with nearly identical base hits, setting the stage for Morse to really inflict some damage.

"He's tough," Werth said of Santana. "Even at 89 mph, he's still a great pitcher. It was evident that he mowed through our lineup the first time through. It was more just grinding out the at-bats and keeping your nose down and putting a good at-bat today. And we managed to get three hits right back up the box, and Mikey hits a slam the other way. It's just good hitting, really."

One inning later, Harper added his own blast, a two-run homer to right that brought another roar from the crowd and more than made up for his defensive gaffe in the top of the first when he airmailed a throw to the plate and hit the backstop on the fly.

Harper wound up 2-for-3 with a walk, one of his best offensive performances in weeks. Afterward, though, the 19-year-old was informed by Johnson he'll be out of the lineup Saturday as the manager seeks to give him another mental break while also giving fellow rookie Tyler Moore a chance to start.

"There's 25 guys," Johnson said. "I've said it 100 times: You don't just win with eight. ... Everybody's contributed so far, and I'm not going to just forget about the guys that had a pretty defined role until we got healthy. We're in a good place. It's where good teams need to be."

It's hard to dispute with the results. The season is nearly 75 percent complete now, and the Nationals continue to own baseball's best record.

And they're starting to put it all on display in front of large and appreciative crowds that are hopping aboard for the first pennant race this town has experienced in three generations.

"This is what makes it fun," Werth said. "I've been in this situation a few times before, and this is what it's all about. You play all season to put yourself in this situation. This is what it's all about. This is why you play your whole life, for this situation."

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Nats pull off impressive trade to land closer Melancon from Pirates

Nats pull off impressive trade to land closer Melancon from Pirates

The Nationals addressed their most pressing need in a big way on Saturday and they didn't have to give up one of their top prospects to make it happen.

The Nats acquired All-Star closer Mark Melancon from the Pittsburgh Pirates for lefty reliever Felipe Rivero and prospect Taylor Hearn, CSN Mid-Atlantic has confirmed. FOX Sports was first to break the news.

Melancon, 31, joins the Nationals for the remainder of this season as an upcoming free agent. The right-hander holds a 1.51 ERA and has 30 saves in 33 chances. 

Melancon has been an excellent closer for years with a 1.80 ERA and 130 saves since he joined the Pirates before the 2013 season. Three times during that stretch he made the NL All-Star team and he finished eighth in Cy Young voting in 2015.

Melancon will close for the Nationals, which begs the question of what to do with Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon joined the Nats last summer with the understanding he would be their closer and has spoken before about his quest to challenge Mariano Rivera's all-time saves record. Regardless of how Papelbon reacts, the Nationals have found a better option for the ninth inning in Melancon.

Melancon has three years of postseason experience, as well. He has appeared in six playoff games with four earned runs across 5 2/3 total innings allowed.

Rivero, 25, leaves for the Pirates with a 4.53 ERA in 47 appearances this season. He is under team control through 2021. Rivero throws 100 miles per hour and has flashed potential through his two years in Washington, but remains a raw talent.

Hearn was a fifth round pick out of Oklahoma Baptist in 2015. He posted a 3.18 ERA in eight games at Single-A Hagerstown this season.

Both Rivero and Hearn are intriguing young pitchers, but overall this trade looks like a steal for the Nationals, especially considering what the Cubs gave up for Aroldis Chapman and what the Yankees have reportedly been asking for with Andrew Miller.

The Nats did not have to part with any of their top prospects to land Melancon, who leaves a Pirates team that is only three games out of a playoff spot. That last detail could be something to keep in mind down the stretch of this season.

Why did the Pirates let Melancon go? It is not often you see a team in their position trade their lockdown closer and strengthen another team in their league at the same time. It's a strange decision, but the Nats will take it.

[RELATED: Scherzer, Werth shine in Nats' thrilling win at Giants]

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Report: Nats make deadline trade for All-Star closer Melancon

Report: Nats make deadline trade for All-Star closer Melancon

The Nationals have found their new closer.

According to a report by FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal, the Nats agreed on a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday afternoon for All-Star closer Mark Melancon.

The Nats sent lefty reliever Felipe Rivero to Pittsburgh along with prospect Taylor Hearn, another lefty.

Melancon has a 1.51 ERA and 30 saves this season. He saved 51 games last year and finished eighth in NL Cy Young voting.

More to come...

[RELATED: Scherzer, Werth shine in Nats' thrilling win at Giants]

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2016 MLB Power Rankings: The Cubs are back

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2016 MLB Power Rankings: The Cubs are back

The Cubs are back. After a rough July, the Cubs were the first team to break the 60 win mark and have gotten some of their grove back heading into the dog days of summer. How did the other teams do? To the rankings! 

30. Atlanta Braves (LW: 30)

36 wins and it IS August. 

29. Minnesota Twins (LW: 29)

A Joe Mauer walkoff, just for old time's sake. 

28. Cincinnati Reds (LW: 28) 

Jay Bruce's new team this week: the Dodgers! 

27. Tampa Bay Rays (LW: 26)

Most likely to leave: Archer, Ordorizzi, or Moore?

26.  Arizona Diamondbacks (LW: 27)

It's almost unfathomable that they've made Miller available in trades. 

SEE THE REST OF THE RANKINGS HERE