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Rattled Strasburg struggles in home finale

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Rattled Strasburg struggles in home finale

The Nationals have insisted for more than five months they can win without Stephen Strasburg, and over the course of 3 hours and 44 minutes Friday night, they tried their darndest to prove that in the most tangible way possible.

After watching their young ace get torched by the Marlins for five runs in three innings and exit his final home start of the season earlier than anyone could have anticipated, the Nationals came storming back to send this game into extra innings and nearly pulled off one final, improbable rally in the bottom of the 10th.

In the end, they couldn't quite complete that rally, stranding the tying run on second base and the winning run on first base when Roger Bernadina and Jayson Werth struck out in succession against Miami closer Steve Cishek.

So the biggest takeaway from a wild, 9-7 loss proved to be the manner in which Strasburg's 2012 D.C. finale played out and the manner in which the right-hander, his manager and others tried to explain what exactly happened.

"To be honest with you, I think he was thinking too much about the decision of what we were going to shut him down," Davey Johnson said. "And he kind wore it like it. ... I think he wasn't focused as much on the game as he was on the impending shutdown. Just he way I read it."

Strasburg, who has been reluctant all along to discuss the Nationals' precautionary plan for him, insisted the pending shutdown had nothing to do with his substandard outing.

"No," the right-hander said. "I just don't think I pitched well."

On that point, there is no dispute. Over the course of three laborious innings, Strasburg was tagged for five runs on six hits and three walks, serving up two homers and needing 67 pitches just to reach that juncture.

Whatever the reason behind it, Strasburg's issue was obvious: He couldn't locate his fastball. He either threw it early in the count for balls or grooved it down the heart of the strike zone, as was the case on both home run pitches.

Rather than tempt fate, Johnson decided to pull the plug after only 18 batters, sending up Corey Brown to pinch-hit in the bottom of the third and Zach Duke to pitch in the top of the fourth, much to the astonishment of the crowd of 28,533.

Perhaps more astonishing were the revelations offered by the manager about his young hurler afterward, with Johnson saying Strasburg is "having trouble sleeping, thinking about letting the guys down," and adding he'll need to address the matter in the coming days.

Strasburg, meanwhile, saw his innings count tick only slightly upward to 159 13 in 28 starts, though his season really can be broken down into two parts.

Early on, he was absolutely electric, blowing away opposing lineups nearly every time he took the mound. In 17 starts before the All-Star break, Strasburg was 9-4 with a 2.82 ERA, allowing more than three earned runs only twice.

Since then, he's been wildly inconsistent. He still puts together dominant outings, such as Sunday's six-inning gem against the Cardinals. But his rocky starts have become more regular, with opponents scoring at least four earned runs in four of his last 10 appearances.

"Well, I feel like it's been pretty good," he insisted. "I have a couple bad starts, but you know, I'll take a couple bad starts over the course of a year any day."

By the most basic measurement, Strasburg actually has been the least effective member of the Nationals' rotation since the All-Star break; his 3.73 ERA trails Ross Detwiler (2.79), Gio Gonzalez (3.05), Edwin Jackson (3.47) and Jordan Zimmermann (3.67).

None of this has taken Mike Rizzo by surprise. The Nationals general manager, who ultimately makes the decision when Strasburg will be shut down, has seen plenty of previous pitchers deal with inconsistencies in their first full season back from Tommy John surgery. And he acknowledges he's seen those telltale signs from Strasburg over the last two months.

Rizzo has said all along he won't base his decision on any one start, but on the patterns and tendencies he spots with his scout's eye. But what do the Nationals do moving forward, especially if they're concerned Strasburg is letting the shutdown affect his performance?

"Same thing we always do," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "We go to the bullpen. We talk about it every day: You gotta stay focused, pitch-by-pitch. That's what we do. Pitch-by-pitch, hitter-by-hitter. Stay focused on what you do."

Strasburg has been slated to make his final start of the season Wednesday in New York. Would Friday's abbreviated outing make the Nationals reconsider the plan at all?

"It might," Johnson said in highly cryptic fashion.

Whatever ends up happening, it was clear Strasburg did not want this to be the final image of him for 2012, trudging off the mound after only three innings, unable to pitch his team one step closer to its first-ever division title.

Strasburg often talks about the lessons he tries to take from every one of his starts, good or bad. So what he he hope to learn from this one?

"Let it go, and just focus on the next one," he said. "I just didn't really have it tonight."

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Lobaton, others step up in Nats' 1st game without Wilson Ramos

Lobaton, others step up in Nats' 1st game without Wilson Ramos

If guys like Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon play to their capabilities, the Nationals could make do without Wilson Ramos this postseason, at least on offense.

But even those guys can't do it all by themselves. The much more likely scenario involves a collective effort, one in which contributions from all-around lift the Nationals as a team and help compensate for the loss of one of their best and most consistent players. Collective efforts like Tuesday night when both of Ramos' replacements - Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino - chipped in on offense, Rendon provided the big swing and other bench players like Stephen Drew and Wilmer Difo made pivotal plays in their 4-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Lobaton called a strong game behind the dish, helping starter Max Scherzer adjust after allowing two runs in his first three innings to toss three scoreless after that. He then broke up Diamondbacks' starter Matt Koch's no-hitter in the sixth with a leadoff single. That ignited a four-run rally for the Nats, who took the lead and never relinquished it.

"I don't want to get a no-hitter," Lobaton said. "I got a good result and it was good for the team. We got a rally and we won."

"With [Ramos] going down for the year, that’s just heartbreaking," Scherzer said. "But Loby’s a guy that we need to step up and he’s the one who started off that inning."

Lobaton was replaced on the basepaths by Severino, who is faster than Lobaton, who happens to be dealing with a sore right ankle. Severino would later score after moving to third on walks drawn by Trea Turner and Difo. Severino came home on a sacrifice fly hit to left by Drew.

Lobaton and Severino will be a tag team partnership moving forward this season with Ramos out. They will need to spell each other and work together to try and recreate the production Ramos provided as a standout both at the plate and behind it.

On Tuesday, they pulled through.

"That's what they're going to have to do," manager Dusty Baker said. "That's what they're going to have to do to contribute."

Their night also involved a lot of communication once Severino replaced Lobaton. A veteran with more experience catching the Nationals' pitching staff, Lobaton advised Severino throughout the game about how to call it. That's something Ramos often does for Lobaton.

"That is good for a guy that is not playing every time. It's the same with me, I always talk to Wily about the pitchers and what they are doing," Lobaton said. "I try to communicate more, like what he's been doing and what he's working on. So, I try to do the same with Sevi. This is working in the game, this is not. It can be more easy for him when he goes out."

Severino scored the first run and later in the frame Rendon drove in three more on a homer to left field off Randall Delgado. Rendon was pleased to see the foundation laid ahead of him that inning.

"That’s a great example, first day, stepping up,” he said. "Definitely frustration [with Ramos' injury]. You never like to see a teammate get hurt… obviously he’s going to be missed. He’s a big part of this lineup. But we have a lot of good guys who can fill in. It’s going to be awesome to watch.”

The Nationals have five more games before the regular season is over. To capture a World Seires, they will need to win 11 more after that. It won't always be as smooth asTuesday night, but the Nationals demonstrated well to themselves what it will take to get by without their star catcher.

[RELATED: Dodgers set rotation for playoff series against Nationals]

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Anthony Rendon's homer lifts Nationals over Diamondbacks

Anthony Rendon's homer lifts Nationals over Diamondbacks

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 4-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: With All-Star Wilson Ramos now out for the rest of the regular season and playoffs with a torn right ACL, the Nationals will need others to step up and compensate for his loss. On defense, it will be up to Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino. Ramos is an excellent defensive catcher, but his two backups are perfectly capable behind the dish.

On offense is where Ramos' absence will particularly hurt and that was noted by manager Dusty Baker on Tuesday after his diagnosis was revealed. Others in their lineup will have to raise their games to fill the void.

Time will tell how much Ramos is missed, but Tuesday was a good start. The Nationals saw several players contribute to a sixth inning rally that led them to a 4-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Lobaton got them started with a single to right field, the first hit of the night against Arizona rookie Matt Koch, who was making his MLB debut. Stephen Drew later drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. And after that it was Anthony Rendon who gave the Nats the lead with a three-run homer to left field.

That gave the Nationals enough to hand Max Scherzer his 19th win of the season. Scherzer lasted six innings on 98 pitches before he was pulled for a pinch-hitter.

The Nationals bounced back from their blowout loss in the series opener on Monday night and have now won three of four.

What it means: The Nationals improved to 92-65 on the season with just five games remaining.

Scherzer overcomes rocky start: Scherzer was solid on Tuesday night with six innings and two runs allowed on six hits and two walks. But his night didn't start out too well, as Scherzer gave up a solo homer to Jean Segura on the first pitch of the game. He allowed another run on a Welington Castillo double in the top of the third. After that, though, Scherzer settled in to retired seven straight batters with six consecutive strikeouts. 

Scherzer finished with 10 strikeouts on the night to reach double digits for the 13th time this season and the 49th time in his career. He also got to 277 strikeouts on the season to set a new Nationals record, breaking his previous mark of 276 set just last year. Scherzer is the only active pitcher with at least two seasons of 275 strikeouts or more.

Rendon hits No. 19: Rendon's homer was his 19th of the season, two away from the career-high of 21 he set in 2014. It was also the 500th hit of his career. Rendon hasn't had the greatest month when it comes to getting on base, but he's driven plenty of runs in. With his three RBI on Tuesday, Rendon now has 22 for September, a career-high for a single month. He has 51 RBI in 64 games since the All-Star break.

Lobaton, Severino make an impact: Lobaton's hit to lead off the sixth and start their four-run rally was just a single, but was a positive sign for the Nats, who will need him to step up with Ramos out. Lobaton was replaced by Severino as a pinch-runner and Severino then came around to score on Drew's sacrifice fly. That duo may need to split a lot of playing time over the next few weeks and with Lobaton's sore right ankle, Severino could be replacing him on the basepaths late in close games quite often moving forward.

Up next: The Nationals play another 7:05 p.m. start on Wednesday night with lefty Gio Gonzalez (11-10, 4.51) set to face former Braves starter Shelby Miller (2-12, 6.47).

[RELATED: Ramos' ACL tear devastating news for him and Nats]

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