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Shields among Nats' top targets

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Shields among Nats' top targets

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Winter Meetings officially begin today, but with all the pertinent parties already in place last night the rumor mill started churning out juicy bits of information.

And with the Nationals garnering far more attention than in previous years, what quickly became clear was that Mike Rizzo is considering some very big names to fill the final hole in his starting rotation.

Though Rizzo could stick with the conventional path and sign one of several high-priced free agents on the market, he's also using the trade route to pursue a starter.

And perhaps his best possible trade partner is Rays general manager Andrew Friedman.

The Rays are loaded with pitching, but in their never-ending quest to keep payroll down are willing to listen to offers for their higher-priced starters. Reigning AL Cy Young Award winner David Price would be the ultimate catch, but the price tag for the 27-year-old lefty is likely to be astronomical, so the more likely target remains right-hander James Shields.

Shields, 30, is an obvious fit with the Nationals. He's a workhorse who has averaged 222 innings over the last six seasons. He's a power pitcher who ranked third in the AL in strikeouts each of the last two seasons. And, perhaps most important from the Nationals' perspective, he's under control for two more years.

The Nationals don't want to put all their eggs into a make-or-break run for the World Series in 2013, but they also don't want to saddle themselves with too many more long-term contracts that could prevent them from locking up their own maturing players (like Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond).

Shields is due to make $10.25 million in 2013; the Rays then hold a $12 million option (with a $1 million buyout) on him for 2014. Those numbers would work well from the Nationals' standpoint, essentially filling the $11 million slot Edwin Jackson held last season.

Shields won't come cheap when in comes to players Tampa Bay wants in return. And already the speculation centers on two members of the Nationals' everyday lineup: Michael Morse and Danny Espinosa.

Rizzo is perfectly willing to trade Morse -- provided, of course, he can re-sign Adam LaRoche -- but he's less willing to deal Espinosa. The Nationals do have an obvious replacement at second base in Steve Lombardozzi, with Anthony Rendon figuring into the infield picture as well sometime in the next few years.

But Rizzo remains a steadfast Espinosa supporter, and manager Davey Johnson stands firmly in his corner as well.

Espinosa could wind up the deal breaker in any talks with the Rays. But whether or not something comes together over the next three days, it's clear the Nationals have multiple different paths en route to the starting pitcher they covet.

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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.