A St. Louis stinker puts Nats party on hold

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A St. Louis stinker puts Nats party on hold

ST. LOUIS -- They wanted to get this thing over with.

Sure, it's always nice to celebrate at home in front of your own fans, but the Nationals have been inching toward their first-ever division title for quite a while now, and each day that passes without them finishing it off feels like a wasted day, another day in which Davey Johnson feels forced to play all of his regulars instead of giving them a pre-postseason breather.

So the Nationals desperately wanted to celebrate at Busch Stadum Sunday afternoon, either via their own win over the Cardinals or an admittedly unlikely Braves loss at Turner Field.

In the end, they got neither. Atlanta cruised past the Mets again. And the Nationals were ambushed by St. Louis' potent lineup, with starter Ross Detwiler tagged for seven early runs and Chien-Ming Wang adding kerosene to the fire with an ugly performance out of the bullpen.

That all added up to a lopsided, 10-4 loss and (more importantly) no reduction of the Nationals' magic number. Now leading the Braves by three games with three to play, they'll head home and hope now to clinch the the NL East on Monday against a Phillies club that was already eliminated from postseason contention over the weekend.

It's not the scenario Johnson envisioned when he filled out his lineup card Sunday morning, all eight regulars in there, including catcher Kurt Suzuki (who started behind the plate for the ninth straight day).

Johnson had been saying all week he wouldn't hesitate to use up all of his best bullets, as much as necessary, to clinch the division. After that, he'd start resting guys. But a few of his managerial decisions in this game brought that sentiment into question a bit.

Which isn't to say Johnson was the No. 1 reason for this loss. The blame begins with Detwiler, who in the biggest start of his young career fell flat.

Pitching 40 miles from his hometown of Wentzville, Mo., for the first time as a big-leaguer, Detwiler entered this one with plenty of emotions running through his slender frame, knowing he'd have a chance to pitch the Nationals to a division crown in front of dozens of family and friends whose allegiances might have been a bit torn.

Perhaps the 26-year-old lefty couldn't harness all that emotion, though, because he had all sorts of trouble finding the strike zone. He escaped the first inning without allowing a run, but then issued back-to-back walks to open the bottom of the second. He appeared to get himself out of the jam by inducing a tailor-made, 4-6-3 double play grounder out of Daniel Descalso, but Danny Espinosa booted the ball, everyone was safe and the inning was prolonged.

It really was prolonged, because Detwiler responded by serving up a two-run double to Pete Kozma, an RBI single to Jon Jay and then a two-run homer to Carlo Beltran. Just like that, the Nationals trailed 5-0 and Detwiler sauntered around the mound with a look of disgust on his face.

Johnson let his starter take the mound again for the bottom of the third, but he already had Wang warming in the bullpen in case of trouble. Which Detwiler immediately got himself into, issuing a one-out walk and then surrendering another single to Descalso. Johnson strode to the mound, took the ball from his starter and handed it to Wang.

The Taiwanese right-hander has little experience as a reliever, and he hasn't been particularly effective in that role this season, but this might have been his worst performance to date. Wang's first pitch went to the backstop, letting a run score. His next pitch? Also to the backstop, letting a runner advance to third (he then scored moments later on a sacrifice fly, extending the Cardinals' lead to 7-0).

Just when things looked their bleakest, though, the Nationals came storming back in a last-ditch attempt to make a game of this. Bryce Harper led off the fourth with his 22nd homer of the season, leaving him two shy of Tony Conigliaro's all-time record for a teenager. Adam LaRoche singled. Ian Desmond doubled him home. And Espinosa atoned for his earlier error by blasting a two-run homer to right, trimming the lead to 7-4.

His team now trailing by only three runs with five innings still to go and Cardinals starter Lance Lynn on the ropes, Johnson surprisingly let Wang hit for himself with two outs and a man on base. With some awkward hacks at the plate, Wang not surprisingly struck out to kill that potential rally, then retook the mound for the bottom of the fourth hoping to stop the bleeding.

Instead, Wang opened the inning by walking Jay, then served up a two-run homer to Beltran (the veteran's second of the day, meriting a curtain call).

The Nationals now trailed 9-4, having frittered away whatever momentum they had picked up the previous inning. Nobody was warming in the bullpen. Wang was allowed to pitch another 1 23 innings before Johnson finally re-emerged from the dugout to take the ball.

Nats see tough road trip as good test for where they're at

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USA Today Sports Images

Nats see tough road trip as good test for where they're at

There is a significant contrast in the quality of teams the Nationals have faced thus far this season through 21 games and the caliber of clubs they are about to see on their upcoming 10-game road trip. It's a major scheduling quirk and as of Friday morning, the Nats are standing right on the middle of it.

Behind them is the second-easiest schedule in baseball to this point based on opponents win percentage. And up ahead are three teams that finished among the four best records in baseball last season. The worst team they will play coming up on this road swing based on their 2015 regular season record is the Kansas City Royals. They led the American League with 95 wins and later won the World Series.

The trip begins in St. Louis against a Cardinals team that led baseball with 100 wins last season. And the journey closes with the Chicago Cubs, a 97-win team that reached the NL Championship Series.

It's an unusually difficult road trip, to say the least.

“It’s one of the tougher trips I think I’ve probably ever been on," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

"There are three or four times on the schedule where you say, 'Hey this is going to be a heck of a road trip,'" manager Dusty Baker said. "It's going to be a test."

The Cardinals and Cubs boast the two highest-scoring offenses in baseball right now. The Cards have a +48 run differential and the Cubs - who have the best record in baseball at 16-5 - are +74. 

The Cubs and Royals rank in the top 10 in MLB in team ERA, the Cubs are second only to the Nats in baseball in the category. The Royals have the seventh-best bullpen ERA and everyone knows they can play defense.

All three teams will present challenges and, if you ask some members of the Nats, that could be a good thing.

"This is going to be a test to see -- a barometer to see how good we are right now," Baker said. "We're not full-forces yet, we haven't been and we've done pretty well, because Ben Revere, one of our igniters, is getting ready… but it's going to be exciting."

"You enjoy the challenge," Zimmerman added. "I think you get to see what we’re really made of. Go out and play three really, really good teams and I think the guys in here are excited for it.”

The Nationals are going to learn a lot about themselves over the next 10 days, that's for sure.

Nats not worried after sweep: 'Everybody needs to just calm down'

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Nats not worried after sweep: 'Everybody needs to just calm down'

As the Nationals lick their wounds following their first sweep of the 2016 season, there are a few things that stand out about where they currently sit.

At the moment, they are truly terrible at scoring runs. A full 22 innings have passed since the Nats last crossed home plate and the result has been two consecutive shutout losses to the Phillies.

The Nats' bullpen is also showing cracks for the first time this season. On Tuesday, Oliver Perez let the go-ahead run score in the series opener. And on Thursday, Felipe Rivero and Jonathan Papelbon tag-teamed a disastrous ninth inning in the series finale.

This is all coming just in time for the Nats to embark on their toughest road trip of the season, a 'best teams in baseball' obstacle course through the Midwest featuring the Cardinals, Royals and Cubs. Ryan Zimmerman called it one of the toughest road trips he's ever had.

Yet still, after getting swept by Philadelphia, the Nationals are in first place at 14-7. They've won two-thirds of the games they have played. And even though the road is about to get tougher, the Nats feel good about where they stand, all things considered.

"If somebody told me we'd start off 14-7, I'd be very, very happy," manager Dusty Baker said. "We kind of spoiled everybody by starting the way we did, so we'll get it back together."

"It’s nothing to worry about," Zimmerman said. "It’s not the last time we are going to get swept all year.”

Zimmerman, in fact, got a bit frustrated at the mere suggestion that it was time to worry.

"I think everybody needs to just calm down,” he said. "If every 21 games we went 14 and 7, I think we’d be alright."

A 14-7 record does put the Nationals on a good pace. That's a .667 win percentage, which would equate to a 108-54 record over 162 games. No team has won that many since the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who posted the best record in MLB history at 116-46.

The flip-side of all that is whom the Nationals have done this against. The only team they've faced with a winning record is the Phillies, a team that finished last in the majors in 2015. The Nats have the second-easiest strength of schedule so far with a combined .444 win percentage. 

The Nats are capable of getting back on track, of course. But if that happens soon, it will have to come against some really good teams.

Baker remains confident, even with the difficult road ahead. 

"Everybody knows. These guys are big guys. They're men. They feel the same thing I feel. Guys are hustling, we're trying everything. But you're gonna go through some ups and downs during the season."

Rivero and Papelbon blow it in 9th in Nats loss to Phillies

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Rivero and Papelbon blow it in 9th in Nats loss to Phillies

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 3-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday evening at Nationals Park: 

How it happened: The Nationals can mostly blame their lineup for this one, as their second consecutive shutout loss now puts them at 22 straight scoreless innings on offense. Noting that is important, but the Nats' 3-0 loss to Philadelphia on Thursday will go down highlighted by a ninth inning disaster by Felipe Rivero and Jonathan Papelbon. Rivero began the ninth and loaded the bases before Papelbon allowed three runners to score. Two were on a double by Cameron Rupp and the other came on an infield single by David Lough. Rivero got charged with the runs, but Papelbon couldn't stop the bleeding. The Phillies swept the Nats in Washington for the first time since May of 2009.

What it means: The Nationals suffered their first sweep of the 2016 season and fell to 14-7 overall. Up next is a difficult road set beginning at the St. Louis Cardinals. After that it's three games at the defending-champion Kansas City Royals. They then close their road swing with four games at the Chicago Cubs. Their pitching looks ready for that stretch, but is their offense? And was this a sign of more to come from their bullpen? It should be interesting.

Harper strikes out in big spot: The Nats had the Phillies right where they wanted them in the bottom of the eighth inning with the bases loaded and Bryce Harper at the plate. Phillies reliever Elvis Araujo had just walked Anthony Rendon to load the bases after going up on him 0-2 in the count. Harper could have broken a scoreless tie and potentially done far more damage, but instead he struck out on just three pitches. It was a surprising result, given Harper's ability to come through in big spots this season. It also came one day after he grounded out to end Wednesday night's loss in the bottom of the ninth.

Roark excellent again: Roark is making a more and more convincing case that last season was the fluke, that the guy we saw in 2013 and 2014 was his true form as a pitcher. He didn't post double-digit strikeouts on Thursday, but Roark was once again brilliant coming off his 15-K performance last weekend. The right-hander didn't allow a hit until there were two outs in the fourth inning and ended up going seven scoreless frames. He walked two batters and struck out six, lowering his season ERA to 2.03 along the way. Roark has tossed 15 consecutive shutout frames. He has a 1.85 ERA in his last seven starts (43.2 IP) dating back to last season.

Zimmerman struggles again: Ryan Zimmerman had another game to forget, this time going 1-for-4 with a strikeout. He is 3-for-19 in his last four games and is 10-for-52 (.192) in his last 13. And like the the night before, Zimmerman came up short with Harper on base. He grounded out with Harper on second to end the first. It was one of the few good scoring chances the Nats gave themselves in this one.

Offense still scuffling: The Nats suffered their first shutout loss on Wednesday and weren't any better a day later. Young right-hander Aaron Nola gave them trouble with seven shutout frames and seven strikeouts. Danny Espinosa went 0-for-3 on the day with a strikeout. Stephen Drew went 0-for-3 with a strikeout in the place of Rendon. Even Daniel Murphy went hitless for just the third time this season. The Nats' bats cooled down just like the weather this week.

Up next: The Nationals move on to St. Louis to begin a 10-game road trip. They start at the Cardinals with a 8:15 p.m. first pitch. Stephen Strasburg (3-0, 2.17) and right-hander Mike Leake (0-2, 5.64) are your starters.