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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.

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Nats call up catcher Spencer Kieboom after Wilson Ramos' injury

Nats call up catcher Spencer Kieboom after Wilson Ramos' injury

The day after Wilson Ramos suffered a right knee injury in their 14-4 loss to the Diamondbacks on Monday night, the Nationals called up catcher Spencer Kieboom from the Double-A Harrisburg Senators.

Ramos, 29, was scheduled for an MRI on Tuesday morning.

This would certainly point towards the All-Star backstop at least missing some time.

The Nationals now have four catchers on their roster with Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino also in store.

Ramos hurt himself landing on his right leg after jumping for a ball thrown home in the top of the sixth inning. Ramos previously tore his ACL and MCL in the same knee back in 2012.

Kieboom, 25, was a fifth-round pick out of Clemson in 2012.

He holds a .264 average in 297 career minor league games. He hit .230 through 94 games at Harrisburg this season.

RELATED: NATS DESPERATE TO STAY HEALTHY AS PLAYOFFS APPROACH

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State of the Nats: Delicate balance to stay healthy in final week

State of the Nats: Delicate balance to stay healthy in final week

Team Record: 91-65

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The final week - Manager Dusty Baker and his Nationals have a delicate balance to maintain over the next week-plus as they get set to play the Dodgers in the NL Division Series on Oct. 7. They need to remain sharp while still giving some of their regulars rest before the grind that is October. It sounds simple, but it has been proven over and over to be much more complex than it sounds.

The most important objective through all of it, of course, is avoiding injuries and both Sunday and Monday's games illustrated how difficult that can be. Any time players are on the field, they are at risk of hurting themselves. On Sunday in Pittsburgh, Bryce Harper jammed his thumb sliding into third base on a triple against the Pirates. X-rays were negative, but it could have easily been serious. The Nats dodged a bullet.

One night later, catcher Wilson Ramos hurt his knee on a throw home. Ryan Zimmerman threw high over Ramos' head, requiring him to jump and catch it. He landed on his right leg and his knee buckled slightly. It wasn't even a contact play, yet now the catcher's immediate future hangs in the balance.

Both of these injuries come on the heels of Daniel Murphy injuring his left buttock and Stephen Strasburg suffering a strained right flexor mass. That's four of their five 2016 All-Stars, all injured to different degrees in a span of just three weeks.

No one wants to put their players in harm's way unnecessarily, but the alternative can also be bleak. It's an inexact science trying to keep players sharp down the stretch of the regular season ahead of the playoffs, especially with a four-day layoff awaiting them while the MLB wild card games are decided. That's basically an All-Star break, an unusually long respite right before the intensity of games goes up several notches.

The Nationals know this all too well, as in 2014 they had the four-day layoff and came out of it flat on offense. They won 17 of 22 down the stretch of the regular season, but then had four days off. They did their best with a simulated game at Nationals Park. Aaron Barrett famously sang the national anthem. It sounded like a fun time, but it couldn't prevent the Nats from hitting just .164 in their series against the Giants. Their bullpen stood out in that series loss, and so did some managerial decisions, but bottom line is that they scored nine runs in four games.

Their pitching was mostly good. They also held the Giants to just nine runs in the series. The Nats just couldn't score when they needed to.

Baker has plenty of experience heading into the playoffs both as a player and as a manager. He told a story on Monday about the 1977 season when he was an outfielder for the Dodgers that has stuck with him ever since:

"I know that when I was a player back in ’77 Steve Garvey and I were the only ones that played all the way to the end because I was trying to hit 30 home runs and he was trying to get 200 hits. Consequently, Reggie Smith and Ron Seay when we started the playoffs they weren’t sharp because they took three or four days off because they already had their 30 home runs. So Garv and I were the only two that were really hot and we got to the World Series and we weren’t that hot but the other guys that had gotten the rest were hot. It’s a thin line between playing a whole bunch and not playing enough."

It may not affect how they play in the postseason whatsoever, but it would be a good idea for the Nats to hold an open workout this time. In 2014, they closed their workout to both fans and the media. They basically remained silent for four days heading into the postseason.

The Kansas City Royals, conversely, held a workout open to fans in October of 2014. They called it a playoff rally and around five thousand people showed up to Kauffman Stadium.

Now, that's just an idea that could bring some fun to the whole experience. It offers no solution to the conundrum of keeping players rested, yet sharp for the playoffs. Though, the Royals reaching the World Series that year at least proves it can't hurt.

Truthfully, there is probably no right answer in how to handle the Nationals over the next 10 days. Would you rather run the risk of injury, or risk losing rhythm and momentum entering the playoffs? It's not an easy call to make.

NL East Standings

Offensive game of the week: Ryan Zimmerman 9/23 vs. Pirates - 2-for-5, 2 2B, 2 R, RBI

Pitching line of the week: Reynaldo Lopez 9/24 vs. Pirates - 5.1 IP, 0 R, 3 H, 6 SO, 2 BB, 85 pitches (57 strikes)

Quote of the Week 

"That's what I came here for. I'm telling you -- let these young men have a great time tonight, back to work tomorrow. First step in a four-step process. This step is the hardest to get. I'm just so happy for these guys. I love them. I love this team."

- Dusty Baker on the Nats clinching the 2016 NL East

Tweet (or Instagram) of the Week

Road Ahead

Mon. - 14-4 loss to Arizona
Tue. - 7:05 p.m. vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (Scherzer vs. Godley)
Wed. - 7:05 p.m. vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (Gonzalez vs. Miller)
Thu. - 1:05 p.m. vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (Ross vs. Ray)
Fri. - 7:05 p.m. vs. Miami Marlins (Cole vs. Chen)
Sat. - 4:05 p.m. vs. Miami Marlins (Roark vs. Phelps)
Sun. - 3:05 p.m. vs. Miami Marlins (Scherzer vs. Urena)

[RELATED: Ramos set for MRI as Nats hope injury isn't serious]

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