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 credit adjustments made by Mets for Gio's rough outing

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Nats credit adjustments made by Mets for Gio's rough outing

Having seen Gio Gonzalez just five days before, the New York Mets came to Washington on Monday with an adjustment to their approach. Now knowing what to expect from the Nats' lefty and having their previous meeting fresh in their mind, the Mets were aggressive early in counts and used that method to hand Gonzalez his worst start not only of this season, but in years.

Gonzalez was fine until the third inning when all hell broke loose. He hit Curtis Granderson on the elbow with one out, then saw Juan Lagares single on the first pitch of his at-bat and David Wright homer in the first pitch of his. Wright's victim was an 82 mile per hour changeup and he got every piece he needed of it.

"This game is a game of adjustments, and they adjusted quite well to Gio today," manager Dusty Baker said.

Wright's homer was one of three Gonzalez allowed in Monday's 7-1 Nats loss, a setback that tied the season series at 2-2. Yoenis Cespedes and Neil Walker also launched back-to-back bombs in the fifth inning.

It was the first time since July of 2009 that Gonzalez allowed at least seven earned runs and three homers in a single game. He hadn't allowed three homers since July of 2011 and had surrendered just three total in his previous eight starts of 2016.

"I just left pitches up. That was it. Just one of those nights," the lefty said. "They saw a pitch up and they were making contact… they were hitters being aggressive first pitch, got hits, and then they started being patient."

Baker went back to the changes the Mets made from game to game in their second look at Gio and within Monday's loss itself.

"They smell blood in the water," he said. "The adjustments, they happen so fast, in baseball like, you go to the bathroom and come back and they got five runs. It turns into a feeding frenzy."

Much will be made about Gonzalez working with catcher Wilson Ramos for the first time this season. Though the difference in his career numbers with Ramos as opposed to Jose Lobaton are negligible, it was still the first time Gonzalez and Ramos have formed a battery this year. The Mets, some may argue, aren't an easy team to get experimental against.

"It was the first time. I’m not going to judge him off one game. He’s a great catcher. Like I said, it was just unfortunate," Gonzalez said.

Gio, who saw his season ERA go from 1.86 to 2.87 all in a five inning span on Monday, instead turned the blame towards himself.

"I was flat today. It was just one of those games. I take this one on me. He did everything right as part of calling the game. If I executed pitches I wanted and bring it down with more movement, different game," he said.

Gio Gonzalez shelled as Mets blow out Nats in series opener

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Gio Gonzalez shelled as Mets blow out Nats in series opener

Postgame analysis of the Nationals' 7-1 loss to the New York Mets on Monday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: Last week the Nationals earned two blowout wins on the road against their division rival New York Mets. On Monday, it was the Mets' turn.

In a rematch between Gio Gonzalez and Bartolo Colon, this time it was Gonzalez who put in his shakiest outing of the season, a seven-run drubbing that saw his season ERA jump a full run. Gio got through the first two innings unscathed before getting clobbered for five runs in the third. Three of those came on a David Wright homer to left field, and Gio served up two more home runs in the fifth to Yoenis Cespedes and Neil Walker. All in all it was a trainwreck of an outing for Gonzalez, who was working with catcher Wilson Ramos for the first time this season.

What it means: The Mets have tied the season series at 2-2 with their fourth straight win overall coming off a sweep of the Brewers. The Nats now cling to a half-game lead in the NL East over New York, who have managed to hang around despite inconsistency in their pitching staff and a serious injury to Lucas Duda, one of their best hitters.

Gio gets destroyed: Before Monday night, Gonzalez sported a 2.59 ERA in 18 career starts against the Mets. In the past two seasons, Gio's ERA against New York was a microscopic 1.20 across 30 innings. And it was only one start ago that he held the Mets to one run across 6 1/3 frames. On Monday, though, Gonzalez was not as fortunate in what amounted to his worst outing in years. Gio gave up seven earned runs for the first time since May 11, 2014. He began the game with a 1.86 ERA on the season and left at 2.87. The lefty gave up 10 hits and hit a batter on Monday, but what really hurt Gio was the three homers he allowed. They were as many as he'd given up in his other eight starts this season combined and the most he's surrendered since July 8, 2011. It was the first time he's given up three homers and seven earned runs in a start since July 20, 2009.

Ramos catches Gio: Many will point to the fact Ramos was catching Gonzalez for the first time this season. But entering Monday, Gio's ERA with Ramos was 3.42 (44 GS), which is not far off from his 3.16 career mark with Jose Lobaton, his primary partner. This one can't be put on Ramos, it was just not Gonzalez' night.

Another multi-hit game for Murphy: One of the few bright spots for the Nats in the blowout loss was another multi-hit game for Daniel Murphy. The second baseman landed a single in the first inning and then another in the fourth inning. It was Murphy's 22nd multi-hit outing in 44 total games this season. Murphy now has 35 hits in May, which has him close to the Nats' team record for one month. Denard Span holds the record with 40 hits in August of 2014.

Up next: The Nats continue their series against the Mets hoping to rebound from a tough loss in the opener. Stephen Strasburg (7-0, 2.80) and Matt Harvey (3-6, 5.77) will square off again in a rematch of last Thursday's Nationals blowout win.

Contract year, family death have not affected Ramos' focus for Nats

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Contract year, family death have not affected Ramos' focus for Nats

Throughout Wilson Ramos' seven-year career with the Nationals, he's always flashed potential with the ability to hit for both average and power, an increasingly rare combination at his position. In 2015, he finally stayed healthy, but the offensive numbers didn't follow like many expected they would.

But in the first month of this season, Ramos caught fire. He hit .316 in April and got off to the best start of his career. He had laser eye correction surgery during spring training and his improved vision was paying off.

And then in May, Ramos raised his game to an even higher level. Through 18 games he's batting .377 this month with a .999 OPS. This has all come both in a contract year and following the death of his grandfather in late April.

Ramos is putting up the best numbers of his career all the while compartmentalizing two off-the-field concerns that would weigh on most players.

"It was a tough situation that I had to deal with. What's helped me out a lot after the passing of my grandfather is talking to my grandma," Ramos said through an interpreter. 

"She told me and reiterated the fact that she wanted me to stay focused, that he was proud of me as well as her. And that the best way to please him is to keep working hard and maintain the level of play that has gotten [me] here. She's actually helped me get through this. My mental state of mind and staying focused here is thinking of her and thinking of my grandpa. Making them proud and just staying with my work ethic."

Manager Dusty Baker knows how tragic the loss was for Ramos. He spoke with Ramos before he went on the bereavement list and could tell what his grandfather meant to him. 

Now seeing how he's responded, Baker is thoroughly impressed with his catcher's strength as a person.

"His level of concentration is big. I'm really surprised how he's been better, because I know he's hurting after the death of his grandfather," Baker said. "And usually that kind of -- unless you're a very strong-minded person or you're playing for that person, you usually have periods of concentration lapses and sometimes you're not there, you know what I mean?"

"So I really admire him -- I remember Pete Rose one time I asked him how he was concentrating during his 44-game hitting streak cause I think he had gotten separated from his wife, his dad had died in the middle of it, and he had a couple other things happen and he told me that you have to use -- which I told Ramos -- you've got to use your job or the game as a sanctuary away from your problems because when you get home the same problems are there that you left, which is difficult to do sometimes, but in reality, whatever problems you leave when you leave home are there when you get home. And I really admired Pete for that and I've taken that to heart when I had problems."

Ramos currently leads all major league catchers with at least 100 at-bats with a .347 average and .914 OPS. He has four homers and 20 RBI in 33 games with just 16 strikeouts. 

Not only is he thriving amid the pressure of a contract year, but he's probably making himself a lot of money down the road, whether that be in Washington or elsewhere.

"In terms of it being a contract year, that's something that I don't control. I don't focus on that," Ramos explained. "I've told myself and I've gotten some good advice about just dealing with the day-to-day activities. Just worry about today. That's what I've done. Just keep working to have a good day today and not worry about anything else that I can't control. So far it's been working for me. That's what I intend to do is just keep working and let everything take care of itself."