Talking about Tuesday's Nats win

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Talking about Tuesday's Nats win

Remember how daunting this 33-game stretch against only NL East and AL East teams was supposed to be for the Nationals? Well, with Tuesday night's 4-2 victory in Toronto, they're now two-thirds of the way through this gantlet and they've gone 14-8.

Not bad. Not bad at all. But wait, there's more...

With this latest win, the Nationals are now 37-23, 14 games over .500. That puts them on pace for 100 wins by season's end.

And thanks to the Braves' loss to the Yankees, the Nationals now hold a 4-game lead in the NL East. The last time they held a lead that large? July 6, 2005.

And thanks to the Phillies' loss to the Twins, the Nationals now hold a 9 12-game lead over the five-time division champs. Yes, 9 12 games.

Wednesday afternoon, they'll have a chance to complete a sweep of the Blue Jays, this coming on the heels of a sweep of the Red Sox. In their 7-plus year history, the Nationals have never gone 6-0 on a road trip. Not once. They'll look to pull that off at Rogers Centre, with none other than Stephen Strasburg on the mound.

Some other thoughts from Tuesday night's game...

-- Bryce Harper is starting to heat up at the plate. Wait, you're saying he hasn't been hot this whole time? Actually, no, he wasn't. Through his first 20 big-league games, Harper hit .230 with two homers, five RBI, a .318 on-base percentage and a .737 OPS. He's now played 20 more big-league games, during which time he's hit .361 with five homers, 13 RBI, a .439 on-base percentage and a 1.147 OPS.

-- Chien-Ming Wang really had to battle to complete five innings, preserve his team's lead and earn his first win in three starts. The way the fifth inning was unfolding -- especially after Jose Bautista tattooed a high sinker for a two-run homer -- it seemed obvious Wang had nothing left in the tank. It was telling that Davey Johnson let his starter stay in the game to try to complete the inning and qualify for the victory, but you have to wonder how many more opportunities the manager will give Wang. Yes, it's only three starts. But right now, Wang clearly is the weak link in an otherwise fabulous rotation. And Ross Detwiler, though he struggled in his final starts before getting bumped to the bullpen, appears to give the Nationals a better chance to win right now. Wang's turn next comes up Tuesday against the Rays. Stay tuned.

-- For a guy known more for his defensive abilities than his offensive skills, Jhonatan Solano sure seems to have some pop in his bat. Solano crushed a hanging slider from Henderson Alvarez in the top of the seventh for his first career home run. That blast (along with a fifth-inning single) makes Solano 4-for-10 as a big-league hitter. Can that last? Probably not. But it's got to at least be comforting to Johnson to know his rookie backup catcher can hold his own at the plate, perhaps earning a chance to start behind the plate more than once every five days.

-- With an 0-for-4, two-strikeout night, Ryan Zimmerman is now hitting .239 for the season. Even more alarming, his 6-4-3 groundout in the fifth was his ninth double play this season. The only NL players who have grounded into more double plays: Alfonso Soriano and Hanley Ramirez, who each have 10 but also have each played in more games than Zimmerman (who spent two weeks on the DL).

Ross strong in return as Nats roll past Cardinals in St. Louis

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Ross strong in return as Nats roll past Cardinals in St. Louis

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 6-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday afternoon at Busch Stadium: 

How it happened: Sometimes baseball can be so unpredictable that it almost doesn't even make sense. Trends can reverse in an instant and make all those who cast predictions look like fools. Baseball laughs at your 'educated' guess.

Take this weekend and the Nationals for instance. Somehow, after getting swept at home by the worst team in baseball in 2015, they now find themselves one game away from sweeping a team that led the majors with 100 wins a year ago. The Nats looked like no match for the Phillies in D.C., but now they're dominating the juggernaut Cardinals in St. Louis. Okay, sure. That makes sense.

Amazingly, that's where the Nats find themselves after Saturday's 6-1 win. Joe Ross closed his excellent April with six strong innings, Jayson Werth smacked a three-run homer in the top of the first and the Nats rolled past the Cardinals in St. Louis for the second straight day. They have won their first series at Busch Stadium since 2007. 

What it means: The Nats are off to a terrific start on their toughest road trip of the season. With two wins against the Cardinals, they have a chance to sweep before heading to Kansas City to face the defending champion Royals. These have been two very impressive wins and the Nats are proving well so far that their hot start against bad teams this season was not a mirage.

Ross strong in return: Ross returned from an injury - albeit a minor one - and it was not an easy situation for the right-hander to transition back, on the road at the Cardinals who boast one of baseball's best lineups. The right-hander, though, showed no rust at all from skipping his last start. Ross threw six innings of one-run ball on six hits and two walks. The one run - on a sac fly in the fifth - was the first charged to Ross since the first inning of his season debut. He had a 20 1/3 scoreless innings streak snapped, which is the second-longest in the NL so far this season only to Jake Arrieta's 23-inning streak. Ross now has a 0.79 ERA through four outings.

Werth comes through again: Werth added two hits (and 4 RBI) on Saturday including his big swing in the first inning to give the Nats a nice early lead. His three-run homer was his fourth of the season through 21 games. That's a 31-homer pace over a full 162. Power numbers were a concern for Werth after his shoulder surgery last offseason, but he now has 13 homers in his last 55 games dating back to last August. That's a 38-homer pace over a full season. He needs to get on base more, but lately he's been a significant home run threat.

Harper in a mini-slump: It's not often you see Bryce Harper struggle for several games in a row, but that has been the case over his last four outings. Harper had one walk and a run, but went hitless again on Saturday. He is now 0-for his last 11 at-bats and has one hit in his last four games. Harper's batting average dipped to .289 after Saturday's game, but he still holds a 1.128 OPS, which shows how good he has been overall this season.

Murphy keeps hitting: Daniel Murphy added two singles for his MLB-best 11th multi-hit game in 22 outings this season. His first single drove in the Nats' first run of the afternoon ahead of Werth's homer. Murphy is now batting .370 with a 1.013 OPS.

Up next: The Nationals have a chance to sweep the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon with another 2:15 p.m. first pitch. Max Scherzer (2-1, 4.35) will try to rebound after an uneven start to the season, while 24-year-old budding star Carlos Martinez (4-0, 1.93) will pitch for St. Louis.

Can the Marlins compete in the NL East without Dee Gordon?

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Can the Marlins compete in the NL East without Dee Gordon?

Through the first month of the 2016 season, the NL East looks like it could be deeper than it was a year ago. That is, of course, excluding the Atlanta Braves, who are currently MLB's worst team with a .217 win percentage after 23 games.

The Nationals and Mets look very good. The Phillies are 13-10 and winners of three straight. Whether they can keep that up, though, is doubtful.

On paper, the Marlins have the third-best roster in the division and in terms of starpower can measure up to just about any team in baseball. With Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez, in particular, they have two superstars in their prime.

Depth was the biggest concern for Miami heading into this season and now it's about to be seriously tested. All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon, who won the NL batting title in 2015, has been suspended for 80 games for performance enhancing drugs. His loss is a big one.

The Marlins' lineup is impressive, but it looks a lot better with Gordon at the top setting the table for Stanton, Christian Yelich and Justin Bour. Few players in baseball can provide the threat Gordon can not only as a leadoff hitter, but as a baserunner as well. Gordon led the league each of the last two years in steals, with 58 last year and 64 the season before that.

It's only logical to think Gordon's loss will have a profound effect on the Marlins, that his absence alone could pave the way for the Phillies to be the third-best team in the NL East. But, interestingly enough, the Marlins are red-hot right now. They've won six straight and just swept the Dodgers in L.A. The Dodgers had one of baseball's best records prior to the series and won the NL West last year.

Miami may appear okay right now, but they will have to stay afloat for three full months without Gordon. He can't return until late July and by then it could be too late. 

At 11-11, the Marlins have an average record and rank as a pedestrian team in many categories. They aren't scoring a ton of runs and no part of their pitching staff has stood out as above average. Their starting rotation, in particular, does not appear to be a strength, especially if Fernandez pitches the way he has to begin this season. Wei-Yin Chen hasn't been very good, either.

If the Marlins have been a middle of the road team overall with Gordon, it's hard to see them proving to be anything more than that without him. Miami had the best chance of making the NL East a three-team race this season and Gordon's suspension may have sealed their fate. Now the division now looks even more like a direct battle between the Nationals and Mets, unless the Phillies have something to say about it.

Ross returns to mound as Nats continue series at Cardinals

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Ross returns to mound as Nats continue series at Cardinals

Nats (15-7) vs. Cardinals (12-11) at Busch Stadium

Joe Ross returns to the mound for the Nationals today after leaving his last start and getting his turn in the rotation skipped due to a blister on his right hand. The Nats and Ross called the move precautionary, but it will still be interesting to see how he returns to action.

Ross will be facing a Cardinals lineup that looks much different today. He won't see Jedd Gyorko, Randall Grichuk or Stephen Piscotty, who all played on Friday night. The Nationals have their expected lineup set to play with Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia on the mound.

First pitch: 2:15 p.m.
TV: MASN
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Joe Ross vs. Cardinals - Jamie Garcia

NATS

CF Michael Taylor
3B Anthony Rendon
RF Bryce Harper
1B Ryan Zimmerman
2B Daniel Murphy
LF Jayson Werth
SS Danny Espinosa
C Jose Lobaton
RHP Joe Ross

CARDINALS

CF Jeremy Hazelbaker
3B Matt Carpenter
LF Matt Holliday
1B Matt Adams
C Yadier Molina
RF Brandon Moss
SS Ruben Tejada
2B Kolten Wong
LHP Jaime Garcia

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