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Uncomfortable Nats upended by Bucs

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Uncomfortable Nats upended by Bucs

Something about the Nationals Thursday night looked, well, uncomfortable.

Whether it was Jordan Zimmermann struggling to establish a rhythm on the mound or locate his fastball, or whether it was a lineup full of hitters who were hogtied by right-hander James McDonald, there was something of an uneasy feeling to this 5-3 loss to the Pirates.

"Well," manager Davey Johnson said as he sat down for his postgame news conference, "that was a tough one."

Tough, because for more than five innings the Nationals had no business sharing this field with their opponents, then nearly stormed all the way back before faltering late when presented a chance to complete the comeback.

Tough, because Zimmermann slogged his way through his roughest outing of the season, his first non-quality start in eight tries. The right-hander's mistakes were obvious: He served up three home runs in six innings, one to light-hitting catcher Rod Barajas, two to uber-talented center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

"I didn't feel very good at all," Zimmermann said. "I was flying open, and I wasn't able to locate my fastball at all. The breaking stuff was good, but when you can't locate your fastball, you're going to be in trouble and it's going to be a long game."

The first two homers -- McCutchen's solo shot in the first, Barajas' two-run blast in the fourth -- came on poorly located fastballs. The third, though, came on a first-pitch slider to McCutchen ... who still sent it flying over the left-field fence for his 10th home run in 23 career games against the Nationals.

"I'm hoping he was sitting first-pitch slider," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "Because if he's not sitting one, it seemed even more impressive. He's one of those special players that can do everything. He's fun to watch. I just wish we didn't have to watch him so much when we play him."

The Nationals can thank Major League Baseball's schedulers for limiting this series to only two games, because there's no telling how much more damage McCutchen would have inflicted if given the opportunity to face the Nationals pitching staff again. In five games over the last 10 days against them, the All-Star center fielder went 10-for-17 with four homers, six RBI and three walks. Oh, he also robbed Adam LaRoche of extra bases Thursday night with a fifth-inning, highlight-reel catch against the fence.

"I mean, we certainly haven't figured out how to pitch him," said manager Davey Johnson, who admitted he contemplated intentionally walking McCutchen. "He's got to be hitting about five or six hundred off us. He looks awful comfortable in there."

Zimmermann had to battle throughout his six innings of work, needing a season-high 107 pitches just to reach that point.

"He was rushing. He was falling," Johnson said. "That's the worst I've seen him with his command early in a ballgame."

Not that it would have mattered much had Zimmermann been lights-out early on, because the Nationals weren't going to touch McDonald no matter what. The unheralded right-hander broke out a devastating curveball and baffled Johnson's lineup, striking out eight of the first nine batters he faced.

By the time Bryce Harper stepped to the plate with one out of the fifth, McDonald had yet to put a man on base. That run at perfection ended when the 19-year-old drew a walk, but it wasn't until Jesus Flores led off the sixth with a double that McDonald's no-hit bid was finally quashed.

"You know, that curveball, we just weren't getting on it for whatever reason," LaRoche said. "Couldn't figure it out until late. And by the time we did there in that one inning, he was out of the game. Too little, too late."

That one inning was the bottom of the sixth, during which Zimmerman laced a two-out, two-run single and LaRoche recorded only the 10th triple of his career. All of this brought the Nationals to within a run, but they couldn't push across one more despite several late opportunities.

With runners on second and third and one out in the seventh, rookie Steve Lombardozzi tapped a comebacker to the mound and Desmond struck out swinging at a 3-2 slider from reliever Juan Cruz.

Two innings later, Desmond again had an opportunity to drive in the tying run when he dug in against Pittsburgh closer Joel Hanrahan with two on and two out. Again, Desmond struck out, his fourth K of the game.

"I was looking heater all the way and I just missed 'em," Desmond said. "I missed a lot of balls tonight, fouled them off. I don't remember a time in my life I've ever fouled off 20 pitches in a game. But just wasn't getting the barrel there."

A fitting analysis of a frustrating ballgame for the Nationals.

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Wilson Ramos knows his knee injury could mean the end of Nationals' tenure

Wilson Ramos knows his knee injury could mean the end of Nationals' tenure

Wilson Ramos won't be on the field for the Washington Nationals when the team takes on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the N.L. Divisional Series next week.

The 2016 N.L. All-Star catcher will undergo surgery to repair the ACL he tore in his right knee on Monday night against the Diamondbacks

Ramos has been arguably the Nationals' most constant offensive threat this season, and had positioned himself as the team's backstop for the foreseeable future.

But the injury changed everything.

Not just because the surgery and rehab will stretch well into Spring Training, but because the 29-year-old Ramos will become a free agent at the end of the season. On top of that, a second ACL injury (He tore it in 2012 as well) means that taking the field everyday as a catcher may not be a viable option for him much longer.

"Unfortunately, this injury happened so close to the end and it may affect whether I’m able to stay with a National League team or not," Ramos told reporters prior to the Nationals' 5-3 win over the Diamondbacks on Thursday afternoon.

"But if it’s up to me, I definitely would like to keep playing for the Nationals and play as long as I can."

Ramos is a solid defensive catcher, but his biggest strength is at the plate. Being able to be a part of a lineup everyday is where he is most valuable, and that may mean playing in the American League, where he can serve as the designated hitter and fill in as catcher.

But this doesn't mean Ramos is done as a member of the Nationals, just that he's aware his time could be coming to an end. 

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Joe Ross takes step forward in Nats' win over Diamondbacks

Joe Ross takes step forward in Nats' win over Diamondbacks

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 5-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Thursday afternoon at Nationals Park.

How it happened: The Nationals beat the Diamondbacks on Thursday and in doing so took another important step towards locking up home field advantage in the NL Division Series against the L.A. Dodgers. But just as pertinent, if not more, were the little things the Nats accomplished in the victory, minor developments that bode well for October.

In Thursday's win, they checked off two important boxes - if you will - that would count as positive signs no matter the final result of the game. One was the leap forward starter Joe Ross took in building his workload. The other was an impressive offensive outing by catcher Pedro Severino, who will now be on the playoff roster as Jose Lobaton's backup with Wilson Ramos done for the season.

Ross stretched out to 90 pitches, the most he's thrown since injuring his right shoulder in a July 2 start against the Reds. He only made it four innings, but making sure he can handle a full start come playoff time is highly important for a team already missing Stephen Strasburg, and with concerns about Gio Gonzalez' ability to go deep in his own start.

Ross may have even showed enough to take Gonzalez' spot in Game 3, depending on what the Nats are looking for in these final games. With one run allowed, he was better than Gonzalez was on Wednesday, and that's despite beginning his day with 32 pitches in the first inning alone. Through three outings since returning from the DL, Ross has allowed three runs with 14 strikeouts and three walks in 9 2/3 innings.

Severino's highlight was a solo home run to left field in the third inning, a game-tying bomb off Arizona starter Robbie Ray. That got the Nats started in what turned into an all-around offensive effort. Fellow rookie Wilmer Difo also homered, the first of his career. Michael Taylor had three hits, one to drive in two runs.

Anthony Rendon remained hot with a single, a walk and a run. Ryan Zimmerman did the same. Jayson Werth walked and scored. 

Lefty Sean Burnett took over for Ross and got two quick outs, one on a strikeout. He has a 1.80 ERA through nine appearances. Reynaldo Lopez took over for him and was strong through most of his outing, until he gave up a two-run homer to Socrates Brito with one out in the ninth. Lopez finished with two runs allowed in 3 2/3 innings.

The Diamondbacks got their lone run off Ross in the third inning. That was on a single by Jake Lamb, one of three Ross allowed in the frame.

The Nationals got back in the win column and earned a series split against the Diamondbacks.

What it means: The Nationals moved to 93-66 on the season and dropped their magic number to secure home field against the Dodgers to just two games. 

Severino hits No. 2: Severino has only played in 14 games this season, but his impact on offense has been hard to ignore. He's now 8-for-24 (.333) with two homers, four RBI, five walks and five runs. He has a 1.092 OPS. Again, it's a very small sample size, but the Nationals don't need him to produce for months at a time. They just need him to keep swinging it well for a few more weeks. That would go a long way to offset the loss of Ramos.

[RELATED: Wilson Ramos hopes to be back with Nationals]

Difo's first homer: For Difo to make the playoff roster, it would likely require an injury like the one that paved the way for Severino. But the rookie should feel good about the way he's played this season in the opportunities he's been given. Through 28 games this year, Difo is batting .288/.362/.404 with 11 runs, six RBI and six walks. He also made a brilliant diving grab to end the top of the sixth and save a run with Lopez on the mound.

Turner cooling down: With his 0-for-4 effort against Arizona, Trea Turner is now hitting just .214 (9-for-42) in his last 10 games with 10 strikeouts during that stretch. He entered Thursday with a seven-game hitting streak, but because he doesn't draw walks often, his on-base percentage is just .227 in those 10 games. The Nats need him to get back on track before the playoffs, especially given they will be facing tough lefties like Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill without Ramos, who is arguably their best right-handed bat.

Up next: The Nats move on their final series of the regular season, a three-game set with the Miami Marlins in town. Rookie A.J. Cole (1-2, 5.09) will start that one, unless he drops his suspension appeal. And for the Marlins, it will be right-hander Andrew Cashner (5-11, 5.13).

[RELATED: Matt Belisle sounds like safe bet for Nats playoff roster]

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