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Washington becomes a baseball town

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Washington becomes a baseball town

How does a town respond to something that hasn't happened in 79 years? How does a city that hasn't hosted a postseason ballgame since Franklin Roosevelt's first term in the White House catch pennant fever? And how does a region known mostly for dividing itself down the middle along political party lines come together in support of one common goal: Winning a World Series?

Washington is about to answer all of those questions, and the rest of the country is about to find out what those who live here have known for decades: D.C. is a big event town.

And for the next week (and perhaps the entire month) there's going to be no bigger event in town than Nationals playoff games.

From the moment the Nationals clinched their city's first postseason berth since 1933, there's been a baseball buzz around the District and surrounding suburbs not experienced in generations, if ever. The local papers are filled with more baseball coverage than many have time to read. Local TV news has hopped on board the bandwagon. Radio stations are announcing plans for Super Bowl-like pregame and postgame coverage of first-round playoff games.

Politicians and network news anchors have been showing up at Nationals Park, some of them mysteriously becoming part of the clubhouse champagne celebration. The President of the United States has expressed his support of the Nationals (as well as his hometown White Sox, who have since been eliminated from contention).

And, in perhaps the craziest example of Nationals buzz overtaking the city, the long-awaited triumph of Teddy in the Presidents Race on Wednesday instantly became one of the biggest (non-) news stories in the country. Moments after he crossed the finish line ahead of nemeses George, Tom and Abe, Teddy became a trending topic on Twitter, with a replay of the race becoming the No. 1 "highlight" on ESPN's SportsCenter (ahead of Miguel Cabrera securing MLB's first Triple Crown in 45 years).

For those who have followed the Nationals since the franchise arrived from Montreal following the 2004 season, there's a surreal nature to all this attention. Sure, there was hype and buzz surrounding the Nats during their inaugural 2005 campaign, especially when they took over first place in the NL East for a stretch in early summer.

But few outside of the die-hards cared much about what was going on during the dark days from 2006-09, when a 73-89 record was considered a significant achievement. Around the country, just about the only time the Nationals were mentioned beyond a passing breath was when they were being mocked, whether for misspelling their name on a couple of jerseys, producing the worst TV ratings in the majors, getting booed in their own park on Opening Day by Phillies fans or losing games at an astonishing rate.

Then, at long last, came a glimpse of what could be: June 8, 2010, the night Stephen Strasburg made his major-league debut. Considering all the hype surrounding the rookie right-hander from the day he was drafted No. 1 in the country by the Nationals, his first career start turned into a major baseball event in D.C.

And when Strasburg surpassed everyone's expectations by striking out 14 Pirates over seven innings, an overflow crowd at Nationals Park rejoiced in a manner that suggested this could indeed become a baseball town ... if the team ever started winning.

There were glimpses of it late in 2011, with manager Davey Johnson guiding the team he took over in midseason through a strong September and coming within two games of producing the club's first-ever winning record.

But it wasn't until the Nationals burst out of the gates in 2012, opening the season 14-4 and taking over first place in the division, that the skeptics began to believe. And over the course of the summer, fans began turning out in bigger numbers and more and more people around town became engaged with what turned into the best team in baseball.

Now, you can't walk more than a few blocks without spotting someone wearing a curly W cap or a Bryce Harper jersey. Now, it's perfectly acceptable to begin a conversation about local sports not with an analysis of the Redskins' next game but with a debate over which potential postseason opponent the Nationals would be most likely to beat.

The toughest ticket in town right now isn't to see RG3 and the Skins face the Falcons on Sunday. It's to see Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth host either the Cardinals or Braves in Game 3 of the NLDS on Wednesday. Starting times haven't been announced yet, but when they are, thousands of federal government employees and regular working Joes in Maryland and Virginia are going to be putting in requests to leave early to catch the first postseason ballgame here in three generations.

It's uncharted territory for just about everyone involved. But it's left everyone in a state of euphoria for now, then ultimately high tension as this city gets to experience the meat grinder of emotions that comes with postseason baseball.

Fans in New York, Boston and Philadelphia -- regular participants in this exercise -- may scoff and ask why this is a big deal.

Washington sports fans need not respond. They've spent the last six months falling in love with the National Pastime, and they're about to be rewarded with a honeymoon that could last anywhere from four days to four weeks and could bring this town together like few past events have.

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Nationals acquire LHP from Oakland

Nationals acquire LHP from Oakland

The Washington Nationals acquired left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski and cash considerations from the Oakland Athletics on Thursday in exchange for Single-A infielder Max Schrock. The move is a boost to the bullpen for the Nationals who were in need of a left-hander.

More on this story to come.

RELATED: WHAT CAN'T TREA TURNER DO?

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Turner's eight consecutive hits adds another feat to impressive rookie season

Turner's eight consecutive hits adds another feat to impressive rookie season

Trea Turner has known he’s been white-hot at the plate the in recent days. Notching eight straight hits will do that.

“I mean, if you don't, you're lying,” Turner said. “Everyone thinks about it.”

But the 23-year-old speedster didn’t realize he was franchise-record hot until it was too late in Wednesday's 10-8 loss to the Baltimore Orioles.

After tying Dmitri Young and Andre Dawson’s Nationals/Expos mark with eight hits in consecutive plate appearances earlier in the night, Turner struck out in the ninth inning to end his shot at history. It was only then, upon seeing his whiff on a computer replay, that he saw a note on the screen saying he was one hit shy of standing alone.

“If I would have known that, I wouldn't have struck out, probably,” he joked. “I'm just kidding. I didn't know that until then."

If your only struggle of late is having to settle for tying a franchise record, chances are things are going well.

Turner’s time in the majors this season has lasted all of 37 games, and yet rookie has made a huge impression on his team by making the game look easy on a nightly basis. Whether that’s being the needed sparkplug at the plate or a terror on the base paths, the much-ballyhooed prospect might be even better than some in the organization initially believed.

“Trea’s been playing great,” manager Dusty Baker said. “He had a great night at the plate. He’s also a very determined young man. That determination and youthful exuberance I think has rubbed off on the team.”

Perhaps even more impressive than Turner’s ability is his aptitude. In addition to having to adjust to big-league pitching, he’s had to learn center field, a position he hadn’t played in college or in the minors prior to this season.

And on Wednesday night’s first play, Turner showed why the Nats believe he’ll be just fine at his new home. He sprinted and dove at full speed rob Orioles’ leadoff man Adam Jones’ of extra bases.

“We’re both about the same speed,” veteran first baseman Ryan Zimmerman deadpanned. “For him to do that [is impressive]. He’s been playing center field for a month, maybe.”

Of course, he still has his hiccups, as he had later in the game when he leaped and couldn’t haul in ball near the wall in deep center field. But given everything else he brings to the team, the Nats will surely endure whatever growing pains he goes through.

“I feel good [in center field],” he said. “I feel like I'm kinda picking it up as I go and continue to do that in [batting practice] and also the games."

Since the day he became an everyday player, Turner has looked like he belongs. With a slash line of .335/.359/.544 to go along with nine doubles, six triples and four home runs, he may already be establishing himself as one of the most dynamic leadoff men in the game.

"I think it's an empty mind,” Turner said of his approach. “You're not really thinking too much. You just react. I think the more you can do that, the better you'll be, the more success you'll have.”

And if this is only the beginning, the Nats have to be awfully excited about what's in store for the Lake Worth, Florida native.  

“He’s still so young,” Zimmerman said. “He’s still learning how to play and learning himself. His baseball IQ is through the roof. I think he makes adjustments really quick. He’s really observant of what goes on around him. He’s going to be a really good one.”

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Even Tanner Roark can't stop Nats' struggles against Orioles

Even Tanner Roark can't stop Nats' struggles against Orioles

The Nationals may need to lobby for a new partner in Major League Baseball's annual regional rivalry matchup.

Because the Baltimore Orioles just keep having their way with their neighbors from the south. With the Nats' 10-8 loss on Wednesday night, they are now 6-17 against the Orioles since the start 2012 and have lost six straight going back to last year. 

Baltimore has been good over the last five years, but so have the Nationals. For some reason they match up poorly against the O's, no matter what direction each team is trending when they take the field.

The Orioles, for instance, had lost five of six and and nine of 14 before hosting the Nats in the opener on Monday night. The Nats weren't exactly on fire heading into Monday, but they had won six of nine and just took three of four at the Atlanta Braves. 

Even on Wednesday, with the Nats heading home and sending Tanner Roark to the mound, their luck did not improve. Roark has been their most consistent pitcher all year, their stopper at times. The Orioles, though, chased him after five innings with five runs - four earned - on seven hits, three walks and three hit batters, tying a career-high for Roark.

The walks and hit batters were a good indication that Roark was simply not his usual self. He was trying to pitch around the Orioles' big bats and ended up costing himself.

“Just lack of focus," Roark said. "I know I needed to get inside on these guys and make them feel uncomfortable at the plate. They have the most home runs in all of baseball so you got to make it known that your going to come inside. That’s the name of the game for pitching and as a starter you have to establish inside."

That he did not and the Orioles pounded him early. The first big strike was a two-run homer by Manny Machado, his 29th of the season. Another run came home when Matt Wieters was hit with the bases loaded. One more scored on a J.J. Hardy sacrifice fly.

Machado blasted a 92 mile per hour two-seamer - Roark's signature pitch - deep into the stands in left field. Afterwards, Roark explained the challenge of facing Machado, who is now 27-for-69 (.391) with four homers and 12 RBI in 17 career games vs. the Nationals.

“He can hit the ball all over the field. He’s a good hitter. Like any good hitter you got to make him feel uncomfortable. I didn’t do that the first two at-bats," Roark said.

The second at-bat for Machado also brought in a run, one of his four RBI on the night. That was a single to center field in the second inning to score Adam Jones, who reached on an error. That run went down as unearned for Roark one of two errors for the Nats on the night.

Machado was the main culprit in what amounted to a rare off-night for Roark. It was just the fifth time in 26 starts this year he hasn't gone at least six innings. He's gone at least seven in 15 of those outings.

The Orioles win a lot of games behind their offense, but their bullpen is also a big part of their equation. Though Parker Bridwell and Zach Britton ended up making matters interesting by allowing five runs in the ninth, Orioles relievers got numerous key outs on Wednesday to hold the Nats at bay.

Mychal Givens got three straight outs in the sixth after the Nats got two men in scoring position to lead off the frame. He struck out Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman and also got Wilson Ramos to pop out. Givens got into some trouble in the seventh, but Donnie Hart struck out Bryce Harper with runners on the corners to end the frame.

Zimmerman explained what made Givens - one of Baltimore's best relievers - so tough.

“He throws sidearm 97. It seems like all the guys they have throw like that. I don’t know where they get them from. But he made good pitches," Zimmerman said.

The Nationals will now hope to avoid a four-game sweep in the season series on Thursday night with Max Scherzer on the mound. Scherzer is an ace and would seemingly give the Nats a good chance to end their skid against the Orioles. Then again, the same could have been said about Roark before Wednesday night.

[RELATED: Olympian Katie Ledecky visits Nats Park, players enthralled with medals]

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