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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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Stephen Drew walk-off lifts Nationals to win over Padres

Stephen Drew walk-off lifts Nationals to win over Padres

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 3-2 walkoff win over the San Diego Padres on Saturday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: Success off the bench as a pinch-hitter can be fleeting and some, no matter how good they were as everyday players, never find the secret.

Not Stephen Drew. Even six days off due to flu-like symptoms could not cool the Nats' bench hero down, as he walked off the San Diego Padres on Saturday night with an RBI triple in the bottom of the ninth.

The final blow came against Kevin Quackenbush, who was the final pitcher summoned from a Padres staff that had otherwise baffled the Nats through 8 2/3 innings. Anthony Rendon scored the game-winning run after leading off the inning with a single to left field.

The Nats got their other two runs on a Daniel Murphy sacrifice fly in the third inning and a Ben Revere RBI double in the fifth. Max Scherzer did his part with seven innings and just two runs allowed. The Nats' bullpen picked up from there with a scoreless eighth by Shawn Kelley and ninth by Jonathan Papelbon. Both relievers allowed extra base hits, but left the mound unscathed.

What it means: With the win, the Nats evened up their season series against the Padres at 3-3 and snapped a three-game losing streak to San Diego. They stand 58-40 on the season.

MORE NATIONALS: GIOLITO GETS NOD SUNDAY VS. PADRES

Scherzer keeps rolling: Scherzer's recent dominance continued on Saturday night as the Nats ace went seven strong innings of two-run ball with 10 strikeouts and zero walks. It didn't start out well for Scherzer, who allowed a two-run homer to Ryan Schimpf in the second, but he recovered after that and finished his outing by retiring 14 of the last 15 batters he faced. It was the 13th time in 21 starts this season that he's gone at least seven innings and the eighth time he's recorded double-digit strikeouts. 

Over his last five starts, Scherzer has allowed just four earned runs across 34 1/3 innings. And since May 6, he holds a 2.19 ERA (24 ER, 98.2 IP) in 14 outings. Scherzer had a 4.60 ERA when he took the mound on May 11, but has since pared that down to in impressive 2.92.

The homer to Schimpf was Scherzer's biggest mistake and it was, of course, the continuation of a year-long trend. Scherzer has now given up 22 on the season, tied for fourth-most of all MLB pitchers. That's despite the fact he had only given up one in his previous four starts entering Saturday night.

Revere bounces back: Revere's frustrating 2016 season had reached one of its lowest points on Friday night, when he went 0-for-5 in a loss to the Padres. It was so bad that Nats manager Dusty Baker spoke with Revere's father and grandfather afterwards. They thanked the skipper for being patient with the Nats outfielder, despite him batting nearly 100 points lower than the .300 average he had carried in each of the previous three seasons. Baker expressed sympathy for Revere, but noted he had been back for over a third of the season. Patience was running out. Baker said "we need him badly."

What Revere did to respond on Saturday night is exactly what Baker had in mind. The embattled leadoff man walked in his second at-bat in the third inning and later scored on a Murphy sacrifice fly. Revere set that up by moving from first to third on a singly by Jayson Werth. Revere then doubled home Danny Espinosa in the top of the fifth to tied the game at 2-2. Before Saturday night, Revere had just three hits in his last nine games, a stretch of 29 at-bats.

Harper keeps scuffling: It was another long night for the reigning MVP, who went hitless in four at-bats and left four men on base. His worst moment came in the bottom of the fifth when the Padres opted to walk Murphy with two outs to put two men on to face Harper. Harper promptly popped out to right field to end the rally. Harper is now just 5-for-39 (.128) with 10 strikeouts in his last 11 games.

Up next: The Nats and Padres close their series with a 1:35 p.m. start on Sunday afternoon. Rookie Lucas Giolito (0-1, 4.70) will make his third career MLB start opposite San Diego lefty Christrian Friedrich (4-6, 4.55).

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Nats name Giolito as Sunday starter vs. Padres, Ross to rehab soon

Nats name Giolito as Sunday starter vs. Padres, Ross to rehab soon

The mystery of who will pitch the series finale for the Nationals against the Padres on Sunday is over, as manager Dusty Baker revealed the team's plans to call up top prospect Lucas Giolito to make his third career MLB start.

With Giolito on his way to Washington, the Nationals will have to determine a corresponding move. And three players - Ryan Zimmerman, Joe Ross and Sammy Solis - all nearing their returns from the disabled list, there could be a lot of shuffling on the Nats' roster in the coming days and weeks.

Giolito, 22, joins the Nats after making one start at Triple-A Syracuse. Through two big league starts this season he has a 4.70 ERA across 7 2/3 innings. Both of his outings came against the New York Mets.

Zimmerman (left ribcage strain) has made two rehab appearances with the Single-A Potomac Nationals. He went 2-for-4 with a double in his first game and 1-for-5 with two RBI and a run in his second. He was set to play his third game with the P-Nats on Saturday evening.

Solis also played with Potomac on Friday night and struck out three in a scoreless inning. He will now move on to Single-A Hagerstown to continue his rehab back from right knee inflammation.

"Solis, he pitched yesterday and said it went well. He's going to throw again tomorrow," Baker said. "Him and Joe are both going to throw at Hagerstown. We'll keep our fingers crossed that that works out well, too."

Ross will be making his first rehab appearance with Hagerstown on Sunday as he works his way back from right shoulder inflammation. He has been on the disabled list since July 3.

The Nationals chose Giolito to start over Reynaldo Lopez, one of their other hard-throwing prospects. Lopez pitched against the Dodgers on Tuesday and gave up six earned runs in 4 2/3 innings.

Lopez was brought up to replace Giolito's spot in the rotation for his July 19 debut after the Nats determined Giolito needed more work in the minors. They sent him to Syracuse hoping he could work on his fastball command and his curveball. Giolito responded with 6 2/3 innings and only one unearned run in his lone outing in Triple-A.

[RELATED: Nats' Trea Turner on his speed and how he got so fast]

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Scherzer, Nats face off against Padres, former Nats P Edwin Jackson

Scherzer, Nats face off against Padres, former Nats P Edwin Jackson

Nationals (57-40) vs. Padres (42-55) at Nationals Park

Losers of four out of their last five, the Nationals are back at it on Saturday night hoping to get back on track against the San Diego Padres. Working in their favor is the fact Max Scherzer (10-6, 2.94) is on the mound.

Scherzer has been excellent recently with a 2.16 ERA in his last 13 starts. He struck out 10 in six innings of one-run ball against the Padres back on June 18, albeit in a Nats loss.

Pitching for the Padres will be former Nationals starter Edwin Jackson, who was a member of the 2012 club that won 98 games and the NL East.

First pitch: 7:05 p.m.
TV: MASN
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Max Scherzer vs. Padres - Edwin Jackson

NATS

CF Ben Revere
LF Jayson Werth
2B Daniel Murphy
RF Bryce Harper
C Wilson Ramos
1B Clint Robinson
3B Anthony Rendon
SS Danny Espinosa
RHP Max Scherzer

PADRES

CF Travis Jankowski
1B Wil Myers
RF Matt Kemp
3B Yangervis Solarte
LF Melvin Upton
2B Ryan Schimpf
C Christian Bethancourt
SS Alexei Ramirez
RHP Edwin Jackson