Would the Nationals have won the NLCS?

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Would the Nationals have won the NLCS?

If you've been able to muster up the strength to watch this year's NLCS -- and it's perfectly understandable if you haven't, given how Game 5 of the NLDS ended -- you've seen quite a compelling series between the last two World Series champions, each of them making a desperate push to reach the Fall Classic again.

You also might have emerged from all this contemplating a simple, and perhaps painful, question: Would the Nationals have won this thing had they simply not blown a six-run lead to the Cardinals 10 days ago?

There's legitimate reason to believe they would, in fact, have won the pennant and secured a date with the Tigers in the World Series.

There's obviously no way to know how a series that never took place would have played out. But given the way they handled the Giants during the regular season, and given the way that potential NLCS would have set up, the Nationals certainly would have been in a favorable position.

The Giants, make no mistake, are a resilient bunch and got some fantastic pitching performances from Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong to win Games 5 and 6 and stave off elimination. But they haven't done much of anything at the plate, aside from Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval, and will enter Game 7 with a .241 team batting average and paltry .369 slugging percentage in the series.

The Nationals, meanwhile, feasted on Vogelsong during their only encounter this season, racking up eight runs on nine hits Aug. 13 against what was then the NL's ERA leader.

But the biggest advantage the Nationals would have had in this phantom NLCS would have been their home-field advantage. The Giants' pitching staff fared far better at AT&T Park this season (3.09 ERA) than it did away from that spacious ballpark along McCovey Cove (4.29 ERA).

And unlike the case in the actual NLCS against the fourth-seeded Cardinals, third-seeded San Francisco would not have held home-field advantage against Washington. Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 would have been played at Nationals Park, which you have to believe would have favored Davey Johnson's club.

Not only because of the Giants' road struggles this season, but because of history. Home-field advantage may not mean much in the best-of-five Division Series, but it means a whole lot in the best-of-seven Championship Series and World Series.

There have been only 23 Game 7s played in baseball over the last 30 years. And in those winner-take-all showdowns, the home team is 18-5.

History, then, would have been on the Nationals side had they found themselves in position to host Game 7 of the NLCS tonight.

That game, of course, isn't being played on South Capitol Street. It's being played on the other side of the continent, in front of a rabid San Francisco fan base that figures to aid the Giants' cause.

That may still be a bitter pill for the Nationals and their fans to swallow, recognizing just how close they were to finding themselves in this very position right now instead of watching it all unfold on television.

But if you've refused to partake yourself over the last week, do yourself a favor and tune in to Game 7 tonight. These classic October battles, as pointed out above, simply don't happen that often. And they typically produce some of the most memorable games in baseball history, whether it was rookie David Price preserving the upstart Rays' ninth-inning lead against the mighty Red Sox in 2008 or Aaron Boone taking Tim Wakefield deep into the Bronx night in 2003 or Sid Bream sliding in just ahead of Barry Bonds' throw to the plate in 1992.

Yes, it may still be painful to realize the Nationals could -- perhaps should -- have been the ones playing tonight. But nothing is going to change that now. Might as well enjoy the high drama of a Game 7 involving two franchises that have been staving off elimination all month and now meet in the ultimate pressure cooker of a ballgame.

Nats not worried after sweep: 'Everybody needs to just calm down'

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Nats not worried after sweep: 'Everybody needs to just calm down'

As the Nationals lick their wounds following their first sweep of the 2016 season, there are a few things that stand out about where they currently sit.

At the moment, they are truly terrible at scoring runs. A full 22 innings have passed since the Nats last crossed home plate and the result has been two consecutive shutout losses to the Phillies.

The Nats' bullpen is also showing cracks for the first time this season. On Tuesday, Oliver Perez let the go-ahead run score in the series opener. And on Thursday, Felipe Rivero and Jonathan Papelbon tag-teamed a disastrous ninth inning in the series finale.

This is all coming just in time for the Nats to embark on their toughest road trip of the season, a 'best teams in baseball' obstacle course through the Midwest featuring the Cardinals, Royals and Cubs. Ryan Zimmerman called it one of the toughest road trips he's ever had.

Yet still, after getting swept by Philadelphia, the Nationals are in first place at 14-7. They've won two-thirds of the games they have played. And even though the road is about to get tougher, the Nats feel good about where they stand, all things considered.

"If somebody told me we'd start off 14-7, I'd be very, very happy," manager Dusty Baker said. "We kind of spoiled everybody by starting the way we did, so we'll get it back together."

"It’s nothing to worry about," Zimmerman said. "It’s not the last time we are going to get swept all year.”

Zimmerman, in fact, got a bit frustrated at the mere suggestion that it was time to worry.

"I think everybody needs to just calm down,” he said. "If every 21 games we went 14 and 7, I think we’d be alright."

A 14-7 record does put the Nationals on a good pace. That's a .667 win percentage, which would equate to a 108-54 record over 162 games. No team has won that many since the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who posted the best record in MLB history at 116-46.

The flip-side of all that is whom the Nationals have done this against. The only team they've faced with a winning record is the Phillies, a team that finished last in the majors in 2015. The Nats have the second-easiest strength of schedule so far with a combined .444 win percentage. 

The Nats are capable of getting back on track, of course. But if that happens soon, it will have to come against some really good teams.

Baker remains confident, even with the difficult road ahead. 

"Everybody knows. These guys are big guys. They're men. They feel the same thing I feel. Guys are hustling, we're trying everything. But you're gonna go through some ups and downs during the season."

Rivero and Papelbon blow it in 9th in Nats loss to Phillies

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Rivero and Papelbon blow it in 9th in Nats loss to Phillies

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 3-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday evening at Nationals Park: 

How it happened: The Nationals can mostly blame their lineup for this one, as their second consecutive shutout loss now puts them at 22 straight scoreless innings on offense. Noting that is important, but the Nats' 3-0 loss to Philadelphia on Thursday will go down highlighted by a ninth inning disaster by Felipe Rivero and Jonathan Papelbon. Rivero began the ninth and loaded the bases before Papelbon allowed three runners to score. Two were on a double by Cameron Rupp and the other came on an infield single by David Lough. Rivero got charged with the runs, but Papelbon couldn't stop the bleeding. The Phillies swept the Nats in Washington for the first time since May of 2009.

What it means: The Nationals suffered their first sweep of the 2016 season and fell to 14-7 overall. Up next is a difficult road set beginning at the St. Louis Cardinals. After that it's three games at the defending-champion Kansas City Royals. They then close their road swing with four games at the Chicago Cubs. Their pitching looks ready for that stretch, but is their offense? And was this a sign of more to come from their bullpen? It should be interesting.

Harper strikes out in big spot: The Nats had the Phillies right where they wanted them in the bottom of the eighth inning with the bases loaded and Bryce Harper at the plate. Phillies reliever Elvis Araujo had just walked Anthony Rendon to load the bases after going up on him 0-2 in the count. Harper could have broken a scoreless tie and potentially done far more damage, but instead he struck out on just three pitches. It was a surprising result, given Harper's ability to come through in big spots this season. It also came one day after he grounded out to end Wednesday night's loss in the bottom of the ninth.

Roark excellent again: Roark is making a more and more convincing case that last season was the fluke, that the guy we saw in 2013 and 2014 was his true form as a pitcher. He didn't post double-digit strikeouts on Thursday, but Roark was once again brilliant coming off his 15-K performance last weekend. The right-hander didn't allow a hit until there were two outs in the fourth inning and ended up going seven scoreless frames. He walked two batters and struck out six, lowering his season ERA to 2.03 along the way. Roark has tossed 15 consecutive shutout frames. He has a 1.85 ERA in his last seven starts (43.2 IP) dating back to last season.

Zimmerman struggles again: Ryan Zimmerman had another game to forget, this time going 1-for-4 with a strikeout. He is 3-for-19 in his last four games and is 10-for-52 (.192) in his last 13. And like the the night before, Zimmerman came up short with Harper on base. He grounded out with Harper on second to end the first. It was one of the few good scoring chances the Nats gave themselves in this one.

Offense still scuffling: The Nats suffered their first shutout loss on Wednesday and weren't any better a day later. Young right-hander Aaron Nola gave them trouble with seven shutout frames and seven strikeouts. Danny Espinosa went 0-for-3 on the day with a strikeout. Stephen Drew went 0-for-3 with a strikeout in the place of Rendon. Even Daniel Murphy went hitless for just the third time this season. The Nats' bats cooled down just like the weather this week.

Up next: The Nationals move on to St. Louis to begin a 10-game road trip. They start at the Cardinals with a 8:15 p.m. first pitch. Stephen Strasburg (3-0, 2.17) and right-hander Mike Leake (0-2, 5.64) are your starters.

Dusty Baker's son to intern at Nats Youth Academy this summer

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Dusty Baker's son to intern at Nats Youth Academy this summer

Dusty Baker may be relatively new to the D.C. area, but he and his family are already finding ways to give back to their new community. 

Baker told CSN Mid-Atlantic that his son, Darren, will be doing an internship this summer at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in the District's Ward 7. The volunteer work will fulfill a community service requirement for his high school curriculum. 

Baseball fans might remember the younger Baker, who as a 3-year-old bat boy for the San Francisco Giants in the 2002 World Series was famously saved from a potential home-plate collision by first baseman J.T. Snow.

Now 17, Darren Baker is a star infielder at Jesuit High School in Carmichael, California. He will come to D.C. to work as an assistant coach for the academy, a nonprofit organization using baseball and softball as a hook to serve underprivileged youth in Ward 7 and Ward 8.

"He plays baseball. He loves baseball," the elder Baker said. "We try to raise him to share and to be cognizant of others that don’t have as much as he has, because he’s quite blessed. So [his work at the academy] is adding to his character.”

The Nats' skipper expounded on that point, saying that in previous managierial stints, he would have Darren accompany him to different parts of those cities so he could get his son out of his comfort zone. 

"I always took him to the West Side of Chicago, South Side of Chicago [when I was with the Cubs]," he said. "I take him everywhere so he’ll know how to act and know how to be and not be afraid....I don’t want him intimidated by anybody or any area or anything. So you learn how to adjust and you learn how to fit in where you get in."

Though the academy has its own staff that works with the children on a day-to-day basis, Nats players and coaches have been known to occassionally make appearances as guest coachs since the facility's opening in March of 2014. Baker himself had a chance to visit the academy last December, beginning what the Nats hope is the early portions of an important relationship. 

"I think it’s one of the best academies I’ve seen," he said. "They put their heart and soul into [it], and they put their money where their mouth is. Because it’s not cheap to run the academy.

"The one thing I was impressed with is the people learning and the volunteer people that were there that didn’t have to be there."

Darren will help out with the academy's summer program, which typically serves close to 200 kids for six consecutive weeks. Like the afternoon program during the school year, its aim is to improve positive character development, academic achievement and improved health through on-field drills and classroom instruction.