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After punches to gut, gut-check time for Nats

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After punches to gut, gut-check time for Nats

Any ballclub that has visions of serious contention is going to have to prove its mettle at various points of the season. It's one thing to play well when everything's falling into place. It's quite another to play well when things are collapsing all around you.

The Nationals are about to face one of those challenges. Considering the injuries they've sustained and the red flags that have been popping up on the field in recent days, there's ample reason to question whether they're capable of hanging on.

Jayson Werth's broken wrist was bad enough. Then Wilson Ramos tore the ACL in his right knee. Combined with the extended losses of Michael Morse, Drew Storen and Brad Lidge, it's a minor miracle the Nationals found themselves in position to sweep the Reds yesterday afternoon.

Yet there they were taking the field for the bottom of the ninth at the end of an interminable day of rain delays, up 6-5 and on the verge of heading home on a four-game winning streak.

And then Henry Rodriguez threw the first of his 15 balls in a 28-pitch inning. Before anyone knew what hit them, Rodriguez left a 2-2 fastball over the plate to Joey Votto and watched in horror as the Reds' 200 million man crushed it to center field for a walk-off grand slam.

And just like that, all those good vibes the Nationals seemed to have stored up for weeks disappeared into thin air. Just like that, they went from a gutsy ballclub that managed to overcome injuries with brilliant pitching and clutch hitting to a broken-down, offensively challenged team with a serious question mark at the back end of their bullpen.

Oh yeah, they also fell out of first place in the NL East for the first time in 33 days.

Is that a fair assessment of Davey Johnson's club? No, not really. The outcome of one pitch may alter the outside perception surrounding a team, but it doesn't truly change who they are.

The Nationals returned home late last night the same club that left town a week ago, aside from the loss of Ramos. But that doesn't mean they haven't reached a critical juncture in their season.

The Nats have every reason to be down on themselves after the events of the last 36 hours. And if ever doubts were going to start trickling their way into players' heads, now would be the time.

But they also have every reason to believe they can continue to enjoy the success they've experienced over the last six weeks. Banged-up lineup or not, this team still has a rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler at its disposal. And that rotation should keep this team in the hunt all summer long.

Which isn't to say there aren't some major obstacles for the Nationals to overcome. They aren't getting any of the prominent injured players back for a while, so they're going to have to find another way to manufacture runs. Several slumping regulars finally showed signs of progress this weekend -- most notably Danny Espinosa -- but this team still squanders far too many golden scoring opportunities.

And even if the lineup does manage to scratch out a few runs in support of its rotation, there's still that pesky ninth inning lurking in the shadows. As much as some would prefer to see Johnson insert someone else into the closer's role, the 69-year-old manager is most likely going to stick with Rodriguez.

The young right-hander has experienced just about every possible high and every possible low in his brief stint as Storen's fill-in closer. There is no middle ground with him, only dizzying highs or terrifying lows.

There's only so much the Nationals can do to try to prevent Rodriguez from experiencing those lows. Ultimately, it's going to be on him to learn how to maintain his composure on the mound, how to continue to thrive even after putting a man on base. We're about to find out what Henry Rodriguez is made of.

We're also going to find out what the Nationals as a whole are made of. Few would fault them for complaining about all the injuries, using that as a perfectly viable excuse when they lose. But they have, to date, exhibited a grit and determination not previously seen in these parts.

Perhaps Ian Desmond put it best eight days ago after Werth broke his wrist.

"I've obviously never been on a championship team, but I'm definitely a fan of baseball," the shortstop said. "And it seems like championship teams overcome things like this."

They do. But whether the Nationals have what it takes to overcome it all remains to be seen.

One way or another, we're about to find out.

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Anthony Rendon homers in third straight game, but Nationals fall to Mariners in series finale

Anthony Rendon homers in third straight game, but Nationals fall to Mariners in series finale

WASHINGTON -- Nelson Cruz greeted reliever Jacob Turner with a go-ahead, three-run homer in the sixth inning, and the Seattle Mariners beat the Washington Nationals 4-2 Thursday to stop a five-game losing streak.

Gio Gonzalez took a 2-0 lead into the sixth, when Jean Segura singled leading off and Guillermo Heredia took a called third strike. That prompted Seattle manager Scott Servais to complain from the dugout, which led to his ejection by plate umpire Adam Hamari.

Robinson Cano singled, and Washington manager Dusty Baker brought in Turner (2-3), despite Cruz having just one hit in 15 at-bats against Gonzalez. Cruz drove a belt-high slider over the fence in left-center for his 12th homer this season and a 3-2 lead. Cruz leads the AL with 40 RBIs.

Cano added an RBI single off Turner in the seventh. Seattle scored multiple runs for the first time since May 18.

Ariel Miranda (4-2) allowed two runs, three hits and three walks in five innings. Edwin Diaz, Seattle's sixth pitcher, threw a one-hit ninth that completed a six-hitter. Diaz got his first save since May 9 and has eight in 10 chances overall.

Gonzalez gave up two runs, three hits and four walks in 5 1/3 innings, striking out eight.

Washington's Anthony Rendon homered in the fifth, his ninth this season and fourth in the three-game series. Jayson Werth added an RBI single later in the inning.

FAMILY FIRST

Baker will be leaving the Nationals for their weekend series against San Diego Padres to attend his son Darren's high school graduation in Northern California and will rejoin the team Monday in San Francisco.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Mariners: LHP James Paxton (forearm strain) could return to the rotation in the first or second game of a homestand that starts Wednesday, Servais said. ... 1B Danny Valencia was in the lineup for a second straight day after sitting out three games with a wrist injury.

Nationals: Baker may continue to use an eight-man bullpen. Baker said the decision depends the progress of INF Stephen Drew's rehabilitation from a hamstring strain. Drew is at extended spring training.

UP NEXT

Mariners: RHP Yovani Gallardo is 2-2 with a 5.28 ERA against Boston, where Seattle begins a three-game set on Friday.

Nationals: RHP Max Scherzer (4-3, 3.02) has allowed two runs or fewer in his last three starts against San Diego, which opens a three-game series in Washington on Friday.

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Nats beat Mariners behind Joe Ross' career day in return from minors

Nats beat Mariners behind Joe Ross' career day in return from minors

WASHINGTON -- Anthony Rendon homered twice and drove in five runs, Joe Ross returned from the minors to allow one run over a career high-tying eight innings, and the Washington Nationals routed the Seattle Mariners 10-1 on Tuesday night.

Bryce Harper added his 14th homer and Jayson Werth hit his seventh off Chris Bergman (1-2), who allowed all of the Nationals' runs and 14 of their 15 hits.

Rendon doubled before his second homer -- and seventh of the season -- completed an eight-run fourth inning. Ryan Zimmerman also had three hits.

Mike Zunino homered off Ross (2-0) in his return from his own minor league stint. Robinson Cano was hitless in his first game back from the disabled list following a thigh injury as Seattle dropped its fourth straight.

Ross showed no signs of the late April struggles that ended with a demotion to Triple-A Syracuse. He yielded five hits and a walk while striking out six, and retired 12 straight batters after a leadoff single to begin the game.

By the time Seattle finally put multiple runners aboard, Washington had already opened a 10-0 lead.

Rendon's second-inning shot around the left field foul pole made it 2-0.

Then Werth, Harper and Rendon all connected in the fourth, helping the Nationals score seven of their eight runs in the inning with two outs.

MORE NATIONALS: WATCH: Werth, Harper go back-to-back, Rendon hits 2 HRs in Nationals win