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Espinosa delivers in big spot

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Espinosa delivers in big spot

Every ballplayer has his own reaction when an opponent intentionally walks the batter in front of him. Some gear up even more than they normally would. Some don't treat it any differently than any other at-bat.

Danny Espinosa? He gets mad.

"I don't gear up, but I definitely take it personally in the sense that I want to get 'em," he said. "I want to make 'em pay for what they're doing."

Boy, did Espinosa make them pay for it Thursday night. After watching the Rays intentionally walk Adam LaRoche with two outs in the sixth inning of a tie game, the struggling Nationals second baseman stepped into the left-handed batter's box and delivered perhaps his biggest hit of the season: a two-run double that propelled his team to a 5-2 win and another series victory over a tough AL East opponent.

"I know Danny's character enough to know that in that situation he's going to rise up and get the job done," teammate Ian Desmond said.

Desmond may have sensed it, but you couldn't blame the 29,551 in attendance at Nationals Park had they anticipated disaster instead of elation at that moment.

Espinosa's track record from the left side of the plate -- he was hitting .188 this season entering the game, versus .365 from the right side -- certainly wouldn't suggest a favorable matchup for him against Tampa Bay reliever Joel Peralta.

Those who have watched Espinosa closely in recent weeks, though, have seen improvement.

"I thought he's been swinging the bat, really, pretty good from the left side," manager Davey Johnson said. "He's made a few adjustments to where he feels like he's getting to the ball a little quicker. Even when he's bad, he's still a very dangerous hitter. He seems to shine in tough situations."

The Nationals needed Espinosa to come through in a particularly tough spot Thursday in a game that featured several key moments.

The evening nearly began in disastrous fashion for starter Gio Gonzalez, who went to a three-ball count on five of the first six batters he faced and then fell behind 2-0 to Carlos Pena with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the second. But a quick mound visit from pitching coach Steve McCatty, plus some calming gestures from Desmond (who made some exaggerated deep breath motions to his teammate), set Gonzalez back on track. He struck out Pena, the start of a stretch in which he retired 10 of 11 batters.

"When you've got, in my opinion, a leader like that who can go out there and take some deep breaths for you and slow your game down for you, it helps out a lot," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez also needed a big strikeout of pinch-hitter Elliot Johnson to end the sixth, stranding the potential go-ahead run in scoring position. Then he turned things over to his bullpen, which gave Johnson a few heart palpitations during a tense top of the seventh.

"That was a good game," Johnson said, "except for the seventh inning where everybody I brought in it seemed couldn't find the plate."

No, they couldn't. Craig Stammen issued a leadoff walk to Desmond Jennings, then walked Ben Zobrist with two outs to prolong the inning. Left-hander Michael Gonzalez entered to face Hideki Matsui and issued a free pass of his own, loading the bases.

So in came Ryan Mattheus, knowing well the situation at hand against Will Rhymes.

"I had to throw him a strike," Mattheus said. "Sure enough, I throw him two balls right off the bat."

The right-hander did quickly right his ship, though, and with the count full blew a 92 mph fastball past Rhymes to end the inning.

"That's our job: To go out there and leave those runners that are inherited out there stranded," Mattheus said. "It's not so much about your ERA, it's about what you leave out there for other guys as a reliever. That was a big deal."

It was, as were the 1-2-3 innings pitched by bullpen mates Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard to close out this victory.

None of it, however, would have been possible without Espinosa's clutch hit, perhaps his biggest hit of the season.

It's been a tough road for Espinosa, who hasn't boasted a batting average higher than .235 since April 7. Through it all, he's had the unwavering support of his manager.

"Sometimes it just takes a little time, patience," Johnson said. "I know he has the talent and the ability. I just try not to put too much pressure on him, whether from you or me or anybody else. Everybody that ever sees him play realizes what kind of talent he is."

And on this night, Espinosa rewarded his manager for that patience.

"I'm sure a lot of people wouldn't have stuck with me that long," he said. "So it feels awesome to know that Davey's got my back."

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Nationals Ace Max Scherzer will not be team's opening day starter

Nationals Ace Max Scherzer will not be team's opening day starter

Nationals manager Dusty Baker said that Max Scherzer is not on track to be the team's opening day starter, and will most likely open the season as the third pitcher in the rotation. 

Scherzer has been the team's starter on opening day for the past two seasons, but a stress fracture in the knuckle of his right ring finger caused him to miss the start of spring training, and the World Baseball Classic. 

Scherzer did, however, make his first MLB spring training start of 2017 on Wednesday. The 2016 NL Cy Young award winner allowed two earned runs on five hits over 4.2 innings. He added four strikeouts and one walk, and reportedly looked just like you would expect from Max Scherzer. 

"To be out there competing, throwing all my pitches, throwing them for strikes, that's a great first outing," Scherzer told Eddie Matz of ESPN after the game. "Finger's good. Finger feels like a finger. I'm getting through that injury. It's behind me now."

With Scherzer set to open the season as the third starter in the rotation, that likely means that Stephen Strasburg will start on opening day against the Miami Marlins, and Tanner Roark will slot in behind him. 

While it's nice to have your ace pitcher starting on opening day, it's not a huge deal to have Scherzer start the season third in the rotation, especially because the Nationals starting rotation is the strength of the team

Related: Nationals' Tanner Roark pitches four scoreless innings to help Team USA beat Japan in WBC

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Nationals' Tanner Roark pitches 4 scoreless innings in US defeat of Japan in WBC

Nationals' Tanner Roark pitches 4 scoreless innings in US defeat of Japan in WBC

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Luke Gregerson's final strike breezed past Nobuhiro Matsuda, and the rain-drenched American players celebrated on the field while a soaked crowd roared through the evening mist.

A daylong downpour couldn't dampen this resilient United States club or its fans, who will finally get to root for the home team in a World Baseball Classic championship game.

Brandon Crawford scored the tiebreaking run when Matsuda bobbled Adam Jones' grounder to third in the eighth inning, and the United States reached the WBC final for the first time by beating Japan 2-1 on Tuesday night at rainy Dodger Stadium.

Andrew McCutchen drove in an early run for the U.S., which will play Puerto Rico for the title Wednesday night. Puerto Rico edged the Netherlands 4-3 in 11 innings Monday.

"It means a heck of a lot," said McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates slugger. "We've got a great group of guys on this team who have dedicated this time to be able to try and win some ballgames. Sacrifices had to be made, and there are no egos when that door opens. That's what's good about this team. Everybody is a superstar on this team. There are no egos."

The World Baseball Classic final has been played in the United States in each of its four editions, but the home team had never been able to play America's pastime on what has become its biggest international stage. The U.S. only reached the semifinals once before, in 2009.

While manager Jim Leyland's current roster is missing Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout and many other American superstars, the All-Star-laden group that decided to participate has won two straight elimination games to earn a chance for the U.S.' first crown.

"Coming into this event, I didn't really want to talk about the fact that the United States has never won it (and) they've never gone to the finals," Leyland said. "I didn't think that was a big deal. I wanted this, for the players, to be a memory. I've talked a lot about it. Make a memory. Hopefully it's a real good one, regardless of the results (Wednesday). I know it is for me. It's been an absolute honor."

To reach the final, the Americans had to persevere through an uncharacteristic Los Angeles rain that drenched the playing field several hours before game time. They also had to beat a gifted Japanese team at its own game: pitching, defense and small ball.

Ryosuke Kikuchi hit a tying homer off reliever Nate Jones in the sixth inning for Japan, but the two-time WBC champions were twice let down by their normally sturdy defense.

McCutchen opened the scoring with an RBI single in the fourth moments after Kikuchi's two-base error at second. In the eighth, Crawford likely would have been out at the plate on Jones' innocent grounder, but Matsuda didn't field it cleanly and had to throw to first.

"Well, two plays," Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said through a translator. "Honestly, there were some mistakes, and then a run was scored. ... The team that makes mistakes will lose. That's what it means. I cannot blame them, though, for doing that."

Japan won the first two WBC tournaments before losing in the 2013 semifinals, and Kokubo's current team was unbeaten in this event.

"The players really did their very best," Kokubo said. "I really appreciate it. It's do-or-die, one semifinal."

Tanner Roark pitched four scoreless innings of two-hit ball before Leyland pulled him on the instructions of the Washington Nationals, who limited Roark to 50 pitches because he hadn't faced live hitters in nine days.

"I felt good enough to stay out there," Roark said.

Gregerson, the Americans' sixth reliever, worked a perfect ninth inning after Pat Neshek escaped a two-on jam in the eighth.

Leyland is confident he'll have a capable bullpen Wednesday after receiving texts from various pitching coaches around the majors on the status of their players. Toronto's Marcus Stroman, the starter, is free to reach the WBC's 95-pitch limit, Leyland confirmed.

Although the crowd of 33,462 strongly favored the team with five California natives in the starting lineup, thousands of Japanese fans showed up early and chanted throughout the game, accompanied by the brass band in the left-field bleachers.

Tomoyuki Sugano, the Yomiuri Giants ace with a seven-pitch repertoire, tossed six innings of three-hit ball for Japan, striking out six and yielding only one unearned run.

But Sugano was matched by Roark, who gave up just two singles and a walk in his four innings, also hitting a batter with a pitch.

After Christian Yelich reached second in the fourth inning when his hard-hit grounder was mishandled by Kikuchi, the standout defensive second baseman, Eric Hosmer worked out of an 0-2 count to draw a two-out walk.

McCutchen had just two hits in his first 14 at-bats in the WBC, but he drove in Yelich with a sharp single to left.

Kikuchi made up for his mistake in the sixth, driving Jones' fastball barely over the reach of McCutchen in right field for his first homer of the tournament.

Japan reliever Kodai Senga struck out the first four batters he faced with a 96 mph fastball and exceptional off-speed stuff, but Crawford then delivered a sharp single before Ian Kinsler doubled to deep left-center.

Neshek got cleanup hitter Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh on a fly to right to end the eighth.