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Heart of Nats' lineup isn't beating

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Heart of Nats' lineup isn't beating

It shouldn't be this way. The only sure things right now in the Nationals' lineup are the two rookies hitting at the top of Davey Johnson's order. The veterans who follow and boast actual track records of success at the big-league level? They're the ones making all the outs.

It's an unusual situation, to say the least, and on Sunday it cost the Nationals a very winnable game against the Braves. Despite the continued success of rookies Steve Lombardozzi and Bryce Harper, the rest of the lineup could do nothing against Tommy Hanson or two Atlanta relievers during a 3-2 loss that dropped the Nats into a first-place tie in the NL East with the Marlins.

"Pretty disheartening," Adam LaRoche said, "the fact we started it up 2-0 in the blink of an eye and couldn't get anything else out of it."

Indeed, many among the crowd of 38,046 had yet to settle into their seats when Lombardozzi and Harper made history by launching home runs on consecutive pitches in the bottom of the first, giving the Nationals an early advantage.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, they are the first rookies in the modern era (since 1900) to hit back-to-back homers to begin a major-league game.

Most everyone in the Nationals dugout was busy congratulating Lombardozzi on the first home run of his career -- after briefly giving him the silent treatment -- when Harper stepped to the plate and drilled Hanson's next pitch into the second deck down the right-field line for his fifth career home run.

"They were kind of messing with me when I walked in the dugout," said Lombardozzi, now hitting .309 with a .372 on-base percentage. "And then once they did get up and high-five me, everybody started yelling and then realized he just went yard. It was pretty cool."

With Gio Gonzalez on the mound in search of his team-leading eighth win, those two early bombs might normally have been enough. In five of 10 previous starts this season, the left-hander allowed fewer than two runs.

But Gonzalez looked out of sorts from the moment he took the mound, and he never found his groove. Unable to keep his fastball over the plate, he put at least one man on base in each of the first four innings and then fell apart in the fifth.

Gonzalez was slow to cover first base on a grounder to the right side. He issued two walks. He uncorked two wild pitches. And though he came within one strike of pitching his way out of the jam, he ultimately was burned by Jason Heyward's bases-loaded, soft single to left, which brought in the tying and go-ahead runs.

Thus, Johnson emerged from the dugout with a surprisingly early hook for the just-named NL Pitcher of the Month. Gonzalez had failed to complete the fifth inning only once before this season (in his April 7 debut in Chicago).

"If I would have attacked the strike zone, it would have been a different situation," Gonzalez said. "But apparently I was a little up and a little out of the zone. Good hitters, good eyes. They made me pay for it."

Even so, the Nationals' bullpen kept the deficit at one run the rest of the afternoon and gave the lineup ample opportunities to push across another run or two. Those runs never materialized, though, in large part because of the inability of the Nationals' most-accomplished hitters to produce in key situations.

Johnson's 3-through-6 hitters in this game (Ryan Zimmerman, LaRoche, Michael Morse and Ian Desmond) went a combined 0-for-16 with five strikeouts.

The club isn't all that concerned about LaRoche, who was among the league's most-productive hitters for six weeks until falling into his recent slide, or Morse, who will need some time to find his swing after missing the season's first two months.

The disturbing one among the group is Zimmerman, who has yet to find a level of consistency since returning from a shoulder injury one month ago. In 38 total games now, the 27-year-old third baseman is batting .233 with a paltry .333 slugging percentage.

To put that into context: The slap-hitting Lombardozzi boasts a slugging percentage 67 points higher than the club's 100 million No. 3 hitter, who insists the problem isn't his shoulder.

"I just stink right now," Zimmerman said. "It's frustrating. It's frustrating. Shoulder is fine. Everything is good. ... It's definitely not what I wanted to do to start this season but I can't do anything about it now. Just gotta keep working hard and continue to grind it out."

The stage was set for Zimmerman to snap out of his funk and deliver one of his biggest hits of the year when Lombardozzi and Harper each drew walks to open the bottom of the eighth. But after battling back from an 0-2 count against Braves left-hander Eric O'Flaherty, Zimmerman rapped a groundball to second, a tailor-made, 4-6-3 double play that killed the rally.

LaRoche followed with a flyout to the warning track in left, ending the inning altogether.

And when Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel struck out the side in the ninth, a very winnable game was officially a 3-2 loss for a club that is facing some serious questions about the lack of production it's getting from its most experienced hitters.

"I don't think we need to sweat the middle of that lineup," LaRoche said. "I know it needs to happen now, but I think if we continue to stay patient, there's some pretty good hitters in there that are going to figure it out. But it would be nice to be doing it all at once and see what we could really do."

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Nationals six-game winning streak comes to an end in Los Angeles

Nationals six-game winning streak comes to an end in Los Angeles

The book on Alex Meyer was pretty clear: big stuff, bigger control problems.

Not so much Wednesday night for the 6-foot-9 right-hander.

Meyer executed nearly to perfection while allowing a hit and a walk over seven innings and leading the Los Angeles Angels to a 7-0 victory that ended the Washington Nationals' six-game winning streak.

MORE NATS: NATS BOLSTER BULLPEN

"We really didn't have much of a chance," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "Our reports were he didn't have very good command, but he did tonight."

Meyer (4-5) had a perfect game until he walked Anthony Rendon with two outs in the fifth. He lost his no-hitter with two outs in the sixth when Brian Goodwin doubled down the right-field line.

Meyer, Rendon and Goodwin were all first-round draft picks by the Nationals in 2011.

"I went to breakfast with (Goodwin) this morning and paid for it," Meyer said. "I'll have to talk to him about that."

Meyer had been plagued by walks this season (41 in 60 1/3 innings) but had just the one free pass in a career-high seven innings. He struck out seven.

David Hernandez and Jose Alvarez each threw a scoreless, hitless inning to complete the one-hitter. It was only the second time this season the Nationals have been shut out.

"To make outs the way he did says a lot about his upside and potential," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.

Mike Trout and C.J. Cron each hit two-run homers to support Meyer. For Trout, it was his 18th of the season.

Gio Gonzalez (8-5) started for the Nationals but gave up a pair of first-inning runs on Albert Pujols' single and Andrelton Simmons' sacrifice fly, and it was all the runs Los Angeles would need.

Washington outfielder Bryce Harper did not play in the nationally televised game. It was a scheduled day off.

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Zimmerman sets franchise HR record, Nationals beat Reds 6-1

Zimmerman sets franchise HR record, Nationals beat Reds 6-1

The NL East leaders opened the second half of the season with a franchise record, a series sweep and a significant upgrade -- exactly how the Nationals wanted to keep their momentum going.

Ryan Zimmerman set the Nationals' career home run record with a solo shot, and Bryce Harper connected again on Monday as Washington powered its way to a 6-1 victory for a four-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds.

Zimmerman's 235th career homer moved him ahead of Vladimir Guerrero for most in Expos and Nationals history. Guerrero quickly tweeted congratulations , saying he doesn't mind being second.

"It's special to be in one place your entire career," said Zimmerman, in his 12th season with the team that made him a first-round draft pick. "You can't do stuff like this if you're not in the same place for a long time. So I feel very lucky to have spent my entire career here, honored to have hit more home runs than any Expo or National. It's cool."

The Nationals emerged from the All-Star break with an emphatically successful series -- 13 homers, including three by Harper, and 35 runs overall by the league's top offense. It was the Nationals' first four-game sweep of the Reds and left them 6-1 against Cincinnati this season.

Washington improved to a season-high 20 games over .500 (56-36) with its ninth victory in 11 games.

The Nationals' roster got a little better during the series, too. Washington shored up its weak bullpen by getting relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle from Oakland on Sunday. They'll join the team in Los Angeles for the start of a series against the Angels on Tuesday.

"We know we have a good team and we've put ourselves in a good spot to start the second half, but we've got a ways to go," Zimmerman said. "Obviously we acquired two talented guys for the bullpen, and we'll just try to keep scoring runs so that they can come in and lock the games up."

Stephen Strasburg (10-3) recovered from his shortest start of the season by fanning 11 in seven innings and allowing four hits, including Eugenio Suarez's homer. Strasburg left his last start -- a 13-0 loss to Atlanta on July 8 -- after Nick Markakis' liner deflected off his hip in the third inning.

He allowed only two hits -- including an infield single -- in his last five innings.

"Your body wants to pretend it's the offseason," Strasburg said of the break between starts. "It took a little while to get going."

Scott Feldman (7-7) lasted only one inning, limited by a stiff right knee that has been bothering him. He gave up a double, a single, Harper's three-run homer and Zimmerman's solo shot in his first 12 pitches. Feldman left after facing nine batters and giving up five runs on 33 pitches.

"It wouldn't loosen up," Feldman said of the knee. "It was one of those days. I put the team in a tough spot. We were down five runs right off the bat."

Harper's homer extended his hitting streak to 12 games. Brian Goodwin's solo shot made it 6-1 in the sixth.

4 FOR 4

The last time the Nationals swept a four-game series was last season against Atlanta. It was the 11th four-game sweep in Nationals history.

KEEP RUNNING

Daniel Murphy scored from second base on Matt Wieter's fly out in the first inning, turning it into a sacrifice fly. Right fielder Scooter Gennett made a diving catch in the gap and then stumbled and dropped the ball while trying to get up, giving Murphy enough time to make it home.

STATS

It was Strasburg's sixth double-digit strikeout game of the season and the 35th of his career. ... Anthony Rendon extended his hitting streak to 11 games. ... Nationals starters allowed only one run in the series. ... The 13 homers allowed in a series matched the Reds' club record.

NATIONALS MOVES

Washington called up right-hander Jacob Turner from Triple-A. Right-hander Koda Glover -- sidelined since April by a hip injury -- was moved to the 60-day DL.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: CF Michael Taylor hasn't yet started baseball-related activities as he recovers from a strained right oblique. He went on the DL on July 7.

Reds: C Devin Mesoraco began a rehab assignment at Triple-A Louisville. He'll play a few games and be re-evaluated. He's been sidelined since July 5 with a strained left shoulder.

UP NEXT

Nationals: They face the Angels for the first time since 2011. Washington is 6-7 in interleague play this season.

Reds: RHP Sal Romano (1-1) will be called up to make his third career start when the Reds face the Diamondbacks. He also started on April 16 against Milwaukee and July 6 at Colorado.