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Lannan, Werth overcome their Philly demons

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Lannan, Werth overcome their Philly demons

PHILADELPHIA -- For John Lannan, the moment came in the bottom of the third, when faced with a bases-loaded jam he struck out Ryan Howard and got Carlos Ruiz on a comebacker.

For Jayson Werth, the moment came in the top of the ninth, when faced with a riled up Phillies crowd in what had become a one-run game he delivered a two-run dagger of a base hit to silence the angry mob.

And for the Nationals, the moment came a few minutes later, when Drew Storen got John Mayberry Jr. to ground out harmlessly to third base and seal an 8-4 victory that moved this team one step closer to the NL East crown and exorcised some Philadelphia demons in the process.

"A big game, a big outing for John," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "That was a huge win for us."

They're all huge at this stage of the calendar year, each win lowering the magic number -- it's now down to 4 -- and reducing the plausibility of a last-minute flip-flop of teams atop the NL East standings.

Yes, the Braves won again Wednesday night -- their ninth win in their last 11 games -- but they still trail the Nationals by four games with only seven left to play. Each day they fail to close the gap is a wasted day from their standpoint.

The most important thing the Nationals can do right now is win games themselves, something they've done 94 times this season but something they've struggled to do inside Citizens Bank Park. That made this victory all the more significant, especially because of the history of two players who were influential in pulling this one off.

Start with Lannan, whose big-league career began in Philadelphia five years ago with an unexpected ejection for plunking Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in succession and had only gone downhill since then. In seven starts in this ballpark entering Wednesday, the left-hander was 1-5 with a 7.06 ERA.

Lannan, though, has stared down all kinds of adversity during the strangest year of his professional life, so it only felt appropriate to overcome one of his biggest hurdles and beat the Phillies in a game his Nationals desperately needed to win.

With 5 13 innings of two-run ball, Lannan improved to 4-0 in five big-league starts this season, all of them significant wins.

"He's been outstanding for us this year," manager Davey Johnson said. "That's his fourth win up here. Big game against Atlanta, big one here. He's just been a big boost for us."

Though he was mostly sharp during this outing, Lannan did find himself in one big jam when ht loaded the bases with one out in the third. All of a sudden, Howard stepped to the plate with a chance to tie the game up on one swing. Given Lannan's sordid history in this place, few would have been shocked had that nightmare scenario happened.

The lefty, though, took a different mindset with him to the mound.

"I've been in that situation here so many times and come up short, so I told myself not to do what I did back then," he said. "I don't even know what I was doing, I just told myself I wasn't going to let it happen because it's happened so many times here. I kind of was fed up with it and kind of just went from there."

So Lannan calmly struck out Howard on a curveball, then snagged Ruiz's comebacker to snuff out the rally and preserve a 5-1 lead.

The Nationals had staked their starter to that cushion thanks to an early explosion against Phillies right-hander Kyle Kendrick. Three of their first eight batters belted home runs, with Bryce Harper becoming only the second teenager ever to hit 20, Desmond increasing his career-high total to 25 and Kurt Suzuki adding his fifth over his last 22 games.

"The kid got us going again," Desmond said.

Harper may have got them going early, but Werth got them over the hump late with a huge hit just when it looked like the Nationals' lead was tenuous.

After chipping away all night, the Phillies got the deficit down to 5-4 in the eighth and nearly tied the game against slumping reliever Tyler Clippard. Desperate for an insurance run in the top of the ninth, the Nationals wound up getting three, the first two delivered by Werth in dramatic fashion.

Standing in the on-deck circle during that inning, Werth picked up a ball fouled off by Danny Espinosa. The one-time Phillies right fielder turned to toss it to a group of kids seated behind the Nationals dugout but claims he was concerned a group of "unruly middle-aged men that, to me, appeared to be snarling" right behind them.

So Werth tossed the ball into the dugout instead, a move that prompted the entire ballpark to shower boos upon him for the next five minutes, including as he battled through his at-bat against right-hander Justin DeFratus. The boos turned to cheers only for a moment after DeFratus buzzed him with a high-and-tight fastball, then everyone turned silent when Werth laced a 2-2 pitch up the middle for a base hit that scored two runs and gave the Nationals much-needed breathing room.

"I was so excited for him," Harper said. "I wanted to jump up and down and scream. ... These fans going crazy, booing him, telling him he sucks and whatnot. They don't know what they're missing. He's an unbelievable ballplayer, and he's been clutch for us all year. He's what gets us going."

Werth, who forcefully clapped his hands together after rounding first base, wound up scoring moments later when Harper delivered his ninth triple of the season, extending the lead to four runs. He downplayed the booing by a fan base that used to adore him when he manned right field in this ballpark.

"It's really just part of playing in Philadelphia," he said. "That's what makes it great. I had a lot of fun here. I had a lot of good times and wouldn't trade those for the world."

Werth, of course, is enjoying some good times with the Nationals right now. While the Phillies are on the verge of missing the postseason for the first time in six years, he's on the verge of clinching the NL East and embarking on a postseason run with his new club.

Which means plenty more key at-bats for a guy who seems to relish those opportunities.

"I mean, as time goes on here, as we get into October, there's probably going to be even more of that," Werth said. "I've been here before, definitely don't mind it."

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Nationals vs. Braves Preview: Gonzalez looks to rebound

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USA TODAY Sports

Nationals vs. Braves Preview: Gonzalez looks to rebound

ATLANTA -- One of the questions the Atlanta Braves brass must answer during the offseason is whether right-handed pitching prospect Lucas Sims belongs in the rotation or the bullpen.

Sims (2-5, 5.52 ERA) will make another start Wednesday against the Washington Nationals, who send veteran left-hander Gio Gonzalez (14-7, 2.68) to oppose him in the second contest of a three-game series at SunTrust Park.

The Nationals won the series opener 4-2 on Tuesday to take a 9-8 lead in the season series. The loss guaranteed Atlanta (67-82) would have a losing record for the fourth consecutive season.

RELATED: WHEN WILL BRYCE HARPER RETURN?

Gonzalez, like teammate Max Scherzer, is a candidate for the National League Cy Young Award. The southpaw is coming off a poor showing against Atlanta on Sept. 12, when he allowed five runs in five innings despite eight strikeouts.

"You get the strikeouts and then all of a sudden, the hits came in," Gonzalez said. "It was just one of those games. You take it for what it was, sweep it up the rug and get ready for tomorrow. It was one of those games you can't really understand what happened, just pick up where you can and go from there."

The Braves have fared well against Gonzalez. In 20 career starts against Atlanta, he is 4-11 with a 5.27 ERA. This season, Gonzalez is 0-2 with a 6.48 ERA in three starts vs. the Braves.

Sims, a rookie who was the team's first-round draft choice in 2012, has made 11 appearances (seven starts). He has made it clear that he prefers to be a starting pitcher.

The Braves moved Sims to the bullpen after his Sept. 2 start against the Chicago Cubs, when he allowed seven runs in three innings. Because he was stretched out, Sims had the ability to throw multiple innings out of the 'pen, which he did in two of his subsequent four relief appearances.

However, on Sunday, the Braves announced Sims as the starter for the Wednesday game and moved left-hander Max Fried to the bullpen. Fried is another rookie who will be under consideration to join the rotation in 2018.

"The kid never quits," Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Sims. "He keeps pitching. He competes."

In seven starts, Sims has averaged 5 1/3 innings per outing. In 44 innings overall, he has recorded 31 strikeouts and 15 walks.

Sims has made only one appearance against Washington, that a perfect one-inning stint on Sept. 13.

Atlanta has had trouble scoring runs of late. Over the past five games, the Braves managed only 11 runs.

The Braves likely will be without catalyst Ender Inciarte on Wednesday. The center fielder left the game early Tuesday with right thumb soreness. Snitker said there was no structural damage and that Inciarte needs a day of rest.

"We just have to back off," Snitker said. "It's just sore."

Inciarte doesn't like to take a day off under normal circumstances, must less when he is chasing 200 hits. He was 0-for-2 on Tuesday, leaving him with 190 hits. He is trying to become the first Atlanta player to reach the milestone since Marquis Grissom in 1996.

Washington is close to getting its injured players back.

Outfielder Bryce Harper (hyperextended left knee) and infielder Stephen Drew (left abdominal strain) ran before the Tuesday game. Both are eligible to come off the disabled list whenever they are deemed healthy.

RELATED: MLB POSTSEASON 2017 BRACKET PROJECTION

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When will Bryce Harper return to the Nationals' lineup?

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USA TODAY Sports

When will Bryce Harper return to the Nationals' lineup?

Bryce Harper hasn't seen the baseball diamond since August 12 and if you follow him on social media, you know the wait is nearly killing him.

In the past week however, he has been making positive steps in his road to recovery.

Before Thursday's game against the Braves, Harper was seen running foul pole to foul pole at Nats Park.

RELATED: NAT'S DANIEL MURPHY AND SON ATTEND CAPS PRACTICE

And prior to Sunday's game against the Dodgers, Harper took batting practice.

Then, on Tuesday, Harper batted in a simulated game prior to the team's road game against the Braves. He even ran around the bases to test out his injured knee.

These are all great signs, but when can we really expect him to return?

There have been rumors that it could be as soon as this week, so the Sports Junkies took matters into their own hands and ask general manager Mike Rizzo about it on their show Wednesday morning.

"Bryce had a very productive day yesterday, a very busy day," Rizzo said.

"He had a lot of work to put in yesterday. Harp came out looking good. The anchor leg, his left leg, which is Harp's back leg, his power leg, came through it fine. We'll see how he feels today, which will be very very important and see where we take it from there. He ran bases yesterday which was good and threw from the outfield, so he's slowly and cautiously getting back into a routine. Depending on how he progresses, we'll see where we take it from there. Hopefully, he can get a couple of games of live at bat under his belt before we have that four day break before the playoffs start."

RELATED: NATS FIRST MLB TEAM TO CLINCH PLAYOFF SPOT

So what exactly is Harper doing in a "simulated game?"

"It was just a hitting game for him. We brought up two minor league pitchers for him to see live stuff. What he and Steven Drew hitting, they probably had a total of about 10 or so at bats. 10 or 12 real at bats where four balls, three strikes type of thing, you hit a base hit you're out, that type of thing."

"You could do whatever you want in those games. So, we simulated with men on base, without men on base. The hitter did not know what the pitcher was going to throw and that was kind of the key to it, where you're recognizing spins and velocity and that type of thing. It's well beyond the batting practice that he's been getting recently. We'll continue to do this. We'll filter in some minor league pitchers as we go along and he'll get some time in that way until he can participating in game activities which we hope is sooner rather than later."

The magic date for Bryce Harper and the Nats is Friday, Oct. 6th when the National League Division series start and so does the Nats World Series run.