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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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Bryce Harper knows why he didn't play well, but he won't specify why

Bryce Harper knows why he didn't play well, but he won't specify why

Bryce Harper struggled by his standards in 2016 and he says he know why it happened last year. While it was rumored last season that he was playing through injuries, Harper never really missed significant time, nor did he really say that his injuries were the reason for his disappointing numbers. 

Speaking with the media today at spring training, Harper hinted at his injuries from last season as he said he was just trying to stay in the lineup every day.  

Although Harper's statistics dropped off dramatically from his MVP season in 2015, his numbers weren't entirely awful last year. He still hit 24 homers, drove in 86 runs and he had an .814 OPS. 

With a full offseason to heal up, Harper will be a prime bounce-back candidate as he looks to help the Nationals win their third NL East title in the last four years. 

Related: Sorry D.C. sports fans, Bryce Harper is a Dallas Cowboys fan

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Nationals' Max Scherzer says he may not be ready for season opener

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The Nationals aren't certain to have ace Max Scherzer ready to pitch for Opening Day. Scherzer, 32, was unable to compete in the World Baseball Classic this summer due to a stress fracture in his right ring finger. 

When he spoke to the media today at the first bullpen session of spring training, he said that the fracture has healed but the symptoms continue. 

Scherzer also said he'd just started throwing again this week. Manager Dusty Baker confimed that the Nationals don't know whether Scherzer will be ready to start the season. 

Any time a team's star pitcher suffers an unusual hand injury, it's cause for concern for the club and fans. 

Scherzer won the NL Cy Young Award last season and posted a 20-7 record as a starter. He also led the MLB with 284 strikeouts. 

Scherzer is an especially vital part of the Nationals rotation considering the injury history of Stephen Strasburg, who landed on the DL twice last season, once with soreness in the elbow that needed Tommy John surgery in 2010. 

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