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Morse's big blast saves Nats

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Morse's big blast saves Nats

ATLANTA -- As he grabbed a bat and helmet before the eighth inning Friday night, Michael Morse stopped to let manager Davey Johnson his hamstring was acting up a little bit and that he might need a pinch-runner if he reached base.

"It's fine," Morse insisted later. "It was tightening up a little bit in Colorado. He told if I feel anything to let him know, so I said: 'I feel a little bit. A little tired.' That was it."

Yes, that was it in more ways than one. Because when Morse promptly crushed the first pitch he saw from Chad Durbin into the right-center field bleachers, he no longer had reason to test that weak hamstring. He could take as much time as he needed to trot around the bases, his solo homer having just given the Nationals a 5-4 lead over the Braves they would not relinquish.

As Johnson said to Morse as the latter returned to the dugout: "That's the way to keep me from running for you."

Morse's tie-breaking blast was a fitting way to cap this tense game that saw some wild swings of emotion and momentum over the final few innings. Up 4-0 most of the night thanks to the offensive exploits of Morse (4-for-4), Ian Desmond (2-run double) and Jesus Flores (solo homer) and six innings of pitching brilliance from Ross Detwiler, the Nationals nearly collapsed.

Given a chance to complete a seventh inning for only the third time in 56 career starts, Detwiler suffered through a major meltdown. In a span of minutes, he plunked one batter, mishandled a comebacker, was charged with a balk, served up an RBI single and then served up the game-tying home run to rookie Andrelton Simmons on a letter-high curveball.

What thoughts were racing through Detwiler's mind as he slumped over on the mound, hands on knees as Simmons rounded the bases to a roar from the Turner Field crowd of 32,299?

"I can't really say that on camera," the left-hander said with a smile. "They gave me four runs, and I gave them all back. Obviously I'm not going to be very happy about that."

That late implosion soiled an otherwise brilliant start for Detwiler, who carried a streak of 18 13 consecutive scoreless innings into that fateful bottom of the seventh. This outing might not have ended the way he wanted, but it nonetheless came at a most opportune time for a Nationals club that needed eight innings out of its bullpen the previous day in Denver and thus desperately needed a lengthy outing from its No. 5 starter.

"I'll tell you, Det gave us just what the doctor ordered," Johnson said. "It's a shame that he made really one bad pitch and it cost him the ballgame. But a strong effort. We needed it so bad, I can't even tell you."

In the end, Johnson needed to turn to his two best relievers -- Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard -- to record the game's final seven outs. Burnett wound up inducing a double play from Matt Diaz to end the eighth. Clippard managed to escape a self-made jam in the ninth, stranding the tying runner in scoring position after a leadoff double to earn his 13th save in as many tries since assuming the closer's role.

"I wasn't expecting to be my sharpest, by any means, but I was little more off than I wanted to be," said the right-hander, who hadn't appeared in a game in six days. "It's something I've experienced before in the past. I feel like when I'm not feeling my best, I can make it work. And that's what I had to do tonight."

Clutch pitching performances aside, it was Morse's clutch home run that ultimately made this victory possible.

It's been a long, slow road back from a torn lat muscle for the outfielder, who needed nearly a month of big-league at-bats to rediscover his hitting stroke. Throughout his early struggles, Morse tried to convince himself it would all come back, he just needed to stay patient.

But that's easier said than done.

"It's very tough. Very tough," he said. "Right off the bat, you're trying to go out there and do some impossible stuff. But when everything fails, you've got to go back to square one. That's just: Go up there, see the ball, hit it, try to have quality at-bats every time."

Morse has had plenty of those in the last week. He's now 12 for his last 19, a stretch during which he's raised his batting average from .217 to .294 and completely changed the makeup of the Nationals' lineup.

"Oh my goodness, my goodness," Johnson said, adding he plans to move Morse back to the cleanup spot on a daily basis.

Last year's team MVP couldn't have picked a better time to deliver his biggest hit of 2012, a knockout blow against a division rival that further solidified the Nationals' standing as the team to beat in the NL East.

"We've been playing a lot of close games, and we're comfortable in those games," Clippard said. "But this atmosphere tonight was a lot like a playoff atmosphere. I've never been in the playoffs, but I can imagine. It's huge for us, especially because we're a young team and we need these games to get us confidence when it's going to count down the stretch. And I think it does that."

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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.

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Max Scherzer bounces back from last week's rough start against Atlanta

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USA Today Sports

Max Scherzer bounces back from last week's rough start against Atlanta

ATLANTA -- Max Scherzer allowed five hits in seven innings, and the Washington Nationals tuned up for the playoffs with a 4-2 victory over Atlanta Braves on Tuesday night.

Scherzer (15-6) bounced back from his worst start of the season, also against the Braves last week, when he walked six and was roughed up for seven runs in an 8-2 loss.

This time, Scherzer struck out seven and walked only one while throwing 83 of 112 pitches for strikes.

Ryan Madson pitched around trouble in the eighth and Sean Doolittle finished with a perfect for his 22nd save, his 19th in as many chances since the Nationals acquired him from Oakland on July 16.

Ryan Zimmerman had three hits and drove in a pair of runs for the NL East champion Nationals.

Rookie left-hander Luiz Gohara (1-2) surrendered four runs and 11 hits in 6 1/3 innings.

Washington took a 2-0 lead in the third, sparked by Matt Wieters' leadoff double. Trea Turner and Zimmerman had run-scoring singles..

Scherzer retired the first 11 Atlanta hitters before Freddie Freeman reached on a bloop single to right in the fourth. Kurt Suzuki dumped a 3-2 pitch in front of left fielder Howie Kendrick to bring home Atlanta's first run.

Zimmerman added another RBI single in the fifth and Washington finished Gohara in the seventh. Rendon ripped a double just inside the third-base bag to drive in Turner.

Dansby Swanson's fifth-inning double provided Atlanta's other run.

TRAINING ROOM

Nationals: 2B Daniel Murphy was scratched from the lineup shortly before the first pitch because of hamstring tightness. He was replaced by Wilmer Difo.

Braves: CF Ender Inciarte left after the fourth inning with a sore left thumb. It's been a lingering problem for the speedy outfielder, who was listed as day to day. Lane Adams moved from left field to center after Inciarte departedt, while Jace Peterson took over leadoff spot in the order.

UP NEXT

Nationals: LH Gio Gonzalez (14-7) gets the nod in the second game of the series Wednesday night. He is 0-2 with a 6.48 ERA in three starts against Atlanta this season, which includes his most recent appearance last week in Washington when he surrendered seven hits and five runs in five innings of an 8-0 loss.

Braves: RH Lucas Sims (2-5) will fill in for Mike Foltynewicz, who was forced to skip his scheduled start after lacerating his right middle finger in his last appearance. Sims has made his last four relief appearances since starting the first seven games of his big league career.