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Nationals hold off Cardinals

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Nationals hold off Cardinals

By Mark Zuckerman
Nationals Insider

ST. LOUIS -- The champagne was on site, stored away in crates out of view from the main room in the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium. So, too, were the plastic locker covers, the ones that can quickly be installed to prevent all that champagne from ruining clothes, jewelry and electronics.

The Nationals showed up Saturday afternoon prepared for a party, just in case events fell their way. But before their 6-4, 10-inning victory over the Cardinals was complete, they already knew there would be no celebration on this night. The Braves' 2-0 win over the Mets kept the NL East race alive for at least one more day.

The Nationals, though, know they don't need to count on Atlanta for anything any more. Thanks to this victory, they lowered their magic number to 1. If they simply win one of their final four games, they'll win the division and enter the postseason no worse than the NL's No. 2 seed.

The clinch could now come Sunday afternoon, with the Nationals closing out this series against the Cardinals about 30 minutes after the Braves and Mets get underway at Turner Field.

A clinch Saturday night -- on the eighth anniversary of the day Major League Baseball announced baseball was returning to Washington after a 33-year hiatus -- certainly would have been sweet. But a clinch Sunday afternoon -- on the 41st anniversary of the Senators' final game at RFK Stadium -- would be just as meaningful for the Nationals and for generations of D.C. baseball fans.

The Nationals reached this precipice of history after a nip-and-tuck, extra-inning affair against the Wild Card-contending Cardinals, one that saw Michael Morse kick things off with one of the strangest grand slams in decades, then saw Jordan Zimmermann and four relievers try to hang on for dear life to prevent St. Louis from completing a late rally that would have spoiled the night for everyone.

The first three men out of the bullpen (Sean Burnett, Ryan Mattheus and Tyler Clippard) managed to get the job done. The fourth man out of the pen, Drew Storen, was not as fortunate.

The Nationals' once-and-future closer blew a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth, allowing back-to-back, groundball singles to Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso before Jon Jay lofted a sacrifice fly to center, plenty deep to bring Kozma home with the tying run and send this one to extra innings.

No worries, because Kurt Suzuki picked everyone up with a clutch, two-out, two-run double in the top of the 10th, moments after St. Louis manager Mike Matheny decided to intentionally walk the struggling Danny Espinosa and pitch to the recently-hot catcher instead.

Suzuki, now hitting .322 with 20 RBI over his last 27 games, scorched right-hander Fernando Salas' pitch to the wall in left-center, bringing home both Adam LaRoche and Espinosa and letting everyone in the Nationals dugout breath a bit again.

Craig Stammen then finished it off, earning a rare save to cap off a tense evening of baseball.

They treated this like any other day inside the Nationals clubhouse before the game, players lounging around playing cards or watching the Ryder Cup on television. Little would anyone realize the champagne and plastic locker covers were lurking in an adjacent room, ready to be moved into position should events make it necessary.

For that to happen, of course, the Nationals not only needed to win but the Braves needed to lose for the second straight night. They'd been sneaking peeks at the out-of-town-scoreboard for several weeks, but they really were keeping a close eye on the giant, LED display above the right field fence at Busch Stadium.

"This one here is plastered all over in front of you," manager Davey Johnson said. "So you can't hardly miss it."

Thus, the Nationals had to notice very quickly when the Braves jumped out to a 1-0 lead on the Mets in the bottom of the first. And they had to notice when the lead doubled to 2-0 in the bottom of the fifth, then remained just like that deep into the ballgame, a somewhat demoralizing development for a club that was hoping to celebrate on this night.

Not that the Nationals weren't holding up their part of the bargain, storming out of the gates to take a 4-0 lead in the top of the first in as bizarre a scene as you'll ever see on a big-league field.

After Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and LaRoche all reached safely with one out, Morse stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and Kyle Lohse on the ropes. He pounced on Lohse's first pitch and drilled the ball on a line to right field, where it caromed off something and bounced back onto the field.

The Nationals all assumed it was a home run, but Cardinals right fielder Carlos Beltran fired the ball back into the infield, so now nobody was entirely sure what happened. Harper crossed the plate, but Zimmerman stopped at third and LaRoche stopped after rounding second. That left Morse scampering back to first base, where he wound up getting thrown out.

The umpires immediately huddled up and agreed to go take a look at the tape, then after a brief delay they confirmed what everyone watching on TV saw: the ball struck an advertisement beyond the fence, clearly a home run.

So Morse was awarded the grand slam, and the Nationals were suddenly up 4-0 ... except for one small problem: All four of their baserunners needed to reposition themselves and jog around the bases to make it official. Thus everyone was treated to the surreal sight of Morse standing in the batters' box, no bat in hand, pantomiming a swing and then trotting 360 feet to complete his Immaculate Grand Slam.

If that wasn't a positive omen for the Nationals on a potentially historic night, what else could be?

How about a dominant pitching performance from Zimmermann, whose up-and-down second half of the season ended on an uplifting note. For six innings, the right-hander was in complete control, scattering four singles and a walk, not allowing any of those runners to cross the plate.

Zimmermann, though, finally faltered in the seventh, letting four straight Cardinals reach in rapid succession, faster than Johnson to get right-hander Mattheus warmed up in the bullpen. So Johnson waited until the left-handed Jon Jay was at the plate before signaling for Burnett, who promptly allowed a seeing-eye single that trimmed the lead to 4-3 but rebounded by getting Matt Carpenter to fly out to center.

Mattheus finally entered after that, facing slugger Matt Holliday in a huge spot, with the tying run on second and two outs. Mattheus, who has been one of the Nationals' better relievers at escaping jams this season, delivered again. He got Holliday to fly out harmlessly to right, preserving that slimmest of leads.

As this was all playing out, though, Craig Kimbrel was putting the finishing touches on the Braves' victory. Just like that, no matter what happened on the field at Busch Stadium, there would be no celebration in the clubhouse.

The champagne stayed in those cases. The plastic locker covers stayed hidden from view. And the Nationals could do nothing but head back their hotel for the night, knowing the celebration Washington baseball fans have waited 79 years to experience can't take place for at least one more day.

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Nationals, MLB betting odds and prop bets for 2017 season

Nationals, MLB betting odds and prop bets for 2017 season

Sports Betting Dime released betting odds and prop bets for the 2017 MLB season this week.

According to the sports book, the Nationals, in particular, sit well in their chances to win the World Series, as well as to have the NL MVP in Bryce Harper and the NL Cy Young Award winner in Max Scherzer.

Harper, at 5/1, also has the best odds to have the largest home run increase of any player in Major League Baseball this season among players who hit a minimum of 20 a year ago.

The Nationals and Orioles, for what it’s worth, also have 199/1 odds – sixth best – to meet each other in the World Series. The Orioles have 50/1 odds to win it in general.

But there’s also some interesting prop bets, as well, namely a number of things involving former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, who has been assigned to the Mets’ low Class A affiliate to begin the season.

For a full list of odds and props, click here.

RELATED: Donald Trump will not throw out Nationals Opening Day first pitch

Odds to win World Series

Chicago Cubs: 11/2

Cleveland Indians: 8/1

Boston Red Sox: 9/1

Los Angeles Dodgers: 9/1

Washington Nationals: 14/1

Baltimore Orioles: 50/1

Odds to meet in the 2017 World Series

Cubs-Indians: 13/1

Cubs-Red Sox: 16/1

Cubs-Yankees: 66/1

Mets-Yankees: 195/1

Dodgers-Angels: 166/1

Orioles-Nationals: 199/1

National League MVP

Kris Bryant (Cubs): 6/1

Bryce Harper (Nationals): 7/1

Corey Seager (Dodgers): 9/1

Nolan Arenado (Rockies): 9/1

Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers): 2/1

Max Scherzer (Nationals): 5/1

Noah Syndergaard (Mets): 8/1

National League Cy Young Award

Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers): 2/1

Max Scherzer (Nationals): 5/1

Noah Syndergaard (Mets): 8/1

Odds at least one player hits 50-plus home runs: 7/4

Over/under number of players to hit 40-plus home runs: 6.5

Odds Tim Tebow …

--gets an at bat for the Mets this season: 250/1

--retires or is released before the end of the 2017 World Series: 2/1

--over/under career MLB home runs for Tim Tebow: 0.5

Odds to have the largest home run increase from 2016 (minimum 20 HRs):

Bryce Harper (Nationals; 24 in 2016): 5/1

Giancarlo Stanton (Marlins; 27): 11/2

Gary Sanchez (Yankees; 20): 7/1

Jose Bautista (Blue Jays; 22): 9/1

Jose Abreu (White Sox; 24): 9/1

Odds Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez announce their engagement in 2017: 3/1

RELATED: 10 insane ballpark foods you'll find in 2017

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Donald Trump will not throw out Nationals Opening Day first pitch

Donald Trump will not throw out Nationals Opening Day first pitch

One of the most iconic moments in sports is when the President of the United States throws out a first pitch at a baseball game. In fact, every president dating back to William Taft in 1910 has thrown at least one Opening Day ceremonial first pitch during their time in office. 

At least for this year, Donald Trump will not join that long lists of presidents. 

According to Bryon Kerr, President Trump will not partake in the tradition due to scheduling conflicts.

Traditionally the ceremonial first pitch by presidents has been done on Opening Day, but also there have been presidents that have thrown the first pitch at the All-Star Game, and even during the World Series; none was perhaps more memorable that George W. Bush's first pitch in the 2001 World Series. 

Regularly presidents have thrown out the first pitch on Opening Day, but it is not uncommon for presidents to miss out on one of baseball's sacred days. George W. Bush only threw the Opening Day pitch in six of his eight years as president. He would also throw a Ceremonial first pitch in 2009, his first year out of office. Barack Obama would only throw one Opening Day first pitch and that was in 2010 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the now forgotten tradition. 

Before his presidency, President Trump has thrown one first pitch to start a baseball game. It was during the 2006 regular season at Fenway Park. 

RELATED: Tim Tebow strikes out in three pitches from Max Sherzer