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Nationals now have backs against the wall

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Nationals now have backs against the wall

For six months, they could stake claim to the title of "Best Team in Baseball." And after they won their first-ever postseason game Sunday afternoon, the Nationals had every reason to continue crowing about themselves.

Then they got beat up in St. Louis on Monday. Then they got beat up again on Wednesday, this time in front of a record-setting home crowd that gave the first playoff game in Washington in eight decades into a true playoff atmosphere.

And now, in the span of 72 hours, the "Best Team in Baseball" finds itself 27 outs from elimination before many on the roster have even had a chance to process what is going on.

"This isn't the situation we wanted to be in," shortstop Ian Desmond said following an 8-0 drubbing at the hands of the Cardinals in Game 3 of the NLDS. "But we're here and we're going to deal with it, just like we've been dealing with wins and losses all year long."

That was the prevalent theme throughout a somber Nationals clubhouse at the end of one of the more frustrating afternoons in team history. Just because they're facing a do-or-die scenario Thursday in Game 4, players don't believe it's necessary to change the dynamic all of a sudden.

"Our formula has worked pretty well," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "I think it would be kind of bad to change it now."

Perhaps that philosophy works. There's enough talent on the Nationals' roster -- in the lineup, in the rotation, in the bullpen and on the bench -- to win two games in two days, no matter the opponent.

But there's also no proof that success from April through September guarantees success in October. The postseason, plain and simple, is a different animal.

Over the course of a 162-game schedule, there's always ample opportunity to snap out of funks, always another game to play and put yesterday's events in the rear-view mirror.

In a five-game Division Series, that's not the case. Every at-bat, every pitch is magnified. One clutch hit becomes the stuff of legend. One squandered opportunity becomes something that lingers all winter.

"That's how the playoffs are," Zimmerman said. "I think that's why all you have to do is get in. It's whomever's hot. These first series are obviously a little bit more leaning toward that, because it's such a short series. You get hot for a couple games, you have a commanding lead.

"But we've put ourselves in a good position by playing the way we did in the regular season, and now we have to win one game. If we win one game, we have a good chance with our guy on the mound."

Before they can get to their guy, Gio Gonzalez, in a decisive Game 5, the Nationals first need Ross Detwiler to lead them to victory in Game 4. That's easier said than done. The left-hander has enjoyed a breakthrough season in many ways, but he's still battle-untested, and the freshest memory of him with a ball in hand is the trouncing he took 10 days ago in St. Louis against the same lineup he'll face on Thursday.

"Det's capable of pitching a good game tomorrow," manager Davey Johnson said, shooting down any possibility of Gonzalez returning on short rest. "That's been our strength all year. These young guys have pitched great all year."

Great pitching is only one-half of the equation. It wouldn't matter who toed the rubber on Wednesday, because he couldn't have won a game when his teammates didn't score once.

A Nationals lineup that was among the most productive in the majors during the season's second half hasn't exactly gone ice-cold in the postseason. This team has put 36 men on base in the first three games of the series.

The problem, though, hasn't been putting men on base. It's been driving them in. After an 0-for-8 showing in Game 3, the Nationals are now a paltry 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position, stranding 30 total men on base.

The only three players who have come through in those situations: Kurt Suzuki, Tyler Moore and Jordan Zimmermann. Yes, the No. 8 hitter, a rookie off the bench and a pitcher.

Is that lack of playoff experience finally starting to show, with young hitters pressing at the plate in key spots?

"When you're down a few runs, you want to drive something in," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "You can get a little anxious then and try to take more than they give you. Probably later in the game, that was more the case, guys trying to do a little extra to spark something."

It's a natural tendency to try to do too much when the pressure is ramped up. How could anyone in a Nationals uniform not feel that when standing in the box on Wednesday with two men on base and two out, the crowd of 45,017 imploring him to do something special?

That, of course, is the last thing anyone wants to do in that situation. Yet there's no escaping the fact the Nationals have arrived at a moment of desperation.

After mostly cruising through their regular season with few hints of true adversity -- ie. facing a must-win situation -- they'll now arrive at the park on Thursday knowing this could be their final game of the year.

"I believe in this team, I believe in these guys," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "We've been here all year. Over a 162-game season, we were the best team in baseball. And I still feel that way."

The best team in baseball over 162 games, though, isn't always the best team in baseball over a five-game playoff series.

That's a lesson the Nationals hope not to learn over the next 48 hours.

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Trea Turner ties franchise record of stolen bases in single game with Nats 6-1 win over Cubs

Trea Turner ties franchise record of stolen bases in single game with Nats 6-1 win over Cubs

WASHINGTON -- Neither of the past two NL Cy Young Award winners had his best stuff, though Max Scherzer handled things much better than Jake Arrieta.

Scherzer allowed one run and two hits as the Washington Nationals knocked Arrieta out in the fifth inning on the way to a 6-1 victory Tuesday night. While Arrieta was slow to the plate and allowed seven stolen bases, Scherzer (9-5) threw a strong six innings, striking out six with no walks and retiring 16 of the final 17 batters he faced.

"I didn't really have great fastball command tonight, but I was able to use my offspeed to kind of collect outs when I needed to and I didn't walk anybody," said Scherzer, who allowed an earned run in the first inning for the first time since April but was in command the rest of the night. "When we needed shutdown innings we got them."

Arrieta (7-6), on the other hand, struggled with his control as he issued a season-high six walks and allowed five earned runs, getting the hook two batters into the fifth inning. The 2015 Cy Young winner hadn't walked more than three batters in a game this season.

Manager Joe Maddon quipped that the Cubs "let the wrong guys on base," but catcher Miguel Montero blamed Arrieta for all the steals.

"The reason why they were running left and right today because they know he was slow to the plate," a visibly frustrated Montero said. "It really sucked because the stolen bases go to me, and when you really look at it, the pitcher doesn't give me any time."

Four of the Montreal Expos/Nationals franchise record seven steals came from speedy shortstop Trea Turner, who Arrieta called a "factor" any time he's on.

"I don't care who is behind the plate," Arrieta said. "He's a threat."

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Washington manager Dusty Baker said the team knew Arrieta was a pitcher to run on, and the result was a lot of small ball for a team accustomed to driving in runs with power. Washington center fielder Michael Taylor went 2 for 4 with two RBIs, and Scherzer washed out the RBI triple he allowed to Kris Bryant in the first by driving in a run with an infield single off Arrieta's glove in the fourth.

When Scherzer was lifted after 93 pitches through six with a comfortable 6-1 lead, the Nationals' beleaguered bullpen got three clean innings of relief from Enny Romero, Blake Treinen, Oliver Perez and Matt Albers.

Trea Turner tied the franchise record with four steals in a game, repeating his own feat from two weeks ago. He had a chance in the eighth to break the record and move within one of the most in a game in the modern era of baseball but did not try with Bryce Harper up and a five-run lead.

"I don't think I was held, but I didn't know if I was supposed to go," said Turner, who has 32 stolen bases this season.

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Nationals stage spirited rally in ninth but fall just short in series opener vs. Cubs

Nationals stage spirited rally in ninth but fall just short in series opener vs. Cubs

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Wade Davis struck out batting leader Ryan Zimmerman with runners on second and third to end Washington's ninth-inning rally, and the Chicago Cubs held off the Nationals 5-4 Monday night.

In jeopardy of being shut out for the first time this season, the NL East-leading Nationals scored four times in the ninth. Their comeback began against Hector Rondon and continued when Davis entered.

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With Washington down 5-3, Bryce Harper's single loaded the bases with two outs. Davis threw a wild pitch that scored a run before striking out a swinging Zimmerman, who's hitting .344. The final pitch bounced, and catcher Willson Contreras zipped a low throw to first baseman Anthony Rizzo to close out the victory.

Contreras hit a leadoff home run in his first career game-opening at-bat and Eddie Butler (4-2) worked five scoreless innings to keep the Cubs ahead.