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Nats blow big opportunity by letting Clayton Kershaw off the hook

Nats blow big opportunity by letting Clayton Kershaw off the hook

For as much focus that is applied to managerial decisions, defensive mistakes, bullpen collapses, pinch-hit at-bats and pitching gems in the MLB playoffs, postseason games often boil down to one simple premise. If one team is given an opportunity by their opponent, no matter how unexpected that chance may be, they have to take advantage. 

In the playoffs all teams are good. They got to this point in part because they don't do the things that bad teams do to beat themselves. The good clubs commit very few missteps, and the same applies to great players. Clayton Kershaw, among them.

On Friday, in Game 1 of the NL Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Nationals were given a window few teams have been offered. Kershaw, he of three Cy Youngs and an NL MVP award, did not have his best stuff. He was uncharacteristically off, still sharpening his tools since returning from a back injury. His curveball missed low in the dirt and that left his fastball more hittable than usual.

[RELATED: Cold bats put Nationals down 1-0 in NLDS]

That allowed the Nats to notch three runs against him and chase him after five innings. That would usually be enough for ace Max Scherzer, a Cy Young winner himself. That would normally represent a considerable break. Not on this night.

The Nationals had Kershaw in a vulnerable state, but could not come away with a victory that probably should have been theirs.

"We had him on the ropes a couple times, the big hit just escaped us," manager Dusty Baker said.

Now the Nationals are down a game in a best-of-five series, just two losses from elimination. They have essentially lost the home field advantage they worked so hard to procure. 

"We worked him really good. We answered back and we knocked him out of the game in five innings," outfielder Jayson Werth said. "Obviously we had some opportunities and didn't get it done."

[RELATED: Nats name starters for Games 2 and 3 vs. Dodgers in NLDS]

Kershaw gave up eight hits after doing that only three times in 21 starts during the regular season. Only twice did he allow as many runs as he offered on Friday night. The Nationals created scoring chances and could have had more, but let him off the hook in several key spots.

Danny Espinosa struck out twice to end innings and left six men on base. Scherzer popped out with the bases loaded to end the second. All three moments had the sellout crowd rocking Nationals Park before all took their seats in disappointment. The Nationals went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position and stranded nine baserunners. 

Scherzer fell just short in a big spot at the plate, but his performance on the mound was what truly hurt the Nationals. He found trouble early with four runs through three innings, three of them on home runs. The Nats ace would recover to go six innings, but those four runs were all the Dodgers needed. Their bullpen took over after Kershaw and combined to throw four scoreless frames.

The Nationals would have more opportunities after Kershaw exited. Like, when Daniel Murphy walked with out in the seventh, only to get caught stealing second soon after. Or, when Clint Robinson doubled with two outs in the eighth before Chris Heisey struck out looking to closer Kenley Jansen. 

Losing to the Dodgers in Game 1 is tolerable, even in a short series. Losing to Kershaw can be even be expected. But losing to him on a day he didn't have his ace stuff is an especially tough pill to swallow.

[RELATED: Nats' Stephen Strasburg throws bullpen for 1st time in injury rehab]


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Max Scherzer's bid for third no-hitter ends in heartbreak

Max Scherzer's bid for third no-hitter ends in heartbreak

Max Scherzer's bid for the third no-hitter of his big league career ended with one out in the eighth inning, and he then gave up two unearned runs as the Miami Marlins rallied to beat the Washington Nationals 2-1 Wednesday.

After backup catcher A.J. Ellis reached on an infield single for Miami's first hit, an error by first baseman Adam Lind and a hit batter loaded the bases with two outs. Scherzer threw a wild pitch that scored the tying run, and Giancarlo Stanton lined an RBI single -- the Marlins' only other hit -- to put them ahead.

Scherzer (8-5) threw no-hitters against the Pirates and Mets in 2015, and he seemed on his way to another when he began the eighth inning with a 1-0 lead.

He retired 18 in a row before Ellis hit a chopper that bounced in front of the plate and glanced off the tip of Scherzer's glove as he reached overhead for it. The ball rolled to shortstop Trea Turner, who failed in his attempt to make a barehanded pickup and rush a throw.

MORE NATS: 12-3 win over Marlins Tuesday

Official scorer Ron Jernick immediately ruled the play a hit, and Scherzer knew it. He picked up the ball and angrily flung it to the dugout -- not as a souvenir.

Washington totaled five hits against Dan Straily and three relievers. Kyle Barraclough (3-1) pitched the eighth, and A.J. Ramos worked around a two-out single in the ninth for his 10th save.

Scherzer threw a season-high 121 pitches and had 11 strikeouts, reaching double figures for the sixth game in a row, the team's longest such streak such the franchise moved to Washington for the 2005 season.

He lowered his ERA to 2.08, best in the NL. He also leads the league with 145 strikeouts.

The other no-hitter in the majors this year was achieved on the same mound by Miami's Edinson Volquez against Arizona on June 3.

RELATED: 2017 MLB Power Rankings

The crowd of 22,659 for the 12:10 p.m. start included thousands of youngsters on camp day, and they gave the game a scream-filled soundtrack.

The score was 0-0 until Washington's Ryan Raburn hit his first homer of the year in the fifth. Raburn was a late replacement for outfielder Michael A. Taylor, who was scratched because he wasn't feeling well.

That was the only run allowed by Straily, who went six innings.

Scherzer walked Christian Yelich with two out in the first and hit Derek Dietrich with a pitch with one out in the second. That was Miami's last baserunner until the eighth.

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The Nats got hot Tuesday in Miami with 12-3 win over Marlins

The Nats got hot Tuesday in Miami with 12-3 win over Marlins

Gio Gonzalez had some worrisome moments on the mound Tuesday night, including when a friend sitting in the first row behind the Washington Nationals' dugout was hit in the head by a flying bat.

"Next time in the front row everyone will be wearing a helmet," Gonzalez said.

The friend later said he was fine, and Gonzalez felt good too after pitching seven innings to beat the Miami Marlins 12-3.

Gonzalez (7-1) allowed three runs, including two on Marcell Ozuna's 19th homer , but struck out eight and won his fourth consecutive decision.

"Exactly what we needed," manager Dusty Baker said. "Gio's throwing the ball great."

He had plenty of support even before a five-run ninth. Bryce Harper started the scoring with a two-run single that extended his hitting streak to 13 games, and Daniel Murphy had two RBIs and hit his 12th homer . Stephen Drew had three hits and three RBIs, while Ryan Zimmerman drove in three runs with a double and a single.

Gonzalez, who grew up in nearby Hialeah, improved to 7-3 in 13 starts against his hometown team with an ERA of 2.19. He had a cluster of friends and relatives in attendance, and that's where Justin Bour's bat went when it slipped from his hands on a swing in the fifth inning.

"It's good to have friends here, but put them somewhere safe," Gonzalez said.

He said his pal who was hit received a souvenir later as compensation for being clubbed.

"Bour gave him a bat, which is pretty cool on his part, because we want the fans to come back," Gonzalez said.

The left-hander said it was too early to talk about the possibility of pitching in the All-Star game, which will be played in his hometown next month. His teammates are rooting for it.

"Gio has been great," Harper said. "I'm hoping he pitches like this the rest of the first half and gets the start here. It would be incredible to see."

The NL East leaders went 7 for 14 with runners in scoring position, but it was still 0-0 when Edinson Volquez (3-8) walked Michael A. Taylor and Trea Turner in the third inning, and they advanced on a double steal.

With two outs, Harper tried to bunt on the first pitch -- a curious move by the slugger -- and pushed it foul. He golfed the next pitch into center for the Nationals' first hit to put them up 2-0.

"I don't hit Volquez very well," Harper said. "If I can lay a bunt down with a guy at third and get a knock and score a run ... but it worked out."

Pitching to Harper backfired for Miami, so the next time he came to bat, when the Nationals again had a runner in scoring position, Marlins manager Don Mattingly opted for an intentional walk. Zimmerman foiled the strategy with a two-run double.

"They've got a good lineup," Mattingly said. "They put you in a box in a number of ways."

Volquez allowed a season-high six runs in 4 2/3 innings.