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Nats getting close, but not quite there yet

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Nats getting close, but not quite there yet

PHILADELPHIA -- They've won 95 games, matching the franchise record. They've won more games than they've lost every month this season. They've played .643 ball since snapping a five-game losing streak in Miami on August 29, clubbing 51 homers during those 28 games.

But as the final week of the regular season arrives, the Nationals have yet to celebrate anything, aside from the fact they're guaranteed to play at least one playoff game in October.

Even with Thursday night's 7-3 thumping of the Phillies, the Nationals only inched closer to the NL East title. Their magic number now at 3, they can't clinch the division until Saturday night in St. Louis at the earliest.

For that, they can thank the scorching-hot Braves, who simply won't concede the East without putting up a fight right down to the wire. Winners in 10 of their last 12, they remain four games back with six to play, still needing a miracle to overtake Washington but refusing to help their rivals finish the job.

"Take nothing for granted," manager Davey Johnson said. "I know if we win three more, we're in, we win the pennant. That's all I want everybody in that room to figure on."

Knowing they can't count on Atlanta for much help these days, the Nationals (95-61) are pretty much throwing everything they have at the opposition each night, with Johnson doing whatever he thinks necessary to win a game and reduce that magic number by a single digit.

To win Thursday night, Johnson needed to weather a rocky first inning from Gio Gonzalez, coerce his lineup to put the hammer to Phillies rookie Tyler Cloyd and then fire his three best bullets out of the bullpen late, despite the fact his team lead by a fairly comfortable four runs.

The way this ballgame began, you might not have expected it to finish the way it did.

Five days after notching his 20th win of the season, Gonzalez was all over the place during a three-run, three-walk, 37-pitch first inning that left the hurler muttering to himself on the mound.

"I mean, if you looked at me, I looked like I had a split personality," he said. "I was talking to myself. I was just out there trying to beat myself up. I was just trying to get in my head a lot, just trying to figure it out, take myself out of the game as a third person and talk to myself every inning."

Gonzalez made it through the second inning without surrendering a run, but his pitch count was already at 55, and he had allowed seven of the first 11 batters he faced to reach base.

In the dugout, the left-hander approached his manager and sought to ease his concerns.

"Skip, I got this," Gonzalez said. "Stay with me."

Johnson's reply: "I plan on it," even though he later admitted his starter "about gave me a heart attack the first two innings."

With some help from catcher Kurt Suzuki and other teammates, Gonzalez managed to right his ship just in time and earn his 21st win. He wound up retiring 14 of the last 16 batters he faced, keeping the Phillies from scoring again and winding up with a quality start by the time he departed following the sixth.

"I think a lot of people can pitch well when things are going good," Suzuki said. "But it's the guys that can really bear down when they need to, when things aren't going their way or they aren't feeling their greatest. That showed Gio the maturity, how comfortable he feels out there. That shows tonight."

It certainly helped that the Nationals lineup got back the three runs Gonzalez allowed and then some, thanks to Bryce Harper's 21st homer and Michael Morse's 15th and 16th homers of the season.

Morse's second blast -- a 451-foot missile to right-center -- left everyone in the Nationals dugout (and especially the bullpen) celebrating. Why the bullpen? Not so much because Morse destroyed Cloyd's final pitch of the night, but because reliever Tom Gorzelanny managed to catch the ball on the fly in his cap.

"It was awesome," fellow reliever Tyler Clippard said. "That was fun. I was a little late on the jump. I might've tried to steal it from him, but ... good thing he caught it. If he missed it, that would've been pretty bad heckling for a few days."

With his pair of homers, Morse emphatically stated his lingering left wrist injury is not as much of a concern as it was a week ago, before he received some anti-inflammatory shots to help relieve the pain.

"It's more stable," he said. "Which makes it more, I guess, strong, back to normal. I don't have to think about it, which is good."

Johnson didn't have to think much about his bullpen, either, because the late-inning trio of Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen shut the door on the Phillies and quashed any possibility of a reversal of fortune, retiring nine of the 10 batters they faced.

Thus sealed the Nationals' 95th victory, matching the 1979 Expos for the franchise record. That Montreal squad never got even a sniff of postseason play, finishing two games behind the Pirates in the NL East, with no Wild Card in place at the time.

This Nationals squad is guaranteed of at least a Wild Card berth. It's been counting down the days to a division title. But it's not quite there yet. There's still some work to be done this weekend in St. Louis.

And until that happens, they don't intend to take their foot off the gas pedal.

"Every game -- I don't care if it's a save situation or whatever -- we're putting our best foot forward. I told the guys: We've got three more we've got to win. Unless you
can't go, tell me you can't go."

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Nationals' Joe Ross to start against team that drafted him

Nationals' Joe Ross to start against team that drafted him

WASHINGTON -- On Dec. 19, 2014, the San Diego Padres traded pitcher Joe Ross and a player to be named later -- it would be Trea Turner -- to the Washington Nationals in a three-team deal that included the Tampa Bay Rays.

Since that trade, the Padres have posted a record of 160-215 while the Nationals are 208-166 after they won 3-0 Saturday as Stephen Strasburg struck out a career-high 15 batters in seven innings and the Washington staff fanned 17.

As a reminder of what could have been, Ross (2-0, 5.32) makes the start Sunday against San Diego right-hander Jhoulys Chacin (4-4, 5.74) in the finale of the three-game series at Nationals Park.

First-place Washington is 30-18 while last-place San Diego is 18-33.

Ross was drafted by the Padres in the first round out of his California high school in 2011. Ross is 2-0 in his career against San Diego with a 2.25 ERA in two starts. Last year, he went six innings and allowed six hits and three earned runs in a win against the Padres.

"I was not around Joe at all," said Andy Green, in his second year as the San Diego manager. "We saw him last year; he is a sinkerballer."

The Padres did acquire All-Star first baseman Wil Myers in the trade.

The Nationals have scored a record 62 runs in the four starts made this year by Ross, more than any other pitcher has received in his first four starts of a season. That included a 23-5 victory at home April 30 against the New York Mets and a 10-1 win Tuesday against the Seattle Mariners.

Ross, who broke into the majors with the Nationals in 2015, was in the rotation last season and made 19 starts before going on the disabled list. He was in line to be the No. 5 starter, but began the season at Triple-A Syracuse.

Chacin is 3-2 in six starts against Washington and has a 3.09 ERA. He has made three career starts at Nationals Park and is 1-1 with a 0.45 ERA while allowing only one run in 20 innings.

The Nationals played their second game in a row Saturday without second baseman Daniel Murphy, who was ill.

Nationals bench coach Chris Speier, filling in for manager Dusty Baker, said before the game that Murphy was ill. Murphy entered the day hitting .316 with nine homers and 33 RBIs.

"He's available. This is Dusty's theory: Usually when somebody comes in and says, 'I'm ready,' then he usually gives him one more day. But he's available," Speier told reporters before the game.

Murphy entered Saturday seventh in the National League in hits with 56, just ahead of teammate Bryce Harper (55). Murphy was also among the league leaders in multi-hit games and road batting average.

Washington shortstop Turner, drafted by the Padres in the first round out of North Carolina State, had two hits, including a homer, Friday and was 1-for-4 Saturday.

Another hot hitter for Washington is center fielder Michael A. Taylor, who hit a homer for the second day in a row Saturday and has four homers in his last 14 games.

"I'm looking for my pitch and staying in my zone," Taylor said. "I'm not trying to do too much."

MORE NATIONALS: Stephen Strasburg has career-high 15 strikeouts in Nationals win over Padres

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Stephen Strasburg has career-high 15 strikeouts in Nationals win over Padres

Stephen Strasburg has career-high 15 strikeouts in Nationals win over Padres

WASHINGTON -- Stephen Strasburg downplayed any notion that starting pitchers on the same team attempt to top each other. On the mound one day after Max Scherzer overwhelmed the San Diego Padres, the right-hander did just that.

Strasburg dominated San Diego with a career-high 15 strikeouts while allowing three hits over seven innings as the Washington Nationals beat the Padres 3-0 on Saturday.

Strasburg (6-1) singled and scored Washington's first run on Bryce Harper's RBI fielder's choice grounder in the third inning. Michael A. Taylor hit a two-run homer for the second consecutive game.

San Diego's lineup offered little resistance against Strasburg the day after Scherzer struck out 13 in Washington's 5-1 win.

"Piece of cake, huh?" cracked Chris Speier, who is serving as acting manager with Dusty Baker away this weekend to attend his son Darren's high school graduation in California.

San Diego had six hits and struck out 31 times -- 17 Saturday -- in the two losses.

"I know when you have those type of combinations," Speier said of Strasburg and Scherzer, "they feed off each other. There's a little competitiveness within the starting pitchers that is very healthy. . It's win-win for us."

With four pitches working, Strasburg struck out the side in the third and sixth and had at least two in each of the first six innings. His single matched the Padres' hit total through five innings.

Strasburg previously struck out 14 batters twice including his Major League debut on June 8, 2010. He set a personal best by setting down Franchy Cordero in the seventh.

"It's pretty cool, but there's another game 5, 6 days from now," said the low-key pitcher. "Maybe I'll enjoy it tonight, but back to work tomorrow."

The San Diego native is 6-1 with a 2.93 ERA for his career against his hometown team.

Matt Albers pitched the eighth and Koda Glover the ninth for his fifth save.

Clayton Richard (3-6) followed up his complete-game victory over the Diamondbacks on May 21 by allowing three runs and 10 hits over six innings.

One out after Anthony Rendon's leadoff single in the sixth, Taylor drove a pitch over the wall in center field for his fourth homer of the season.

"You stay in a one-run game, momentum's different," a frustrated Richard stated. "We have a different attitude, it changes a lot of things."

Washington has won two straight and five of six.

San Diego is 5-13 since May 9.

San Diego loaded the bases with one out in the first following a single, a throwing error by first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and Cory Spangenberg's four-pitch walk. Strasburg ended the threat by striking out Austin Hedges on three pitches.

The Padres had two singles in the sixth, but Strasburg recorded strikeouts for the final two outs.

"Sometimes with the best pitchers in the game if you don't get them in the first three innings they get harder and harder to get to," Padres manager Andy Green said. "We had our chance in the first we didn't take advantage of it."

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