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Nats must take advantage of home field

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Nats must take advantage of home field

ST. LOUIS -- As much as the one-time-only format change to MLB's Division Series this year -- with the lesser team getting to host Games 1 and 2 -- has been criticized, there was one scenario in particular in which a team like the Nationals would actually benefit.

Sure, you could argue it wasn't fair for the team with baseball's best regular-season record to have to open the playoffs on the road in a hostile environment. But by merely winning one of the first two games of their NLDS against the Cardinals, the Nationals put themselves in a position where they now go home knowing they just need to take care of business to advance to the next round.

"With the two games on the road, I think it's almost fairer," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "It's like I said: Our job coming in here was to split the series, and we did that."

That they did. Oh, make no mistake, a 12-4 debacle in Game 2 at Busch Stadium was an ugly spectacle to behold, whether you were among the crowd of 45,840 in St. Louis or back home watching on television.

But you don't advance in the postseason on style points. It's an eitheror proposition. Either you win a game, or you lose it. The final score doesn't really matter.

"A loss is a loss," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "I don't think anyone cared that we won by one yesterday. The goal was to win one game out here. Obviously, two would have been a bonus. But you split it, you go home, have an off-day tomorrow and regroup and relax a little bit and come out ready to win a series."

Win a series. That's now what the Nationals must try to accomplish. Three games in three days, all at home, all against the Cardinals.

Take away the cooler temperatures, sellout crowds and media throng and it's not all that different from a three-game homestand in mid-August, the goal still being to win twice.

Some perspective: The Nationals hosted 16 three-game series this year on South Capitol Street. They won 11 of those sets.

"It's basically go home and win a series," Zimmerman said. "Just like we've done all year."

OK, maybe there's a bit more riding on these next three games than any other three games they've played this season. But these Nationals have been good all along at focusing on the task at hand and not getting caught up in the bigger picture.

They'll have to maintain that tunnel vision now, ignoring the hoopla that will come with the first playoff game in D.C. since the 1933 World Series, which may be easier said than done.

Washington has been anticipating this moment for a long time, and though the circumstances might not be ideal for many -- a 1:07 p.m. weekday start -- the scene at Nationals Park on Wednesday will be unlike anything the town and most of these players have ever experienced.

"I think our fan base is going to come out strong," Werth said. "We've had a lot of support down the stretch, and people have been coming out in waves. Should be a packed house. Should be a lot of fun. And I can't wait to get back home in front of our fans and take care of business."

The Nationals will need an especially big-time performance from Edwin Jackson, who in the wake of two suspect starts by Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann suddenly has some added weight on his right shoulder.

In one regard, there are few guys Davey Johnson would rather entrust in this spot than Jackson, the only member of his rotation with postseason experience, not to mention a guy capable of dominating an opponent any time he takes the mound (like he did holding St. Louis to one unearned run over eight innings on Aug. 30).

"Jackson's got a lot of experience," Johnson said. "He pitched a heck of a ballgame against them. He's certainly up for it."

At the same time, Jackson is just as capable of getting knocked out in the second inning (like he did against this same St. Louis club only 10 days ago).

"Having E-Jax on the bump is going to be great for us," center fielder Bryce Harper said. "We played great at home all year. It's going to be great to go back there and really get in a groove."

After a somewhat ragged start to their postseason experience, the Nationals are heading home, and they may just get to stay there for quite a while. In fact, they could theoretically host their next five games at Nationals Park, 10 of their next 13.

It's what they earned by winning more of 162 regular-season games than any other team in the sport.

Now, they simply need to take advantage of home-field advantage.

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Nationals win 6-2 after Stephen Strasburg leaves in second inning

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USA TODAY Sports

Nationals win 6-2 after Stephen Strasburg leaves in second inning

PHOENIX -- Stephen Strasburg left after struggling with his control in the second inning, and the Washington Nationals wrapped up a successful nine-game trip with a 6-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday.

There was no word from the Nationals during the game explaining the standout right-hander's departure.

Strasburg, 10-3 with a 3.31 ERA entering the game, uncharacteristically walked the No. 8 and No. 9 batters in the second inning before departing with a 5-0 lead. He threw 51 pitches, 29 strikes.

Brian Goodwin's leadoff homer ignited a four-run first inning off Robbie Ray (9-5), who lasted five innings, allowing five runs.

Bryce Harper singled in the first to extend his hitting streak to 16 games.

Wilmer Difo hit his second home run of the season off reliever T.J. McFarland in the seventh.

Joe Blanton (1-2) got two outs and earned the win.

The NL East-leading Nationals took two of three in Arizona to go 7-2 on the trip.

Nine players batted for Washington in the opening inning. Goodwin started it with a booming shot high above the home run line across the batter's eye in straightaway center.

Difo and Harper singled and Ryan Zimmerman's sacrifice fly made it 2-0. Daniel Murphy walked and Anthony Rendon singled in a run. Jose Lobaton capped the scoring with a two-out RBI single before Strasburg bounced into a fielder's choice to end Ray's 39-pitch inning.

Arizona broke through with two runs in the fifth.

Chris Iannetta had a pinch-hit single with one out and David Descalso walked before Ketel Marte and David Peralta each singled in a run. With runners at first and third and one out, Blanton came on to strike out Paul Goldschmidt and got Chris Owings to ground into a fielder's choice.

The Diamondbacks had runners at second and third with one out in the sixth but Enny Romero struck out A.J. Pollock and Descalso bounced out to second. Romero left the game in the seventh with an apparent injury.

Arizona, 3-6 since the All-Star break, stranded 11 runners.

Washington's Andrew Stevenson, called up from Triple-A Syracuse, was 0 for 2 in his major league debut.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: Washington placed OF Chris Heisey on the 10-day DL. Heisey strained his left groin in Saturday night's 4-3 victory. Additionally, OF Ryan Raburn was placed on the bereavement list.

Diamondbacks: J.D. Martinez appeared in his first game in Arizona as a Diamondback after missing three games with a bruised wrist, the result of being hit by a pitch in his Diamondbacks debut. He walked as a pinch hitter in the seventh.

UP NEXT

Nationals: Washington has Monday off and hosts Milwaukee on Tuesday. RH Edwin Jackson makes his second start for the Nationals.

Diamondbacks: Arizona begins a three-game home series against Atlanta on Monday night. Zack Greinke (11-4, 2.93 ERA), 9-0 with a 2.41 ERA in 11 home starts, goes for the Diamondbacks. R.A. Dickey (6-6, 4.14) counters for the Braves.

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Bryce Harper powers Nationals past Diamondbacks

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Bryce Harper powers Nationals past Diamondbacks

PHOENIX -- The newest additions to the Washington bullpen came through when called upon to help deliver a victory to their new team.

Sean Doolittle stranded the potential tying run by escaping a jam for his second save for Washington, and Ryan Madson tossed a scoreless eighth inning as the Nationals held off the Arizona Diamondbacks 4-3 on Saturday night.

"The game can really speed up on you once you start getting guys on base," said Doolittle, who with Madson arrived in a trade with Oakland earlier in the week. "The crowd and the energy of the stadium can kind of take over and ... you have to be mindful enough to step off the mound, slow the game down a bit, kind of press reset."

Bryce Harper homered and drove in two runs, and starting pitcher Tanner Roark struck out a season-high 11. Roark (8-6) gave up two runs and three hits in seven innings for the NL East-leading Nationals.

"Curveball felt good. Just keep the hitter guessing," Roark said.

Harper hit his 25th home run on a full-count offspeed pitch from Anthony Banda (0-1), who lost in his major league debut.

Chris Iannetta hit a two-out RBI double in the bottom half, but the Nationals opened a 4-1 lead with a three-run sixth.

Harper hit a run-scoring double and scored on Ryan Zimmerman's double, and Anthony Rendon beat out an RBI single that sent Zimmerman home.

"They had a young guy out there that throws the ball really hard, has good command. He's going to be really good in the next couple of years for sure," Harper said of Banda. "Just got him this time and got a few runs up there."

A.J. Pollock tripled in the bottom half and scored on Jake Lamb's groundout, and Arizona reliever Jorge De La Rosa got out of bases-loaded trouble in the seventh when he struck out Harper and Zimmerman.

Doolittle, acquired from Oakland last weekend, walked Lamb leading off the ninth. Iannetta hit a broken-bat grounder to third, and Rendon's throw to second went into right field for an error that put runners on the corners.

Paul Goldschmidt hit a sacrifice fly, Chris Owings flied out and Doolittle struck out Ketel Marte for his second save with the Nationals.

"Madson's been great for us. Doolittle ... he never panics. It was great to see. It's a lot of fun to have a back end like that," Harper said.

Banda allowed four runs and seven hits in 5 2/3 innings, struck out five and walked none. He was optioned back to Triple-A Reno after the game.

"I felt confident. I threw the ball in the zone and kept attacking hitters," Banda said. "I made a couple of mistakes, Harper and the middle of the lineup."