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Nats open with a dud

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Nats open with a dud

As much as Davey Johnson would like to count on baseball's best pitching staff to lead the way on a nightly basis, the Nationals manager knows it takes more than that to beat a high-powered opponent like the Yankees.

"Knowing you have good pitching is one thing," Johnson said. "But when you play the American League East division, you have to have offense. ... You've got to score a lot to win."

Johnson said this Friday afternoon, about 2 12 hours before his Nationals took the field for the most-anticipated series in the team's brief history. And by night's end, after the Yankees had thumped the home club 7-2 before a sellout crowd of 41,406, the veteran skipper looked mighty prescient.

Sure, there were some pitching miscues along the way, from Gio Gonzalez racking up too many pitches early to relievers Brad Lidge and Michael Gonzalez giving up four runs in a span of three minutes and turning a tight ballgame into a blowout.

But it's tough to ignore the lack of punch from a Nationals lineup that couldn't make the most of two early opportunities and then barely gave itself any more chances the rest of the night.

"We had opportunities, and we just didn't capitalize," Johnson said. "We had men on base early in the ballgame. The right guys up. Just didn't deliver. That's baseball."

The overflow crowd -- the majority of which surprisingly was in place by first pitch -- was primed to explode in the first inning when Gonzalez set the Yankees down in order and when his teammates threatened to score with two on, one out and the heart of the lineup at the plate. But back-to-back strikeouts by Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse killed that potential rally and killed the buzz inside the ballpark.

Two innings later, the scenario nearly repeated itself. With the bases loaded and one out, Morse did deliver an RBI single. But Ian Desmond immediately grounded the first pitch he saw from right-hander Phil Hughes (a 75-mph curveball down in the zone) to short for a tailor-made, 6-4-3 double play that killed another potential rally.

"I feel like I hit curveballs pretty well," said Desmond, who does have a .407 average this season when he puts the first pitch of an at-bat in play. "Just caught it a little out front."

The Nationals only trailed 2-1 at that point, but little did they know they wouldn't have another legitimate scoring opportunity until the ninth, at which point the deficit had grown to six runs.

From Desmond's double-play grounder in the third through LaRoche's strikeout in the eighth, the Nationals put just one man on base against Hughes and relievers Cody Eppley and Clay Rapada.

"When you throw 94, 95 and you can put it wherever you want, it's tough," Ryan Zimmerman said of Hughes. "He did a good job of that."

Complicating matters for the Nationals was the status of their starting pitcher. Though Gonzalez put up solid numbers, striking out eight while allowing just two runs through six innings, he needed an excess of pitches to battle his way through the early portion of the game, leaving him unable to go as deep as his manager would have preferred.

With his pitch count sitting at 107, Gonzalez was allowed to take the mound for the seventh. But his leash was short.

"He was real adamant he wanted to go out in the seventh," Johnson said. "And I wanted him out there. But we're down in the ballgame. I'm not going to take him to his maximum pitches. I was going to go hitter-by-hitter with him."

Turns out Gonzalez only got to face one hitter before getting yanked. Andruw Jones' leadoff single brought Johnson out of the dugout and Lidge out of the bullpen.

"I felt like I could've kept going," said Gonzalez, who has thrown as many as 115 pitches this season. "I felt strong. My arm felt great."

Entrusted with the ball in a one-run game, Lidge immediately put himself into a jam. He let pinch-runner Dewayne Wise steal second without a throw and then walked Russell Martin on eight pitches. Jayson Nix's sacrifice bunt forced the Nationals to intentionally walk Robinson Cano, and that loaded the bases for Derek Jeter.

Lidge's goal in that situation: Get Jeter to hit a groundball to the left side of the infield. And he got exactly that. Except the ball was placed ever-so-perfectly between short and third, just out of Zimmerman's reach and just deep enough in the hole to induce a long, low throw from Desmond that scooted past LaRoche at first base and ultimately allowed two runs to score.

"When I look back on it now, it's kind of frustrating," Lidge said. "Because all of a sudden, you're out of the game. What just happened? I think Martin had a good at-bat, and then after that it was just like ... You can't control results a lot of times. You can control what you do pitching-wise, but sometimes you throw the pitch you want and it doesn't work."

Following the seeing-eye Jeter single, Lidge was removed in favor of Michael Gonzalez, who immediately served up a two-run double to Curtis Granderson. And all of a sudden, a 2-1 deficit was a 6-1 deficit and many Nationals fans among the overflow crowd began heading for the exits.

Thus, the Nationals' six-game winning streak came to an abrupt halt and this highly anticipated series kicked off with a dud of a ballgame from the surprise NL East leaders.

"I think tonight maybe we were a little flat," Lidge said. "We did such a good job on the road trip that we're coming out expecting to win every single game. And that's great. That's the expectations that you want. But I think we just had one of those nights where a lot of groundballs just kind of fell in, hits that weren't really hit that well dropped in and as a result of that they scored some runs. You have to tip your hat to them sometimes."

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Nationals beat Braves, snap losing skid behind Stephen Strasburg's strong start

Nationals beat Braves, snap losing skid behind Stephen Strasburg's strong start

ATLANTA (AP) -- Stephen Strasburg struck out a season-high 11 and kept up his recent domination of the Atlanta Braves, leading Washington to a 3-2 win Sunday that stopped the Nationals' four-game losing streak.

Strasburg (5-1) allowed five hits in 7 2/3 innings, beating Atlanta for the second time this season and improving to 7-1 in his last nine starts against the Braves. He is 10-8 overall against Atlanta.

He reached double digits in strikeouts for the second time this season after fanning 10 Braves on April 20.

Strasburg faded in the eighth, when Dansby Swanson hit a two-run double. Koda Glover struck out Nick Markakis to end the inning and finished the six-hitter for his third save.

Daniel Murphy hit a second-inning homer off Jaime Garcia (1-3) and the Nationals added two unearned runs in the third.

Matt Adams was 0 for 4 with three strikeouts and hit into a ninth-inning double play in his debut for Atlanta, a day after he was acquired from St. Louis. Matt Kemp led off the ninth, and Adams hit a line drive that was caught by Ryan Zimmerman, who stepped on first base.

Garcia allowed three runs -- one earned -- and seven hits in eight innings with no walks.

Washington took a 3-0 lead in the third following fielding errors by Markakis in right and Garcia. Bryce Harper had a run-scoring single.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: 3B Anthony Rendon and C Matt Wieters were given days off from the starting lineup. Rendon entered at third base in the eighth.

Braves: RHP Kris Medlen allowed one hits in six scoreless innings Saturday in his first start for Class A Florida. He missed most of 2016 with shoulder problems after his second Tommy John surgery. "That would be a real nice piece to have," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. Medlen pitched for Kansas City in 2015-16 and his last season with Atlanta was in 2013, when he was 15-12 with a 3.11 ERA.

UP NEXT

Nationals: Following an off day, RHP Jacob Turner (2-2) is expected to start when the Nationals will open a series against Seattle on Tuesday.

Braves: RHP Mike Foltynewicz (2-4) will take a 0-3 career record in three starts against Pittsburgh into Monday night's series opener against the Pirates.

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2017 MLB Power Rankings: As Bryce Harper goes, so do the Nationals

2017 MLB Power Rankings: As Bryce Harper goes, so do the Nationals

A week ago, the Nationals were looking unstoppable. Bryce Harper was hitting walkoff dingers left and right, there were multiple winning streaks, and the bullpen was only sorta bad. 

2017 MLB POWER RANKINGS

A week's worth of games later - against the Braves, Pirates and Phillies, no less - and the Nats don't look nearly as stainless. Harper's hitting under .200 since his Mother's Day walkoff, the team lost 5 of 6, and the bullpen turned back into a pumpkin. Because of that, there's a new team at the top of the Power Rankings this week. Who is it? To the rankings! 

30. MIAMI MARLINS

2017 Record: 15-28
Previous Ranking: 24
Last 10 Games: 2-8
Notable Performance: Dee Gordon (.318/.400/.364 last week)

Stanton hasn't homered in over two weeks, a stretch of 12 games. After going 2-8 over the last 10, including that weird Dodgers game, the Marlins have seen better weeks.  

29. SAN DIEGO PADRES

2017 Record: 16-30
Previous Ranking: 29
Last 10 Games: 3-7
Notable Performance: Brad Hand (.300/.500/.600 last week)

Wil Myers' underwhelming season continues. The outfielder is hitting .150 over the last week, and only .219 over the last month. The Padres best position player is only worth .6 bWAR, and that's 5th-best on the team.

28. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

2017 Record: 15-26
Previous Ranking: 23
Last 10 Games: 2-8
Notable Performance: Daniel Nava (.429/.429/.571 last week)

They ran into Texas at exactly the wrong time. Getting starts that are consistently like Aaron Nola's last one will be huge for his development this season. 

27. KANSAS CITY ROYALS

2017 Record: 18-25
Previous Ranking: 27
Last 10 Games: 6-4
Notable Performance: Lorenzo Cain (.087/.125/.087 last week)

They're starting to play better, but upcomming series with the Yankees and Indians aren't making life any easier for KC. Jason Vargas (?!) has been their most valuable player this year (2.0 bWAR). 

26. ATLANTA BRAVES

2017 Record: 18-23
Previous Ranking: 30
Last 10 Games: 7-3
Notable Performance: Matt Kemp (.375/.423/.708 last week)

Losing Freeman for three months because of some dumb unspoken beef is just a testament to how stupid unwritten baseball rules are. The silver lining to this year, though, is that the Braves are going to fleece some team for Matt Kemp in July. 

SEE THE REST OF THE RANKINGS HERE