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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' Dusty Baker thinks Washington teams are positioned to win a championship this year

Nationals' Dusty Baker thinks Washington teams are positioned to win a championship this year

Nationals manager Dusty Baker is back for a second year and feeling optimistic for his Washington team. Spring training has begun in Florida and it has Baker thinking about how the Nats can create some excitement for local sports fans.

In an interview with American University’s WAMU radio station, Baker said D.C. wants to be a "city of champions.” Furthermore, he thinks it can be pulled off before the year ends.

"I came here to win a championship and you know I would love nothing more than to bring one to Washington. Washington, I didn’t know it before I got there, but it’s had a tough time getting out of the first round in a number of sports."

He projected the Nationals to bring home the next championship for the District, but he knows they have competition of late. 

"Washington Wizards are looking pretty good. I’m pulling for them first because their season ends before ours, so I’ve been really following them. The Capitals have a good thing going. I started watching the Redskins more this year.

"You know once it gets contagious in a city and you get a positive attitude throughout the city, then it transfers to the sports teams. So we want to be known as a city of champions, before the end of the year hopefully."

Baker has a reputation for bringing out the best in his teams, especially managing star players. He managed the San Francisco Giants for ten seasons before moving on to the Chicago Cubs, a team he managed for four seasons.

He's never won a World Series, but has taken a team to Game 7. He also finished third for the 2016 National League Manager of the Year award.

So, what are Baker’s steps for the Nationals to get that ultimate prize? A simple formula, really.

"I think that we’ve got to stay healthy, number one. We’re trying to fill the holes that we need to fill, and we’ve got to play," he said. "You know last year we were very close, we were one hit away or one play away or one pitch away from going to the next round against the Cubs."

While he says he came to win Washington a championship, he's also enjoying his time in the city. 

"I love D.C. Before that, San Francisco was my favorite town; that’s my home. But I tell you, D.C. is definitely in the running," he said. "I thought San Francisco had the best seafood, but man, you guys have the best seafood I think in the world."

Thanks, Dusty!

The Nationals play their first spring training game against the New York mets on Saturday.

RELATED: NATIONALS REGULAR SEASON SCHEDULE

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Former Nationals outfielder admits to drinking vodka before MLB games

Former Nationals outfielder admits to drinking vodka before MLB games

When it comes to sports, we sometimes forget that the athletes we look up to are just normal people. Normal people who have a lot to prove to millions of people on a weekly basis. Former Nationals outfielder Rick Ankiel has discussed one of his human moments in an interview with 590 The Fan in St. Louis.

Ankiel admitted to drinking vodka during his plight as a pitcher. He referenced his first two starts of the 2001 season, in particular against the Arizona Diamondbacks where he allowed his anxiety to give in to alcohol to soothe him. In the previous postseason, he became the first pitcher since 1980 to throw five wild pitches in a single inning. 

It may have worked for a couple of games but Ankiel eventually realized it was only making matters worse.

Ankiel began playing in Majors at the age of 19, and has had a fluctuating career through six teams. All the while, he has kept a “never give up” mentality.

Why the sudden need to vent? Ankiel is getting up close and personal with his upcoming book, “The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed my Life” which is co-written by sports writer Tim Brown. The book will be released on April 18.  

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