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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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Cubs, Brewers, or Cardinals: potential postseason opponents for the Washington Nationals

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USA Today Sports

Cubs, Brewers, or Cardinals: potential postseason opponents for the Washington Nationals

The regular season is winding down and there is no drama in the nation’s capital.

With a stranglehold on the National League East for the entire season, the Washington Nationals were the first team in baseball to earn a playoff spot and their division. Since June, the Nationals’ lead has been hovering around 20 games. Their record against the division is 44-26 with three NL East series forthcoming.

Beyond that, positioning has not been a factor in the National League either. It was a near forgone conclusion that the Nationals were going to earn the No. 2 seed in the NL side of the postseason. There was a slight chance last week that Washington could pass the Los Angeles Dodgers with them losing 16 of 17 games. Alas, the Dodgers took two out of three in their series, solidifying their No. 1 seed hopes.

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Dusty Baker then basically threw in the towel for that race. He spread out his rotation to six pitchers and gave his players consistent rest. Focusing on the postseason more than the playoff race, he does not appear to care about their positioning.

With that, the Nationals are all but guaranteed to finish second behind the Dodgers. Floating between four and six games back, there is no sense of urgency.

There is no worry about the team in third either. The Chicago Cubs, as of September 22, sit seven games behind the Nationals and are in the thick of a Divisional race.

Either way, even if the Nationals were to collapse and the winner of the National League Central was to rocket up to second, the Nationals will play against whoever wins the division in the No. 2 vs. No. 3 match-up.

The Central has actually been the Nationals Achilles heel this year. They finished with a 17-13 record vs. NL Central teams. It is not the whole division the Nationals have to worry about though, just the one that comes out.

Entering Friday’s action the Cubs are well on their way to winning the division, according to fangraphs.com. Below are the current odds to win the division:

Chicago Cubs                     97.8%
Milwaukee Brewers          0.9%
St. Louis Cardinals            1.3%

This is slightly misleading though, because the Central could completely flip before the postseason. The lead is 4.5 over the Milwaukee Brewers and 5.0 over the St. Louis Cardinals. However of their final 10 games, three are against the Brewers, four against the Cardinals, all seven on the road.

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In the five-game NLDS the Nationals will face one of these teams. Even if it is the defending World Series Champions, you have to like the Nationals’ odds.

CHICAGO CUBS PREVIEW

Current record: 85-67
2017 Record vs. Washington: 2-4
Last head-to-head postseason series: Never
Starting pitchers: Jon Lester (11-8), Jake Arrieta (14-9), John Lackey (11-11), Kyle Hendricks (7-5), Jose Quintana (6-3)
Top position players: Kris Bryant (.292 BA, 28 HRs, 69 RBIs), Anthony Rizzo (.278 BA, 32 HRs, 107 RBIs)

If these two teams were to meet up, it would be easily the best starting pitching match-up in the National League. Likely the Cubs would only go to four guys, maybe three if they get desperate. With Jake Arrieta on the mind, that would be a dicey move to start the postseason. They have not played to the level that the 2016 did a year ago, but a majority of the position players are still in place and can still put together a run.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS PREVIEW

Current record: 81-72
2017 Record vs. Washington: 3-4
Last head-to-head postseason series: Never
Starting pitchers: Zach Davies (17-9), Chase Anderson (11-3), Brandon Woodruff (2-2), Brent Suter (3-2)
Top position players: Domingo Santana (.281 BA, 28 HRs, 80 RBIs), Travis Shaw (.274 BA, 30 HRs, 96 RBIs)

As one of the hottest teams in the first half of the season, the Brewers are only relying on their early success. Their team has quickly cooled off and their number two starter Jimmy Nelson is out the remainder of the season. The rest of the roster is shaky at best as they are trying to stay relevant in the postseason chase. If the Nationals are fully prepared for the playoffs there should be no worries if Milwaukee represents the Central.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS PREVIEW

Current record: 80-72
2017 Record vs. Washington: 3-3
Last head-to-head postseason series: 2012; Cardinals won 3-2 in NLDS
Starting pitchers: Adam Wainwright (12-5), Carlos Martinez (12-11), Lance Lynn (11-7), Michael Wacha (12-8), Luke Weaver (7-1),
Top position players: Yadier Molina (.276 BA, 18 HRs, 82 RBIs), Tommy Pham (.311 BA, 21 HRs, 168 RBIs)

With both the Brewers and Cubs you know what you are getting, with the Cardinals it could be anything. The starting pitchers have a history of success, just not in 2017. Also how Wainwright comes back will be a huge factor in how the Central race will play out and how their odds in the postseason increase. With a mix of a young and aging line-up, the Cardinals can both win with the long ball and piece runs together by playing small ball. St. Louis is easily the most interesting team of the three and could be the scariest if the Wainwright comes back at 100%.

Both the Brewers and the Cardinals have to rely on each other to win the NL Central. They cannot do it on their individual series's alone. 

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Nationals baffled by Dickey's knuckleball in Braves' 3-2 win

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Nationals baffled by Dickey's knuckleball in Braves' 3-2 win

ATLANTA  -- R.A. Dickey frustrated Washington with his knuckleball for eight innings, Ozzie Albies had three hits and the Atlanta Braves beat the Nationals 3-2 on Thursday night.

After Ryan Zimmerman's leadoff homer in the second inning, the 42-year-old Dickey gave up only one hit -- a two-out single by Trea Turner in the third -- over the next five innings. Turner was picked off first base.

Dickey (10-10) gave up two runs, four hits and no walks. He made a strong case that the Braves should pick up his $8 million club option for 2018.

Zimmerman lined his homer into the left-field seats, tying the game at 1. He set a career high with his 34th homer, his fourth off Dickey this season.

Arodys Vizcaino struck out the side in a perfect ninth for his 12th save in 15 chances. It was a strong return to form after Vizcaino walked all three batters he faced in a blown save Wednesday night.

The Braves scored two runs in the fourth off Tanner Roark (13-10). Albies singled, moved to third on catcher Matt Wieters' wild pickoff attempt and scored the go-ahead run on Freddie Freeman's fly ball to deep left field. Nick Markakis doubled past Zimmerman at first base and scored on Johan Camargo's single up the middle.

The Nationals trimmed the Braves' lead to one in the eighth. Anthony Rendon doubled to left field and scored on Wieters' two-out single.

Ender Inciarte continued his push for 200 hits when he led off the first with a triple to right field. It was his 191st hit, the third-highest total in the majors. Inciarte scored on Albies' single.

The game was delayed several minutes in the middle of the eighth. There was confusion as Nationals manager Dusty Baker attempted to make several defensive changes and had to go over the changes with home plate umpire Nic Lentz, who also took questions from Braves manager Brian Snitker.