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Nats reward Zimmermann

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Nats reward Zimmermann

If there are still any detractors out there for the Nationals' plan to shut down Stephen Strasburg in September, perhaps these words from Jordan Zimmermann following another stellar pitching performance Wednesday night will help change their minds.

"I definitely feel stronger another year after surgery," said Zimmermann, now nearly three full years removed from Tommy John surgery. "Last year was hit-or-miss. I didn't know how I was going to feel. But this whole year I've been feeling great. I haven't had any aches or pains. So, knock on wood, I hope that keeps going."

The Nationals certainly hope Zimmermann keeps this up, because what he's doing right now is out-pitching everyone else from their star-studded rotation, not to mention out-pitching just about every other hurler in the big leagues.

With six more scoreless innings -- helping pave the way for a 4-3 victory over the Mets -- Zimmermann continued both his streak of consistent quality work as well as his recent streak of sheer excellence on the mound.

That's now 17 quality starts for Zimmermann in 19 games overall, every single start lasting at least six innings. And over his last five outings, he's now 4-0 with an 0.84 ERA.

In short, the right-hander is getting stronger and better each time he toes the rubber, earning more and more praise from his teammates and manager.

"I mean, he's a man out there," Davey Johnson said. "No doubt about it. He has a great presence. He knows what he wants to do. There's no muss, no fuss. He says: 'Here, hit it.'"

What the Nationals are witnessing right now is the ascension of a top prospect into an elite major-league pitcher. Zimmermann now owns the sixth-best ERA in the majors at 2.35, not to mention the most quality starts.

The Nationals always knew Zimmermann had this in him; the timeline was just delayed by his 2009 elbow ligament replacement surgery.

Zimmermann wound up missing most of 2010 while rehabbing the injury. He returned strong last season but as he pointed out was "hit-or-miss" from start to start, then was shut down at the end of August with his innings count at 161 13.

These days, the 26-year-old is healthy, experienced and strong. And as his numbers start looking better and better, the rest of the sport is beginning to recognize the top of the Nationals' rotation doesn't include only All-Stars Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez.

"I can't say enough about him," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "He's quiet and goes about his business, but he's turning into a No. 1 for anybody."

The only knock on Zimmermann this season has been something completely out of his control: A lack of run support, leading to a dearth of wins. That has finally begun to change over the last month, with the Nationals scoring an average of 6.4 runs during each of his last five starts.

LaRoche provided the key support on Wednesday, turning a scoreless game in the sixth into a 2-0 advantage when he launched an opposite-field blast into the Red Porch seats. That put Zimmermann in line to earn his seventh win and get his record over .500 for the first time since -- get this -- he was 2-1 during his rookie season.

"I'll buy him whatever he wants, a steak or something," Zimmermann said of LaRoche.

Informed of his teammate's offer, the veteran first baseman replied: "I'll take him up on that steak."

It appeared for a while that 2-0 lead would hold up, but as it turned out Zimmermann and the Nationals needed Steve Lombardozzi's two-run double in the seventh at night's end.

That's because closer Tyler Clippard, one night after blowing a two-run lead to the Mets in the ninth inning, nearly did it again. Entrusted with a 4-1 lead this time, he served up a homer to David Wright on his very first pitch, then another solo shot to Jason Bay with two outs.

Up came Jordany Valdespin, the man whose three-run bomb Tuesday night cost Clippard his first blown save since he took over closer duties, but there was nothing for the crowd of 31,660 to worry about. Clippard calmly struck out the pinch-hitter, and the Nationals' 18th one-run win of the season was in the books.

They now lead the Mets by a full 8 games in the NL East, with a chance for a sweep Thursday afternoon. And after a wild, extra-inning finish in Atlanta, they now lead the Braves by 4 12 games with a big, four-game weekend series between the two clubs looming.

Not that the Nationals were focused on the standings late Wednesday night. They were just happy to get their unsung right-hander a much-deserved victory.

"Zim was outstanding," Johnson said. "He just continues to go out there and put zeroes up. Glad we scored in the bottom of that inning, get him the win. He's pitched well enough to be 12-2 or something."

For now, 7-6 will have to suffice.

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MLB Postseason 2017 Bracket Projection

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USA Today Sports

MLB Postseason 2017 Bracket Projection

Two weeks remain in the regular season for the Washington Nationals, Baltimore Orioles, and the rest of Major League Baseball.

Already, the Nationals have clinched a spot in the MLB postseason, while the Orioles are still clinging to an outside chance of making it through to one of the two Wild Card spots. If Baltimore were to make the surprise climb they would likely be the third team from the AL East to make the MLB postseason.

NATIONAL LEAGUE:

Washington is joined by the Los Angeles Dodgers as the only two teams to have claimed a playoff berth in the National League. This past weekend the Dodgers took two out of three in a pivotal series from the Nationals to hold on to the top seed. The lead is now up to 6 games for Los Angeles after it was down to only 3.5 games in the middle of the week.

MORE NATS: STRASBURG PREVENTS SWEEP FROM DODGERS

The Dodgers have not clinched their division yet but with their turnaround in Washington this past weekend it is only a matter of time. Leading the Arizona Diamondbacks by 9.5 games, the Dodgers magic number is only four. With 96 wins, Los Angeles also would be the team to hold home-field advantage throughout the postseason, including the World Series.

Only the National League Central Division has an interesting battle as the year winds down, but the Chicago Cubs maintain a four game edge over the Milwaukee Brewers. Right behind the Brewers are the St. Louis Cardinals, two games back. There is brief two-game series for the Cubs in Tampa Bay before back-to-back road series against the Brewers than the Cardinals. Within a week, this division could be flipped over. It is a near lock that the division winner will be the No. 3 seed.

Arizona is likely to clinch one of the Wild Card berths this week. Colorado currently holds the second spot, and they're 2.5 up on the Brewers.

If the season were to end today, here is how the National League bracket would look:

Wild Card Round (Winner-take-all):

No. 5 Colorado Rockies (82-68) at No. 4 Arizona Diamondbacks (87-63)

National League Divisional Series (Best-of-5):

No. 1 Los Angeles Dodgers (96-53) vs. Wild Card Round Winner
No. 2 Washington Nationals (90-59) vs. No. 3 Chicago Cubs (83-66)

Wild Card Race:

Arizona Diamondbacks:  +5.0
Colorado Rockies:              ---
Milwaukee Brewers:        -2.5
St. Louis Cardinals:          -4.5
Miami Marlins:                -12.5

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Thanks to their improbable 22-game winning streak, the Cleveland Indians now sit atop the American League. They hold a slight 1.5 game lead over the Houston Astros for the top seed and home-field advantage in the AL. Both of these teams have already handily clinched their divisions holding on to the No. 1 and 2 seeds.

The incredible run by Cleveland has also put them 3.5 games behind the Dodgers for home-field throughout the entire postseason.

As it does seemingly every year, the American League East will come down to the wire. The New York Yankees trail the Boston Red Sox by only three games with their season series already wrapped up. Of the Yankees final 13 games though, 10 are at home where they are 43-28 on the season. Boston only has seven at home and six on the road. New York also faces an easier stretch playing opponents with a combined .487 win percentage compared to Boston’s .501.

Unlike the National League Wild Card, which is essentially down to four teams, the American League is wide open. Ten teams are mathematically still alive including the Oakland Athletics who are 17 games under .500. New York or Boston will likely take the top Wild Card slot with the Minnesota Twins currently holding down second. The Los Angeles Angels (2.0 games back), Seattle Mariners (4.5 games back), and the Kansas City Royals (5.0 games back) are giving chase.

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It will be tough for the Twins to hold on to the final spot with 10 of their final 13 games being on the road. First up for them is a three-game series in the Bronx. The Red Sox and Orioles also start a three-game series in Baltimore with much on the line for both teams. 

If the season were to end today, here is how the American League bracket would look:

Wild Card Round (Winner-take-all):

No. 5 Minnesota Twins (78-71) at No. 4 New York Yankees (82-67)

American League Divisional Series (Best-of-5):

No. 1 Cleveland Indians (93-57) vs. Wild Card Round Winner
No. 2 Houston Astros (91-58) vs. No. 3 Boston Red Sox (85-64)

Wild Card Race:

New York Yankees:     +4.0
Minnesota Twins:          ---
Los Angeles Angels:     -2.0
Seattle Mariners:         -4.5
Kansas City Royals:      -5.0
Texas Rangers:             -5.0
Baltimore Orioles:       -5.5
Tampa Bay Rays:          -5.5
Toronto Blue Jays:       -8.5
Oakland Athletics:      -12.0

MORE MLB NEWS: BRYCE HARPER NEARING POSTSEASON RETURN

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Nationals' Bryce Harper takes next step in recovery from knee injury

Nationals' Bryce Harper takes next step in recovery from knee injury

WASHINGTON-- Washington Nationals slugger Bryce Harper took swings during batting practice Sunday for the first time since hyperextending his left knee on Aug. 12.

Harper previously had taken cuts in the batting cage, but was on the field before the Nationals' series finale against the Los Angeles Dodgers. His session included several shots deep into the stands at Nationals Park.

"Just trying to get out there and trying put the bat on the ball and just try to be as fluid as I can and try to get my swing back," said the 2015 NL MVP, who is second in the NL with a .326 batting average.

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The NL East champions open the NLDS on Oct. 6.

"I hope so. That's definitely in my head," Harper said of a return goal. "That's what I want to do. That's where I want to be. But it takes time."

Harper remains second on Washington with 29 home runs this season despite missing 34 games.

He was injured at home against the Giants when he awkwardly landed on the slick first base bag during a game that was delayed by rain. Washington placed the All-Star on the disabled list the following day.

"It just happened. It's something I can't control," Harper said. "It definitely was a freak accident. We put it behind us as quick as possible and tried to get everything going as quick as we could. And then it was all behind me. I didn't really worry about it much."

The right fielder said he tested the knee Sunday running to first base. "Felt fine. Just super-easy. Just kind of jogging to first and trying to get the feel for it again. Running to first feels a lot more comfortable than running on the track. "

Harper said timing in the batter's box could be a process. If his return matches the start of the postseason, he'll have to adjust on the fly.

"It's definitely going to be a tough thing," Harper said. "If we play Chicago, I might be facing Jon Lester for my first at-bat in six weeks. That's a tough task. It's going to take some time. Hopefully, I can get back and get going a little sooner than later."

Harper was succinct with his biggest physical test remaining.

"Playing in a baseball game. That's going to be the biggest thing, getting in there and playing the game and feeling good," he said. "As long as I'm healthy, that's all I want."