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Nats waste Jackson's brilliant start

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Nats waste Jackson's brilliant start

They packed themselves into Nationals Park on a gorgeous Saturday night, the second-largest gathering in the stadium's history, and for 2 hours and 35 minutes they waited anxiously for an opportunity to explode.

Even as Jon Niese posted zero after zero on the scoreboard, the sellout throng of 42,662 sensed the Nationals would eventually do something at the plate. This team had come from behind too many times and scored too many runs lately to believe another rally wasn't forthcoming, a sentiment shared by those inside the dugout.

"Put us in that situation," Edwin Jackson said, "more times than not we come through."

Except this time they didn't. The big hit never came. And by night's end, the Nationals were left scratching their heads at a 2-0 loss to the Mets that had to rank among their most frustrating of the season.

"Wasn't a sloppy game," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Just offensively we got shut down. Defense was fine. Not a lot of terrible at-bats. Just one of those nights."

Perhaps it was just one of those nights for a Nationals lineup that rarely has been carved up the way Niese and two New York relievers did in this one. But when it happened on the same night Jackson was absolutely brilliant on the mound, it was perhaps a tougher pill to swallow.

The veteran right-hander blew away the Mets with a deadly cutter-slider combo that left nearly every opposing hitter flailing away with little chance of making contact. He recorded a season-high 11 strikeouts, nine of them swinging. All told, he recorded 21 swinging strikes, matching Stephen Strasburg's June 20 start against the Rays for the most by any Nationals pitcher this season.

"I'll tell ya, Jackson's been good all year," manager Davey Johnson said. "That was probably the most dominant I've seen him pitch."

Yet when the seventh inning arrived with nary a run tallied by either club, Jackson still had no margin for error. Which made his two subsequent errors especially disheartening.

It began with a five-pitch walk to David Wright, the last of which nearly took the slugger's head off. Moments later, Jackson grooved a first-pitch fastball to Ike Davis and then watched as the Mets cleanup hitter sent the ball flying into the left-field bullpen for a two-run homer.

"You've got a guy that goes up there and shuts them down like he did, he probably threw less bad pitches than Niese," LaRoche said. "I mean hittable pitches. And one of them happened to leave the park. It's tough."

Seven days earlier, Jackson departed a ragged start in Arizona having allowed five runs in 5 23 innings yet walked away with a win. This time, he departed after seven innings of two-hit ball yet walked away with a loss.

"Tonight, Niese was the better pitcher," he said. "He came out and held us scoreless, and their bullpen did the same. I gave up two runs and we lost."

The Nationals didn't even mount any serious threats against Niese, scattering five hits over his 7 13 innings. But they came up to bat in the ninth feeling good about their chances for a last-ditch rally, with the heart of their lineup due up and a closer with a 6.06 ERA on the mound in Frank Francisco.

And when Ryan Zimmerman led off by scorching a line drive toward the right-field corner, the sellout crowd finally had reason to perk up. Zimmerman was sure the ball would ricochet off the wall for a double, and the Nationals would bring the tying run to the plate in the form of cleanup hitter Michael Morse.

Then he saw right fielder Mike Baxter emerge out of nowhere to make a lunging catch before slamming into the fence, quashing the Nationals' last hope for a game-winning rally.

"I have no idea where he was playing and why he was playing there," Zimmerman said. "Two-nothing, I don't know why you would play 'no doubles' defense. It's a good catch. I really don't know why he was there. But he got me out, so it worked."

Francisco then struck out Morse and got LaRoche to ground out, and that was that.

Some in the crowd quietly made their way toward the exits. Some remained in their seats for a postgame concert.

And inside the home clubhouse, the Nationals tried to figure out how they managed to get such a dominant performance out of their starting pitcher yet having to show for it by night's end.

"As far as being efficient with his pitches and working fast and getting strikeouts and groundballs ... probably as good as we've seen," LaRoche said. "Sucks to waste it like that."

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Nats open new $150 million spring training site with walk-off win

Nats open new $150 million spring training site with walk-off win

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Bryce Harper drove in the first run, the rain stayed away and a festive crowd saw a game-ending homer. All in all, a nice start on opening day for The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

Shared by the Houston Astros and Washington, the teams met Tuesday in the first spring training game at the new $150 million complex. The Nationals won 4-3 on Michael Taylor's drive with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

The biggest draw for many of the 5,987 fans seemed to be the racing president mascots, who made the trip south from Nationals Park. Instead of Teddy Roosevelt, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, the opener featured William Taft, Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge.

"I miss Teddy, George and Jeff," said David Blackwood, who made the trip across Florida from Sarasota for the game. "These are like the spring training presidents. They haven't made the squad yet."

There are still more permanent fixtures that need work at the park that holds over 7,000 -- some concession stands won't open for a few more games, not all bathrooms had hot water. But what was accomplished in 15 months since the ballpark's approval is being lauded by players, coaches, fans and Commissioner Rob Manfred, who was in attendance.

"The stadium bowl itself is absolutely first rate, but I think the back fields and practice areas are amazing, as well," Manfred said.

The Astros and Nationals each have one back field that mimics the dimensions of their home ballpark, plus five other full-sized practice fields apiece.

Along with clubhouses that rival most of those at major league ballparks in both size and number of televisions, the Nationals' side of the facility also features a training pool, which began to be filled on Monday.

"A diving board would have been nice -- maybe a slide," joked Jeremy Guthrie, who threw the first pitch of the game after morning rain cleared out.

For the record, Daniel Murphy got the first hit and Carlos Beltran launched the first homer. Harper doubled home the first run.

Players raved about field conditions, which offered dimensions of 335, 406 and 336 feet from left to right. The bullpens are down the lines behind the outfield wall, with a green berm where fans can stretch out and watch the game.

Beyond the left field berm resides the Houston executive offices, which Derek Norris hit on one bounce for a home run. From the upper level seats fans can glimpse several of the back fields.

Taylor's homer over the left field foul pole marked the first spring training game in West Palm Beach since 1997. The Nationals' franchise once called West Palm Beach home, back when they were the Montreal Expos. The Braves and Expos shared a complex in town for years.

The Nationals explored options on both coasts of Florida as a replacement for their previous spring training complex in Viera, two hours north of their new residence. The Astros moved from Kissimmee, more than two hours away.

About 15 minutes from the new ballpark in Jupiter is Roger Dean Stadium, shared by the Cardinals and Marlins.

"I love the idea of spring training baseball in southeastern Florida," said Manfred, who has an apartment close to West Palm Beach. "I actually think it's not just personal, it's good for the game to have two centers of baseball in the state of Florida. It allows teams to keep their travel time down, but you do need a certain number of teams to make it all work."

While in Viera, bus rides of two and three hours were the norm for the Nationals. This spring 27 of their 34 games will be played in Palm Beach County. Three more will be played two counties north at the Mets' facility in Port St. Lucie, less than an hour away.

"Riding on the bus for four hours is not that fun so having fewer trips like that is definitely better," said Taylor, who set up his winning homer by throwing out a runner at the plate to end the top of the ninth.

There is one potential pothole that Nationals manager Dusty Baker didn't face when the club camped in Viera. In West Palm Beach and the surrounding area, there are plenty of attractions to occupy a player's time away from the ballpark -- and some of those places remain open until 5 a.m.

"We were in Viera, there wasn't anybody staying open," Baker said. "It was nice, but, you know, it was easy to get your rest."

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AP source: Joe Blanton, Nats agree to $4M, 1-year contract

AP source: Joe Blanton, Nats agree to $4M, 1-year contract

WASHINGTON – Setup man Joe Blanton and the Washington Nationals have agreed to a $4 million, one-year contract, according to a person with knowledge of the deal.

The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity on Tuesday because the agreement had not been announced.

The 36-year-old Blanton was a free agent after pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2016, when the right-hander went 7-2 with a 2.48 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 80 innings across 75 regular-season appearances. He then went 1-0 and allowed only one hit in five scoreless innings in four games for LA during an NL Division Series victory over Washington.

Formerly a starter in the majors, Blanton has become a reliever and adds to the Nationals' crop of bullpen arms. The team does not have an experienced closer after Mark Melancon left as a free agent to sign with the San Francisco Giants.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, signed reliever Sergio Romo from the Giants to fill Blanton's previous setup role.

Blanton is 99-93 with a 4.35 ERA in 12 seasons with six clubs. He has appeared in a total of 376 games, 124 in relief.

He joins a Nationals bullpen that also includes Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen, Koda Glover, Oliver Perez, Sammy Solis and Trevor Gott.

Blanton's agreement, which also includes up to $1 million in performance bonuses, was first reported by The Washington Post.