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Nats win marathon in dramatic fashion

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Nats win marathon in dramatic fashion

In a marathon ballgame that featured plenty of young players in Nationals uniforms experiencing pennant race baseball for the first time in their lives, who would have thought the winning run would wind up scoring because of a brain cramp by the Braves' three-time All-Star and seven-year veteran?

Maybe there truly is something special about the 2012 Nationals, who kept trying to find ways to lose Monday night's showdown with Atlanta yet managed to hang around long enough to watch Dan Uggla butcher Chad Tracy's sharp grounder in the bottom of the 13th, allowing Danny Espinosa to slide across the plate with the run that gave the home team a thrilling 5-4 victory in the most significant game in the club's brief history.

"We're very young," manager Davey Johnson said. "This is great. This is the learning curve. This is experience."

The opener of a three-game series that could see the Nationals all but bury the Braves in the division race -- or allow their lone remaining competitor to close the gap -- turned into an epic battle deep into the night.

By the time Espinosa slid across the plate at 12:28 a.m., much of what had transpired up to that point -- a 56-minute rain delay, a 4-run first inning for the Nationals, a ragged start for Jordan Zimmermann, countless missed opportunities for both teams to win -- felt like ancient history.

All that seemed to matter was the fact the Nationals found some way to emerge victorious, and in the process ascend to 30 games over .500 for the first time while also extending their lead over Atlanta to six games with 40 to play.

"This was almost like a playoff atmosphere," Tracy said. "These are the type of teams you're going to be playing. Why not prepare for them now?"

If anything, the less-experienced Nationals played much of the night like a team that hasn't been in this position before.

Zimmermann, the majors' ERA leader at the start of the night, labored through five innings, throwing 102 pitches and giving up four runs.

"I was terrible," the right-hander said.

Shortstop Ian Desmond dropped a pair of routine throws that could have proved costly but ultimately didn't factor into the outcome.

After pouncing on Tim Hudson for four runs in the bottom of the first, the Nationals' lineup was stone-cold silent over the next 11 innings, totaling six hits (and zero runs) until the final rally in the 13th.

And a bullpen that was completely maxed out put runners in scoring position in the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and 11th innings yet managed somehow not to let any of them score.

"A lot of us have never played in an important baseball game since college or high school or maybe the minor leagues," said Craig Stammen, the last of seven Nationals relievers to appear in the game. "So I think it's important to get a little nervous or anxious, a little more adrenaline going on. I think it's definitely important to play games like that."

It helps, though, when you go on to win, which the Nationals did in bizarre fashion.

With one out and a man on first, catcher Kurt Suzuki tapped a high chopper over the mound and toward the left side of the infield. By the time Chipper Jones wound up fielding the ball, Suzuki was able to leg out the single. More importantly, Espinosa (who had been breaking off first base on the pitch) noticed nobody covering third base and thus raced all the way around without drawing a throw.

"I saw everyone kind of break for the ball," Espinosa said. "And once I saw everybody break, I hit second and I saw that there was no one at third. I just kept going."

With the winning run now 90 feet away and only one out on the board, the Braves were forced to bring their infield in with Tracy at the plate.

Though the veteran was the logical choice to pinch-hit for Stammen in that spot, his use would have forced the Nationals into turning to an unlikely pitcher for the 14th inning: Edwin Jackson, who two days ago threw 103 pitches during a seven-inning start. Jackson was scheduled to throw his between-starts bullpen session on Tuesday, so Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty asked if he'd be willing to pitch a couple of innings of relief in this game instead.

"I wasn't doing it for heroism," Jackson said. "But the bullpen was done. It was a game that we could possibly win. It's definitely a game where they don't want to throw position players. It's not a giveaway game. So I guess I was the next best option to legitimately have a chance to win."

Turned out Jackson's services were never needed, though when Tracy drilled Cristhian Martinez's pitch into the ground on the right side of the infield, it appeared for a moment like the Braves might escape the jam.

Uggla had to go down to a knee to get the ball hit just to his left, but he appeared to have time to throw to the plate and retire Espinosa, who was running on contact. But the veteran second baseman froze, thinking he might have a better shot at a double play that would end the inning.

Just one problem: Suzuki, the runner on first base, made a heads-up move to freeze and not give Uggla an easy opportunity to tag him and then toss to first base for the double play. Confounded, Uggla bobbled the ball and watched as it fell harmlessly to the ground without him ever making a throw or tagging anyone.

"I was going over pretty much every situation that might or could happen," he said. "I was like, if he hits a ball to my left, or hits a ball hard right at me, I can just tag Kurt and touch first and we can be out of it. He hit me a tough groundball that I had to drop to my knees to catch, and I didn't exactly know where Kurt was. Once I got up and I just tried to throw the ball home, I couldn't get the thing out of my glove."

As Espinosa slid in safely and Tracy crossed first base, the ball remained sitting in the infield grass. What remained of a small-yet-boisterous crowd of 21,298 let out one final roar, then headed for the exits knowing Washington's baseball team had just reached new heights in most stunning fashion.

Thirty games over .500. Six games up in the division. Ten games up in the wild-card race.

All thanks to a wild finish to the most important ballgame this town had hosted in a long time.

"That's the way to set the tone for the series," Tracy said. "We would have liked to have been out of here in nine innings. But, hey, we'll take the win."

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Nationals Ace Max Scherzer will not be team's opening day starter

Nationals Ace Max Scherzer will not be team's opening day starter

Nationals manager Dusty Baker said that Max Scherzer is not on track to be the team's opening day starter, and will most likely open the season as the third pitcher in the rotation. 

Scherzer has been the team's starter on opening day for the past two seasons, but a stress fracture in the knuckle of his right ring finger caused him to miss the start of spring training, and the World Baseball Classic. 

Scherzer did, however, make his first MLB spring training start of 2017 on Wednesday. The 2016 NL Cy Young award winner allowed two earned runs on five hits over 4.2 innings. He added four strikeouts and one walk, and reportedly looked just like you would expect from Max Scherzer. 

"To be out there competing, throwing all my pitches, throwing them for strikes, that's a great first outing," Scherzer told Eddie Matz of ESPN after the game. "Finger's good. Finger feels like a finger. I'm getting through that injury. It's behind me now."

With Scherzer set to open the season as the third starter in the rotation, that likely means that Stephen Strasburg will start on opening day against the Miami Marlins, and Tanner Roark will slot in behind him. 

While it's nice to have your ace pitcher starting on opening day, it's not a huge deal to have Scherzer start the season third in the rotation, especially because the Nationals starting rotation is the strength of the team

RELATED: Nationals' Tanner Roark pitches four scoreless innings to help Team USA beat Japan in WBC

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Nationals' Tanner Roark pitches 4 scoreless innings in US defeat of Japan in WBC

Nationals' Tanner Roark pitches 4 scoreless innings in US defeat of Japan in WBC

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Luke Gregerson's final strike breezed past Nobuhiro Matsuda, and the rain-drenched American players celebrated on the field while a soaked crowd roared through the evening mist.

A daylong downpour couldn't dampen this resilient United States club or its fans, who will finally get to root for the home team in a World Baseball Classic championship game.

Brandon Crawford scored the tiebreaking run when Matsuda bobbled Adam Jones' grounder to third in the eighth inning, and the United States reached the WBC final for the first time by beating Japan 2-1 on Tuesday night at rainy Dodger Stadium.

Andrew McCutchen drove in an early run for the U.S., which will play Puerto Rico for the title Wednesday night. Puerto Rico edged the Netherlands 4-3 in 11 innings Monday.

"It means a heck of a lot," said McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates slugger. "We've got a great group of guys on this team who have dedicated this time to be able to try and win some ballgames. Sacrifices had to be made, and there are no egos when that door opens. That's what's good about this team. Everybody is a superstar on this team. There are no egos."

The World Baseball Classic final has been played in the United States in each of its four editions, but the home team had never been able to play America's pastime on what has become its biggest international stage. The U.S. only reached the semifinals once before, in 2009.

While manager Jim Leyland's current roster is missing Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout and many other American superstars, the All-Star-laden group that decided to participate has won two straight elimination games to earn a chance for the U.S.' first crown.

"Coming into this event, I didn't really want to talk about the fact that the United States has never won it (and) they've never gone to the finals," Leyland said. "I didn't think that was a big deal. I wanted this, for the players, to be a memory. I've talked a lot about it. Make a memory. Hopefully it's a real good one, regardless of the results (Wednesday). I know it is for me. It's been an absolute honor."

To reach the final, the Americans had to persevere through an uncharacteristic Los Angeles rain that drenched the playing field several hours before game time. They also had to beat a gifted Japanese team at its own game: pitching, defense and small ball.

Ryosuke Kikuchi hit a tying homer off reliever Nate Jones in the sixth inning for Japan, but the two-time WBC champions were twice let down by their normally sturdy defense.

McCutchen opened the scoring with an RBI single in the fourth moments after Kikuchi's two-base error at second. In the eighth, Crawford likely would have been out at the plate on Jones' innocent grounder, but Matsuda didn't field it cleanly and had to throw to first.

"Well, two plays," Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said through a translator. "Honestly, there were some mistakes, and then a run was scored. ... The team that makes mistakes will lose. That's what it means. I cannot blame them, though, for doing that."

Japan won the first two WBC tournaments before losing in the 2013 semifinals, and Kokubo's current team was unbeaten in this event.

"The players really did their very best," Kokubo said. "I really appreciate it. It's do-or-die, one semifinal."

Tanner Roark pitched four scoreless innings of two-hit ball before Leyland pulled him on the instructions of the Washington Nationals, who limited Roark to 50 pitches because he hadn't faced live hitters in nine days.

"I felt good enough to stay out there," Roark said.

Gregerson, the Americans' sixth reliever, worked a perfect ninth inning after Pat Neshek escaped a two-on jam in the eighth.

Leyland is confident he'll have a capable bullpen Wednesday after receiving texts from various pitching coaches around the majors on the status of their players. Toronto's Marcus Stroman, the starter, is free to reach the WBC's 95-pitch limit, Leyland confirmed.

Although the crowd of 33,462 strongly favored the team with five California natives in the starting lineup, thousands of Japanese fans showed up early and chanted throughout the game, accompanied by the brass band in the left-field bleachers.

Tomoyuki Sugano, the Yomiuri Giants ace with a seven-pitch repertoire, tossed six innings of three-hit ball for Japan, striking out six and yielding only one unearned run.

But Sugano was matched by Roark, who gave up just two singles and a walk in his four innings, also hitting a batter with a pitch.

After Christian Yelich reached second in the fourth inning when his hard-hit grounder was mishandled by Kikuchi, the standout defensive second baseman, Eric Hosmer worked out of an 0-2 count to draw a two-out walk.

McCutchen had just two hits in his first 14 at-bats in the WBC, but he drove in Yelich with a sharp single to left.

Kikuchi made up for his mistake in the sixth, driving Jones' fastball barely over the reach of McCutchen in right field for his first homer of the tournament.

Japan reliever Kodai Senga struck out the first four batters he faced with a 96 mph fastball and exceptional off-speed stuff, but Crawford then delivered a sharp single before Ian Kinsler doubled to deep left-center.

Neshek got cleanup hitter Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh on a fly to right to end the eighth.