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A pennant race comes to Washington

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A pennant race comes to Washington

The crowd of 34,827 -- which certainly looked and sounded more like a sellout crowd -- began to rise as Michael Morse stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in the bottom of the fourth Friday night.

The crescendo grew as Morse took a ball inside from Johan Santana, then broke his bat fouling another one off, then took a mighty hack at an 89 mph fastball at the letters.

As the ball sailed over the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center, the first grand slam of the season by the Nationals, the roar turned deafening. And it didn't let up until Morse was coaxed out of the dugout for a two-arms-raised-followed-by-a-twirling-fist-pump curtain call that brought the emotions out of even the most-hardened members of the Nationals.

"That was awesome," Jayson Werth said. "From third base, I was probably just as excited as all the fans."

Why shouldn't they all be excited? Morse's four-run blast put the Nationals on top and put them on course for a 6-4 victory over the Mets to start this homestand off in fine fashion and catapult the local ballclub to 29 games over the .500 mark.

So this is what a pennant race feels like.

Welcomed home after a long, three-city road trip that featured enough highlights to warrant a 3-minute video on the stadium scoreboard before they took the field, the Nationals unofficially kicked off the home stretch of a remarkable season in style.

They saw Bryce Harper club a two-run homer of his own off Santana. They saw Ross Detwiler overcome some first-inning jitters to produce a quality start. They saw All-Star Ian Desmond return from a four-week stint on the disabled list. And they saw Tyler Clippard escape another harrowing ninth inning to seal their league-best 74th victory in 119 games.

And perhaps most significantly, they did it all in front of a boisterous fan base that is beginning to turn South Capitol Street into the site of a nightly block party, a fact that wasn't lost among the players.

"Absolutely," Detwiler said. "It makes you a little kid again to kind of look around. It's one of the best feelings in the world."

We can only imagine what it felt like for Morse to round the bases and receive a curtain call, because the slugger sneaked out of the postgame clubhouse without making himself available to reporters. His teammates and manager were left to speak about the impact he's made on what has become one of the sport's deepest and most-productive lineups.

"The whole first half of what he was here was like 70 percent of what he was last year," Davey Johnson said. "But he's in a good spot right now. The whole middle of the lineup is really in a good spot, and that's why we've been scoring a lot of runs."

It certainly helped to have seven key regulars (Morse, Werth, Harper, Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa) together in one lineup for the first time this season. With Werth (who now boasts a .509 on-base percentage in 14 games since returning from a broken wrist) taking over leadoff duties and Desmond and Espinosa providing some thunder from the No. 6 and No. 7 spots, this is no longer a team that must rely on top-flight pitching every single night.

"It's great," said Desmond, who went 0-for-4 in his return but hit a couple of balls hard. "When you can put a guy who has done what he's done like Jayson Werth in the leadoff spot with no complaints, when he comes out and produces, that speaks volumes about the kind of character we have in here. Guys are just willing to do whatever they have to do to, by any means."

It took that lineup a little while to get itself going Friday night. Santana, the two-time AL Cy Young Award winner who tossed a 134-pitch no-hitter on June 1 but hasn't been the same since, retired the first nine batters he faced.

But then Werth laced a sharp single up the middle to open the bottom of the fourth. And then Harper and Zimmerman followed with nearly identical base hits, setting the stage for Morse to really inflict some damage.

"He's tough," Werth said of Santana. "Even at 89 mph, he's still a great pitcher. It was evident that he mowed through our lineup the first time through. It was more just grinding out the at-bats and keeping your nose down and putting a good at-bat today. And we managed to get three hits right back up the box, and Mikey hits a slam the other way. It's just good hitting, really."

One inning later, Harper added his own blast, a two-run homer to right that brought another roar from the crowd and more than made up for his defensive gaffe in the top of the first when he airmailed a throw to the plate and hit the backstop on the fly.

Harper wound up 2-for-3 with a walk, one of his best offensive performances in weeks. Afterward, though, the 19-year-old was informed by Johnson he'll be out of the lineup Saturday as the manager seeks to give him another mental break while also giving fellow rookie Tyler Moore a chance to start.

"There's 25 guys," Johnson said. "I've said it 100 times: You don't just win with eight. ... Everybody's contributed so far, and I'm not going to just forget about the guys that had a pretty defined role until we got healthy. We're in a good place. It's where good teams need to be."

It's hard to dispute with the results. The season is nearly 75 percent complete now, and the Nationals continue to own baseball's best record.

And they're starting to put it all on display in front of large and appreciative crowds that are hopping aboard for the first pennant race this town has experienced in three generations.

"This is what makes it fun," Werth said. "I've been in this situation a few times before, and this is what it's all about. You play all season to put yourself in this situation. This is what it's all about. This is why you play your whole life, for this situation."

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Nationals win 6-2 after Stephen Strasburg leaves in second inning

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USA TODAY Sports

Nationals win 6-2 after Stephen Strasburg leaves in second inning

PHOENIX -- Stephen Strasburg left after struggling with his control in the second inning, and the Washington Nationals wrapped up a successful nine-game trip with a 6-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday.

There was no word from the Nationals during the game explaining the standout right-hander's departure.

Strasburg, 10-3 with a 3.31 ERA entering the game, uncharacteristically walked the No. 8 and No. 9 batters in the second inning before departing with a 5-0 lead. He threw 51 pitches, 29 strikes.

Brian Goodwin's leadoff homer ignited a four-run first inning off Robbie Ray (9-5), who lasted five innings, allowing five runs.

Bryce Harper singled in the first to extend his hitting streak to 16 games.

Wilmer Difo hit his second home run of the season off reliever T.J. McFarland in the seventh.

Joe Blanton (1-2) got two outs and earned the win.

The NL East-leading Nationals took two of three in Arizona to go 7-2 on the trip.

Nine players batted for Washington in the opening inning. Goodwin started it with a booming shot high above the home run line across the batter's eye in straightaway center.

Difo and Harper singled and Ryan Zimmerman's sacrifice fly made it 2-0. Daniel Murphy walked and Anthony Rendon singled in a run. Jose Lobaton capped the scoring with a two-out RBI single before Strasburg bounced into a fielder's choice to end Ray's 39-pitch inning.

Arizona broke through with two runs in the fifth.

Chris Iannetta had a pinch-hit single with one out and David Descalso walked before Ketel Marte and David Peralta each singled in a run. With runners at first and third and one out, Blanton came on to strike out Paul Goldschmidt and got Chris Owings to ground into a fielder's choice.

The Diamondbacks had runners at second and third with one out in the sixth but Enny Romero struck out A.J. Pollock and Descalso bounced out to second. Romero left the game in the seventh with an apparent injury.

Arizona, 3-6 since the All-Star break, stranded 11 runners.

Washington's Andrew Stevenson, called up from Triple-A Syracuse, was 0 for 2 in his major league debut.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: Washington placed OF Chris Heisey on the 10-day DL. Heisey strained his left groin in Saturday night's 4-3 victory. Additionally, OF Ryan Raburn was placed on the bereavement list.

Diamondbacks: J.D. Martinez appeared in his first game in Arizona as a Diamondback after missing three games with a bruised wrist, the result of being hit by a pitch in his Diamondbacks debut. He walked as a pinch hitter in the seventh.

UP NEXT

Nationals: Washington has Monday off and hosts Milwaukee on Tuesday. RH Edwin Jackson makes his second start for the Nationals.

Diamondbacks: Arizona begins a three-game home series against Atlanta on Monday night. Zack Greinke (11-4, 2.93 ERA), 9-0 with a 2.41 ERA in 11 home starts, goes for the Diamondbacks. R.A. Dickey (6-6, 4.14) counters for the Braves.

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Bryce Harper powers Nationals past Diamondbacks

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Bryce Harper powers Nationals past Diamondbacks

PHOENIX -- The newest additions to the Washington bullpen came through when called upon to help deliver a victory to their new team.

Sean Doolittle stranded the potential tying run by escaping a jam for his second save for Washington, and Ryan Madson tossed a scoreless eighth inning as the Nationals held off the Arizona Diamondbacks 4-3 on Saturday night.

"The game can really speed up on you once you start getting guys on base," said Doolittle, who with Madson arrived in a trade with Oakland earlier in the week. "The crowd and the energy of the stadium can kind of take over and ... you have to be mindful enough to step off the mound, slow the game down a bit, kind of press reset."

Bryce Harper homered and drove in two runs, and starting pitcher Tanner Roark struck out a season-high 11. Roark (8-6) gave up two runs and three hits in seven innings for the NL East-leading Nationals.

"Curveball felt good. Just keep the hitter guessing," Roark said.

Harper hit his 25th home run on a full-count offspeed pitch from Anthony Banda (0-1), who lost in his major league debut.

Chris Iannetta hit a two-out RBI double in the bottom half, but the Nationals opened a 4-1 lead with a three-run sixth.

Harper hit a run-scoring double and scored on Ryan Zimmerman's double, and Anthony Rendon beat out an RBI single that sent Zimmerman home.

"They had a young guy out there that throws the ball really hard, has good command. He's going to be really good in the next couple of years for sure," Harper said of Banda. "Just got him this time and got a few runs up there."

A.J. Pollock tripled in the bottom half and scored on Jake Lamb's groundout, and Arizona reliever Jorge De La Rosa got out of bases-loaded trouble in the seventh when he struck out Harper and Zimmerman.

Doolittle, acquired from Oakland last weekend, walked Lamb leading off the ninth. Iannetta hit a broken-bat grounder to third, and Rendon's throw to second went into right field for an error that put runners on the corners.

Paul Goldschmidt hit a sacrifice fly, Chris Owings flied out and Doolittle struck out Ketel Marte for his second save with the Nationals.

"Madson's been great for us. Doolittle ... he never panics. It was great to see. It's a lot of fun to have a back end like that," Harper said.

Banda allowed four runs and seven hits in 5 2/3 innings, struck out five and walked none. He was optioned back to Triple-A Reno after the game.

"I felt confident. I threw the ball in the zone and kept attacking hitters," Banda said. "I made a couple of mistakes, Harper and the middle of the lineup."