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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 set franchise record for runs in an inning, blow out Rockies

Nationals set franchise record for runs in an inning, blow out Rockies

DENVER -- Bryce Harper hit a three-run homer as part of an 11-run seventh inning, Trea Turner enjoyed another big game at Coors Field and the Washington Nationals routed the Colorado Rockies 16-5 on Thursday.

Turner proved to be a pitcher's nightmare throughout the four-game series. He hit for the cycle on Tuesday, finished a triple shy of another cycle Wednesday and added a double and two singles in the finale -- in all, he had nine extra-base hits, scored 10 runs and had 11 RBIs.

Washington finished 9-1 on its road trip, taking three of the last four at Colorado. What's more, the Nationals scored 11 or more runs in three straight games for the first time since July 1986 at Atlanta, when the team was the Montreal Expos.

Leading 4-2, the Nationals broke the game open in the seventh by sending 15 batters to the plate and pounding out eight hits, including Harper's eighth homer.

Gonzalez (3-0) scattered seven hits over 6 2/3 innings to improve to 4-0 all-time against Colorado. He also had a good day at the plate with two RBIs, including a bases-loaded walk in the big seventh.

Rockies rookie Antonio Senzatela (3-1) couldn't find his typical command in surrendering four runs over six innings.

Turner, who came off the disabled list less than a week ago, made himself at home.

"This ballpark, for whatever reason, feels pretty comfortable to me," the second-year player said. "It's fun hitting here."

His teammates felt the same way as every starter had a hit Thursday.

Before the game, Rockies manager Bud Black said he was going to talk to Senzatela about not walking the pitcher, which he termed a "bad sin." Both Tyler Chatwood and German Marquez did just that the previous two games, paving the way to costly innings.

Senzatela didn't walk the pitcher, but reliever Carlos Estevez did in the seventh.

The damaging play, though, was earlier in the inning, when first baseman Mark Reynolds fielded Harper's grounder and instead of stepping on the bag, threw home to get the runner he figured was breaking for home. Only, the runner wasn't going and the throw wound up in the dugout.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: RHP Stephen Strasburg was reinstated from the paternity list after the birth of his second daughter. Strasburg is scheduled to throw Saturday against the New York Mets.

Rockies: OF Gerardo Parra made a leaping catch in the sixth just before hitting the wall. Parra was shaking his right hand, but stayed in the game.

RESTING SLUGGERS

Nationals infielder Ryan Zimmerman and Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez didn't start. Both had planned rest days, although manager Dusty Baker struggled with the decision with Zimmerman.

"It's hard to rest him because he's hot," Baker said.

THIS & THAT

OF Charlie Blackmon had two hits to extend his hitting streak to 12 games. ... 3B Nolan Arenado hit a solo homer in the first -- about the only mistake Gonzalez made all afternoon.

UP NEXT

Nationals: RHP Max Scherzer (3-1, 1.95 ERA) starts Friday when the Nationals open a three-game series against the New York Mets. Scherzer has 55 strikeouts in his last five games against the Mets, who will throw RHP Jacob deGrom (0-1).

Rockies: LHP Kyle Freeland (2-1, 3.32 ERA) starts Friday at Arizona. The Diamondbacks will throw LHP Robbie Ray (2-0, 3.42).

Related: Nationals place Koda Glover on Disabled List

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Nats' bats remain red-hot in freezing cold Denver

Nats' bats remain red-hot in freezing cold Denver

DENVER  -- Trea Turner nearly hit for the cycle for a second straight night, finishing a triple shy, and Bryce Harper had four more hits to run his average to .432 as the Washington Nationals beat the Colorado Rockies 11-4 on Wednesday.

Turner lined one of three Washington homers, with Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy also going deep, to help the Nationals improve to 8-1 on their 10-game trip.

Tanner Roark (3-0) worked his way out of several jams to throw five solid innings. He allowed two runs and struck out four.

Never quite settling in on a cool night, Tyler Chatwood (2-3) surrendered five runs in five innings.

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Turner followed his cycle the night before with a solo shot in the fifth for his second homer of the season. Zimmerman hit a two-run shot later in the inning to give Washington a 5-0 lead.

Harper kept up his torrid pace at the plate with four hard hits, including a double. It was his fifth four-hit game of his career and third this season.

Roark ran into trouble in the fifth when the Rockies loaded the bases. He walked DJ LeMahieu to force in a run and gave up another run on Nolan Arenado's fielder's choice. With two outs and two on, Roark struck out Carlos Gonzalez with a 77-mph curve. Gonzalez broke his bat on the ground in frustration.

For the second straight night, a two-out walk in the second inning to the pitcher came back to haunt the Rockies. After Chatwood missed on a 3-2 fastball to Roark, Adam Eaton followed with a two-run single.

On Tuesday, German Marquez issued a two-out walk that turned into a five-run frame in a game the Nationals won 15-12. They have taken two of three in the four-game series with Colorado

RELATED: NATS PLACE RELIEVER ON DL