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Postseason clincher is no cinch for Nationals

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Postseason clincher is no cinch for Nationals

For seven innings, they gave no reason for the 26,931 in attendance to believe they had a rally in them, one that would give everyone at Nationals Park reason to celebrate the clinching of Washington's first postseason berth in 79 years.

His team down six runs in the second half of a doubleheader against the Dodgers, Davey Johnson pulled three of his biggest bats -- Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche -- from the game. With his starter, John Lannan, knocked out in the fourth, Johnson handed the ball to a right-hander who has spent the majority of the last three seasons on the disabled list (Chien-Ming Wang) and a left-hander who spent the last five months at Class AAA (Zach Duke).

Could you blame so many of those fans for heading to the exits early?

And then something unexpected happened. Michael Morse led off the eighth with a solo homer. Two batters later, Steve Lombardozzi blasted a two-run shot. Adrian Gonzalez booted a ball at first base. Mark DeRosa poked a single to right field. Bryce Harper beat out a slow roller to third. Danny Espinosa singled to left. And Morse (batting for the second time in the inning) delivered another clutch hit, a two-run single to right that incredibly left this game tied at 6 and left those who did remain in the park in a state of ecstasy, realizing they might just witness the Nationals clinch in stunning fashion.

"That was one of the coolest innings I've been a part of on this team," Morse said.

If the eighth inning was one of the coolest innings the Nationals had experienced, the ninth inning was one of the cruelest.

Tyler Clippard, asked to keep the game tied and give his teammates a chance to win it in the bottom of the inning, got ahead of leadoff man Matt Kemp with a slider and a changeup. He got Kemp to foul off an 0-2 fastball. Then he tried to sneak another 0-2 fastball at the letters past the Dodgers slugger.

Kemp wasn't fooled one bit. He crushed Clippard's pitch into the Red Porch seats beyond the fence in left-center, the final blow in a wild, 7-6 Los Angeles victory that forced the Nationals and their fans to wait at least another 24 hours before they can officially make postseason plans.

"It hurt tonight, big time," Clippard said. "That was a huge momentum shift, there in the bottom of the eighth for us. I think everybody in the ballpark, including myself, felt like we were going to win this game tonight. It's even tougher to swallow knowing that I made the pitch I wanted to make and got hurt on it."

A long day of baseball that saw the Nationals reach the precipice of a postseason berth via their 3-1 victory in the first game of this rainout-induced doubleheader ended in frustrating fashion. They still need only to win once over the next two weeks to clinch at least the NL's final Wild Card, but that wasn't much consolation for a clubhouse full of players and coaches who have set much loftier goals for themselves.

"The only thing that's going to mean anything to me is when we clinch the pennant," Johnson said. "That's the only number I'm concerned about. It's down to 9, and that's good. We can get it down to 8, go from there. And whatever number that is, that's going to be my favorite number."

The Nationals did reduce their magic number for the NL East title (from 10 to 9) though their lead over the Braves is down to 5 games after Atlanta won in Miami. They're still firmly in the driver's seat, but they also can't help but wonder what might have been Wednesday night.

What they might be wondering above all else is what might have been had plate umpire Alan Porter not blown a call in the fourth inning that didn't look all that damaging at the time because of the lopsided score but ultimately might have proved the difference between a win and a loss.

On the play in question, Ryan Zimmerman fielded Hanley Ramirez's sharp grounder, then got tangled up with Adrian Gonzalez as the latter tried to advance to third base. Zimmerman did apply the tag to Gonzalez for the final out of the inning, and the Nationals trotted off the field believing they trailed 5-0.

Dodgers manger Don Mattingly, though, emerged from the dugout and said a few words to Porter, who then convened with his fellow umpires. After a brief discussion, Porter motioned for Johnson out of the Nationals dugout and informed him Los Angeles was being credited with another run because Kemp (who had been on third base when the ball was put into play) had crossed the plate before Gonzalez was tagged out.

Replays were beyond conclusive: Kemp was a good 10 feet from the plate at the time of the tag, and thus the run should not have counted. Not that the Nationals needed to see the replay to know what they saw with their own eyes.

"I didn't know they were arguing about the play, because when I saw Zimmerman tagging Gonzalez, I knew that the guy wasn't even really close to the plate," catcher Jesus Flores said. "I was totally in shock, because I didn't know what was going on. ... Terrible call."

Crew chief Mike Winters declined to speak to a pool reporter after the game.

"They obviously blew the call," Johnson said. "It wasn't reviewable. They all discussed it, and evidently nobody was paying attention. But Kemp wasn't running. He just wasn't running. The tag play was before. Obviously they missed it, but you'd think when the three of them got together, somebody would've been paying attention."

At the time, no one knew that extra run would make much difference. Of course, at the time no one knew the Nationals would have a six-run rally in them.

Nor that they would squander that rally by night's end and still leave themselves one step shy of the postseason.

Perhaps they'll take that step Thursday night.

"I don't think thinking about all that Wild Card stuff helps any," Morse said. "All you're doing is distracting you from playing. We got this far for a reason, and that was winning and playing good baseball. I think we're just going to keep trying to do that."

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Nationals six-game winning streak comes to an end in Los Angeles

Nationals six-game winning streak comes to an end in Los Angeles

The book on Alex Meyer was pretty clear: big stuff, bigger control problems.

Not so much Wednesday night for the 6-foot-9 right-hander.

Meyer executed nearly to perfection while allowing a hit and a walk over seven innings and leading the Los Angeles Angels to a 7-0 victory that ended the Washington Nationals' six-game winning streak.

MORE NATS: NATS BOLSTER BULLPEN

"We really didn't have much of a chance," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "Our reports were he didn't have very good command, but he did tonight."

Meyer (4-5) had a perfect game until he walked Anthony Rendon with two outs in the fifth. He lost his no-hitter with two outs in the sixth when Brian Goodwin doubled down the right-field line.

Meyer, Rendon and Goodwin were all first-round draft picks by the Nationals in 2011.

"I went to breakfast with (Goodwin) this morning and paid for it," Meyer said. "I'll have to talk to him about that."

Meyer had been plagued by walks this season (41 in 60 1/3 innings) but had just the one free pass in a career-high seven innings. He struck out seven.

David Hernandez and Jose Alvarez each threw a scoreless, hitless inning to complete the one-hitter. It was only the second time this season the Nationals have been shut out.

"To make outs the way he did says a lot about his upside and potential," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.

Mike Trout and C.J. Cron each hit two-run homers to support Meyer. For Trout, it was his 18th of the season.

Gio Gonzalez (8-5) started for the Nationals but gave up a pair of first-inning runs on Albert Pujols' single and Andrelton Simmons' sacrifice fly, and it was all the runs Los Angeles would need.

Washington outfielder Bryce Harper did not play in the nationally televised game. It was a scheduled day off.

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Zimmerman sets franchise HR record, Nationals beat Reds 6-1

Zimmerman sets franchise HR record, Nationals beat Reds 6-1

The NL East leaders opened the second half of the season with a franchise record, a series sweep and a significant upgrade -- exactly how the Nationals wanted to keep their momentum going.

Ryan Zimmerman set the Nationals' career home run record with a solo shot, and Bryce Harper connected again on Monday as Washington powered its way to a 6-1 victory for a four-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds.

Zimmerman's 235th career homer moved him ahead of Vladimir Guerrero for most in Expos and Nationals history. Guerrero quickly tweeted congratulations , saying he doesn't mind being second.

"It's special to be in one place your entire career," said Zimmerman, in his 12th season with the team that made him a first-round draft pick. "You can't do stuff like this if you're not in the same place for a long time. So I feel very lucky to have spent my entire career here, honored to have hit more home runs than any Expo or National. It's cool."

The Nationals emerged from the All-Star break with an emphatically successful series -- 13 homers, including three by Harper, and 35 runs overall by the league's top offense. It was the Nationals' first four-game sweep of the Reds and left them 6-1 against Cincinnati this season.

Washington improved to a season-high 20 games over .500 (56-36) with its ninth victory in 11 games.

The Nationals' roster got a little better during the series, too. Washington shored up its weak bullpen by getting relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle from Oakland on Sunday. They'll join the team in Los Angeles for the start of a series against the Angels on Tuesday.

"We know we have a good team and we've put ourselves in a good spot to start the second half, but we've got a ways to go," Zimmerman said. "Obviously we acquired two talented guys for the bullpen, and we'll just try to keep scoring runs so that they can come in and lock the games up."

Stephen Strasburg (10-3) recovered from his shortest start of the season by fanning 11 in seven innings and allowing four hits, including Eugenio Suarez's homer. Strasburg left his last start -- a 13-0 loss to Atlanta on July 8 -- after Nick Markakis' liner deflected off his hip in the third inning.

He allowed only two hits -- including an infield single -- in his last five innings.

"Your body wants to pretend it's the offseason," Strasburg said of the break between starts. "It took a little while to get going."

Scott Feldman (7-7) lasted only one inning, limited by a stiff right knee that has been bothering him. He gave up a double, a single, Harper's three-run homer and Zimmerman's solo shot in his first 12 pitches. Feldman left after facing nine batters and giving up five runs on 33 pitches.

"It wouldn't loosen up," Feldman said of the knee. "It was one of those days. I put the team in a tough spot. We were down five runs right off the bat."

Harper's homer extended his hitting streak to 12 games. Brian Goodwin's solo shot made it 6-1 in the sixth.

4 FOR 4

The last time the Nationals swept a four-game series was last season against Atlanta. It was the 11th four-game sweep in Nationals history.

KEEP RUNNING

Daniel Murphy scored from second base on Matt Wieter's fly out in the first inning, turning it into a sacrifice fly. Right fielder Scooter Gennett made a diving catch in the gap and then stumbled and dropped the ball while trying to get up, giving Murphy enough time to make it home.

STATS

It was Strasburg's sixth double-digit strikeout game of the season and the 35th of his career. ... Anthony Rendon extended his hitting streak to 11 games. ... Nationals starters allowed only one run in the series. ... The 13 homers allowed in a series matched the Reds' club record.

NATIONALS MOVES

Washington called up right-hander Jacob Turner from Triple-A. Right-hander Koda Glover -- sidelined since April by a hip injury -- was moved to the 60-day DL.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: CF Michael Taylor hasn't yet started baseball-related activities as he recovers from a strained right oblique. He went on the DL on July 7.

Reds: C Devin Mesoraco began a rehab assignment at Triple-A Louisville. He'll play a few games and be re-evaluated. He's been sidelined since July 5 with a strained left shoulder.

UP NEXT

Nationals: They face the Angels for the first time since 2011. Washington is 6-7 in interleague play this season.

Reds: RHP Sal Romano (1-1) will be called up to make his third career start when the Reds face the Diamondbacks. He also started on April 16 against Milwaukee and July 6 at Colorado.