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Uncomfortable Nats upended by Bucs

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Uncomfortable Nats upended by Bucs

Something about the Nationals Thursday night looked, well, uncomfortable.

Whether it was Jordan Zimmermann struggling to establish a rhythm on the mound or locate his fastball, or whether it was a lineup full of hitters who were hogtied by right-hander James McDonald, there was something of an uneasy feeling to this 5-3 loss to the Pirates.

"Well," manager Davey Johnson said as he sat down for his postgame news conference, "that was a tough one."

Tough, because for more than five innings the Nationals had no business sharing this field with their opponents, then nearly stormed all the way back before faltering late when presented a chance to complete the comeback.

Tough, because Zimmermann slogged his way through his roughest outing of the season, his first non-quality start in eight tries. The right-hander's mistakes were obvious: He served up three home runs in six innings, one to light-hitting catcher Rod Barajas, two to uber-talented center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

"I didn't feel very good at all," Zimmermann said. "I was flying open, and I wasn't able to locate my fastball at all. The breaking stuff was good, but when you can't locate your fastball, you're going to be in trouble and it's going to be a long game."

The first two homers -- McCutchen's solo shot in the first, Barajas' two-run blast in the fourth -- came on poorly located fastballs. The third, though, came on a first-pitch slider to McCutchen ... who still sent it flying over the left-field fence for his 10th home run in 23 career games against the Nationals.

"I'm hoping he was sitting first-pitch slider," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "Because if he's not sitting one, it seemed even more impressive. He's one of those special players that can do everything. He's fun to watch. I just wish we didn't have to watch him so much when we play him."

The Nationals can thank Major League Baseball's schedulers for limiting this series to only two games, because there's no telling how much more damage McCutchen would have inflicted if given the opportunity to face the Nationals pitching staff again. In five games over the last 10 days against them, the All-Star center fielder went 10-for-17 with four homers, six RBI and three walks. Oh, he also robbed Adam LaRoche of extra bases Thursday night with a fifth-inning, highlight-reel catch against the fence.

"I mean, we certainly haven't figured out how to pitch him," said manager Davey Johnson, who admitted he contemplated intentionally walking McCutchen. "He's got to be hitting about five or six hundred off us. He looks awful comfortable in there."

Zimmermann had to battle throughout his six innings of work, needing a season-high 107 pitches just to reach that point.

"He was rushing. He was falling," Johnson said. "That's the worst I've seen him with his command early in a ballgame."

Not that it would have mattered much had Zimmermann been lights-out early on, because the Nationals weren't going to touch McDonald no matter what. The unheralded right-hander broke out a devastating curveball and baffled Johnson's lineup, striking out eight of the first nine batters he faced.

By the time Bryce Harper stepped to the plate with one out of the fifth, McDonald had yet to put a man on base. That run at perfection ended when the 19-year-old drew a walk, but it wasn't until Jesus Flores led off the sixth with a double that McDonald's no-hit bid was finally quashed.

"You know, that curveball, we just weren't getting on it for whatever reason," LaRoche said. "Couldn't figure it out until late. And by the time we did there in that one inning, he was out of the game. Too little, too late."

That one inning was the bottom of the sixth, during which Zimmerman laced a two-out, two-run single and LaRoche recorded only the 10th triple of his career. All of this brought the Nationals to within a run, but they couldn't push across one more despite several late opportunities.

With runners on second and third and one out in the seventh, rookie Steve Lombardozzi tapped a comebacker to the mound and Desmond struck out swinging at a 3-2 slider from reliever Juan Cruz.

Two innings later, Desmond again had an opportunity to drive in the tying run when he dug in against Pittsburgh closer Joel Hanrahan with two on and two out. Again, Desmond struck out, his fourth K of the game.

"I was looking heater all the way and I just missed 'em," Desmond said. "I missed a lot of balls tonight, fouled them off. I don't remember a time in my life I've ever fouled off 20 pitches in a game. But just wasn't getting the barrel there."

A fitting analysis of a frustrating ballgame for the Nationals.

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Updated MLB Postseason 2017 Bracket Projection

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USA Today Sports Images

Updated MLB Postseason 2017 Bracket Projection

Postseason teams are continuing to win, except for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and some incredible runs put on by teams just outside of the playoffs are being pushed to the side.

Although most of the divisions have been wrapped up, the battle for first place in each league and the overall top seed for home-field throughout the playoffs are getting heated. Of course the Dodgers losing three straight to Philadelphia Phillies, with the potential for the sweep tonight, is a huge factor.

RELATED: IN-DEPTH LOOK AT THE WILD CARD RACE

Still at 96 wins they hold the best record in baseball but everyone is charging fast. Cleveland is now a game behind for home-field throughout the playoffs and Houston is 2.5 back. The Indians have won 26 of their last 27 and the Astros have claimed six straight.

The Washington Nationals (NL East Division Winner) have all but clinched the No. 2 seed in the National League and are slowly catching up to the Dodgers for No. 1.

After getting swept by the Boston Red Sox at home, the Baltimore Orioles postseason hopes are all but gone. With the possibility of losing Zach Britton it may be time to see the white flag.

Since the last bracket update on September 18, only the Boston Red Sox have clinched a postseason spot.

NATIONAL LEAGUE:

Things are not looking good in Los Angeles as the Phillies are in control of the Dodgers. Clayton Kershaw gave up a grand slam in the sixth of his lone start and the bullpen has not been much better in the last two games. With the potential of the sweep tonight, the Dodgers are not trending in the right direction with the playoffs around the corner.

As a result, the Nationals are back into the fold for first place after winning two straight against the Atlanta Braves (the series finale is tonight). Only back 3.5 games for the top seed in the National League, the Nationals are in a golden opportunity. On top of making this run with a six-man rotation to get playoff starters rest, the team is going against opponents with a .432 winning percentage the rest of the way.

MORE NATS: SCHERZER'S HSITORIC NIGHT

While the Dodgers have struggled, their NL West rival, the Arizona Diamondbacks have not done much better. Arizona lost two of three to the Padres, only gaining one game on the Dodgers division lead. Los Angeles’ magic number is two with ten games remaining.

The National League Central Division has crunched up slightly from Monday. Chicago still leads but it is now down to 3.5 edge over the Milwaukee Brewers. Right behind the Brewers are the St. Louis Cardinals five games back of the Cubs. It is now gut-check time for the Cubs who have won seven of their last ten. Today they head to Milwaukee for a four game series that will likely decide the division and then head to St. Louis who are still in the thick of things.

Despite the bumps, Arizona is still well in control of their playoff fate. Colorado is behind them by 5.5 games for the first Wild Card, but the Brewers (-1.0 game) and Cardinals (-2.5 games) are now within striking range.

If the season were to end today, here is how the National League bracket would look:

Wild Card Round (Winner-take-all):

No. 5 Colorado Rockies (82-70) at No. 4 Arizona Diamondbacks (88-65)

National League Divisional Series (Best-of-5):

No. 1 Los Angeles Dodgers (96-56) vs. Wild Card Round Winner
No. 2 Washington Nationals (92-59) vs. No. 3 Chicago Cubs (84-67)

Wild Card Race:

Arizona Diamondbacks:  +5.5
Colorado Rockies:             ---
Milwaukee Brewers:         -1.0
St. Louis Cardinals:          -2.5
Miami Marlins:                -10.0

AMERICAN LEAGUE:

Both the Indians (AL Central Division Winner) and the Astros (AL West Division Winner) continue to win so there is not much change among the top teams in the American League. The lead for Cleveland for the top seed is 1.5 games. This upcoming weekend, Houston does face their division rivals, the Los Angeles Angels who are battling for one of the two Wild Card spots. Likely it is the chance for Cleveland to pull away.

The New York Yankees completed a dominant sweep of the Minnesota Twins in a battle of potential Wild Card teams. However, the Boston Red Sox also swept the Orioles preventing the Yankees from gaining any ground in the AL East race. Still back three games, New York still has the advantage of playing lesser opponents (combined .478 winning percentage) at home. Surprisingly there will not be an end-of-season series between the two to decide the division.

Boston’s sweep earned them a post-season berth but their magic number for the division is eight games.

With the Twins getting swept, ten teams remain in contention for the final Wild Card spot. Again, New York/ Boston has all but locked up the top Wild Card. The Texas Rangers (2.5 games back) have taken two straight in Seattle, vaulting the Rangers into contention but dropping the Mariners (4.0 games back). Facing the Indians, the Los Angeles Angels have barely moved (1.5 games back). Creeping in after being after-thoughts are the Kansas City Royals (3.5 games back) and Tampa Bay Rays (4.0 games back).

MORE ORIOLES: TIM BECKHAM WAS A MLB TRADE DEADLINE STEAL

Fortunately for the Twins, they get the chance for a rebound series against the Detroit Tigers this weekend.  Los Angeles travels to Houston for three games, New York heads to Toronto, Texas continues their West Coast road trip with the Athletics, while the Royals host the lowly White Sox.

If the season were to end today, here is how the American League bracket would look:

Wild Card Round (Winner-take-all):

No. 5 Minnesota Twins (78-74) at No. 4 New York Yankees (85-67)

American League Divisional Series (Best-of-5):

No. 1 Cleveland Indians (95-57) vs. Wild Card Round Winner
No. 2 Houston Astros (93-58) vs. No. 3 Boston Red Sox (88-64)

Wild Card Race:

New York Yankees:     +7.0
Minnesota Twins:           ---
Los Angeles Angels:     -1.5
Texas Rangers:             -2.5
Kansas City Royals:      -3.5
Seattle Mariners:           -4.0
Tampa Bay Rays:          -4.0
Baltimore Orioles:          -5.5
Toronto Blue Jays:        -7.0
Oakland Athletics:         -9.0

All records and standings are as of Thursday morning at 9:00 am, check back next Monday and Thursday for MLB bracket updates.

MORE MLB NEWS: WHEN WILL BRYCE HARPER RETURN TO THE NATS?

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Nationals vs. Braves Preview: Gonzalez looks to rebound

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USA TODAY Sports

Nationals vs. Braves Preview: Gonzalez looks to rebound

ATLANTA -- One of the questions the Atlanta Braves brass must answer during the offseason is whether right-handed pitching prospect Lucas Sims belongs in the rotation or the bullpen.

Sims (2-5, 5.52 ERA) will make another start Wednesday against the Washington Nationals, who send veteran left-hander Gio Gonzalez (14-7, 2.68) to oppose him in the second contest of a three-game series at SunTrust Park.

The Nationals won the series opener 4-2 on Tuesday to take a 9-8 lead in the season series. The loss guaranteed Atlanta (67-82) would have a losing record for the fourth consecutive season.

RELATED: WHEN WILL BRYCE HARPER RETURN?

Gonzalez, like teammate Max Scherzer, is a candidate for the National League Cy Young Award. The southpaw is coming off a poor showing against Atlanta on Sept. 12, when he allowed five runs in five innings despite eight strikeouts.

"You get the strikeouts and then all of a sudden, the hits came in," Gonzalez said. "It was just one of those games. You take it for what it was, sweep it up the rug and get ready for tomorrow. It was one of those games you can't really understand what happened, just pick up where you can and go from there."

The Braves have fared well against Gonzalez. In 20 career starts against Atlanta, he is 4-11 with a 5.27 ERA. This season, Gonzalez is 0-2 with a 6.48 ERA in three starts vs. the Braves.

Sims, a rookie who was the team's first-round draft choice in 2012, has made 11 appearances (seven starts). He has made it clear that he prefers to be a starting pitcher.

The Braves moved Sims to the bullpen after his Sept. 2 start against the Chicago Cubs, when he allowed seven runs in three innings. Because he was stretched out, Sims had the ability to throw multiple innings out of the 'pen, which he did in two of his subsequent four relief appearances.

However, on Sunday, the Braves announced Sims as the starter for the Wednesday game and moved left-hander Max Fried to the bullpen. Fried is another rookie who will be under consideration to join the rotation in 2018.

"The kid never quits," Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Sims. "He keeps pitching. He competes."

In seven starts, Sims has averaged 5 1/3 innings per outing. In 44 innings overall, he has recorded 31 strikeouts and 15 walks.

Sims has made only one appearance against Washington, that a perfect one-inning stint on Sept. 13.

Atlanta has had trouble scoring runs of late. Over the past five games, the Braves managed only 11 runs.

The Braves likely will be without catalyst Ender Inciarte on Wednesday. The center fielder left the game early Tuesday with right thumb soreness. Snitker said there was no structural damage and that Inciarte needs a day of rest.

"We just have to back off," Snitker said. "It's just sore."

Inciarte doesn't like to take a day off under normal circumstances, must less when he is chasing 200 hits. He was 0-for-2 on Tuesday, leaving him with 190 hits. He is trying to become the first Atlanta player to reach the milestone since Marquis Grissom in 1996.

Washington is close to getting its injured players back.

Outfielder Bryce Harper (hyperextended left knee) and infielder Stephen Drew (left abdominal strain) ran before the Tuesday game. Both are eligible to come off the disabled list whenever they are deemed healthy.

RELATED: MLB POSTSEASON 2017 BRACKET PROJECTION