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Who could upend Nats in East?

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Who could upend Nats in East?

The Nationals tonight will take the field for the 78th time this season, and incredibly this will be the 68th time they do so as a first-place ballclub.

Yes, the Nats have spent only 10 days outside of first place in the NL East, and all 10 of those days were spent in second place, none of them since May 21.

None of this, of course, guarantees anything. There is still more than half of a full season to be played, and anyone who followed this team during its inaugural 2005 campaign knows all too well how different the standings can look on October 1 vs. July 1.

But if the Nationals were to be overtaken in the NL East, which team would be most likely to do it? Who should the Nats most fear in their division?

The answer isn't as clear as most would have expected when this topsy-turvy season began.

The Phillies, the division's five-time reigning champs, have spent all but seven days in either fourth or fifth place and have offered little reason to believe they're going to turn it around. A lineup and rotation of aging stars hasn't been bolstered by the return of Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard's pending return may not make much difference either. At 36-45, they're an astounding 11 games behind the Nationals and talking about selling off free-agent-to-be Cole Hamels before the end of the month.

The Marlins, who made the division's biggest offseason splash with their Winter Meetings spending spree, are an enigma. On rare occasions, they look like as good a team as there is in the NL, with a potent lineup full of stars and a deep starting rotation. But on far more occasions they've looked like a trainwreck, an inconsistent and oft-feuding club probably takes after combustible manager Ozzie Guillen than owner Jeffrey Loria hoped when he made that hire in the first place. At 38-41, they're totally out of the race yet. But they're running out of time.

The Braves, the division's most-consistent organization, always seem to find a way to keep themselves in contention. With Jason Heyward re-emerging as a force, Michael Bourn and Martin Prado enjoying fine seasons and rookie Andrelton Simmons off to an impressive start, this is a lineup that should be able to produce. The pitching staff, though, is less of a sure thing, especially with burgeoning Cy Young candidate Brandon Beachy now out for the remainder of the season with a torn elbow ligament. And a bullpen that overwhelmed opponents in 2011 looks far less imposing these days. At 41-38, they're very much in it for now. But the only way these guys are going to overtake the Nationals is if they can find a way to beat them, having gone 2-6 against Washington so far.

Which leaves ... the Mets, a team that wasn't expecting to do anything of consequence this season yet has become one of baseball's biggest surprises. For that, credit the unorthodox-yet-dynamic 1-2 pitching punch of R.A. Dickey and Johan Santana. One's the sport's lone active knuckleballer. The other came back from major shoulder surgery to throw a no-hitter. Together, they've spelled doom for opposing hitters. Throw in a re-energized David Wright at third base, and fans in Flushing have every reason to buy into this as a legitimate contender. Can the Mets, 3 12 games back at 43-37, keep this ride going straight into September? With each passing day, they look like less and less of a fluke.

And yet, there the Nationals continue to sit, all alone atop the division, owners of the game's best pitching staff and a lineup that is finally coming together with Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse healthy and productive.

For three months, they unquestionably have been the class of the NL East. Whether they can hold that distinction through the season's final three months remains to be seen.

But given the state of the rest of the division at the moment, they sure have to like their chances.

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Anthony Rendon homers in third straight game, but Nationals fall to Mariners in series finale

Anthony Rendon homers in third straight game, but Nationals fall to Mariners in series finale

WASHINGTON -- Nelson Cruz greeted reliever Jacob Turner with a go-ahead, three-run homer in the sixth inning, and the Seattle Mariners beat the Washington Nationals 4-2 Thursday to stop a five-game losing streak.

Gio Gonzalez took a 2-0 lead into the sixth, when Jean Segura singled leading off and Guillermo Heredia took a called third strike. That prompted Seattle manager Scott Servais to complain from the dugout, which led to his ejection by plate umpire Adam Hamari.

Robinson Cano singled, and Washington manager Dusty Baker brought in Turner (2-3), despite Cruz having just one hit in 15 at-bats against Gonzalez. Cruz drove a belt-high slider over the fence in left-center for his 12th homer this season and a 3-2 lead. Cruz leads the AL with 40 RBIs.

Cano added an RBI single off Turner in the seventh. Seattle scored multiple runs for the first time since May 18.

Ariel Miranda (4-2) allowed two runs, three hits and three walks in five innings. Edwin Diaz, Seattle's sixth pitcher, threw a one-hit ninth that completed a six-hitter. Diaz got his first save since May 9 and has eight in 10 chances overall.

Gonzalez gave up two runs, three hits and four walks in 5 1/3 innings, striking out eight.

Washington's Anthony Rendon homered in the fifth, his ninth this season and fourth in the three-game series. Jayson Werth added an RBI single later in the inning.

FAMILY FIRST

Baker will be leaving the Nationals for their weekend series against San Diego Padres to attend his son Darren's high school graduation in Northern California and will rejoin the team Monday in San Francisco.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Mariners: LHP James Paxton (forearm strain) could return to the rotation in the first or second game of a homestand that starts Wednesday, Servais said. ... 1B Danny Valencia was in the lineup for a second straight day after sitting out three games with a wrist injury.

Nationals: Baker may continue to use an eight-man bullpen. Baker said the decision depends the progress of INF Stephen Drew's rehabilitation from a hamstring strain. Drew is at extended spring training.

UP NEXT

Mariners: RHP Yovani Gallardo is 2-2 with a 5.28 ERA against Boston, where Seattle begins a three-game set on Friday.

Nationals: RHP Max Scherzer (4-3, 3.02) has allowed two runs or fewer in his last three starts against San Diego, which opens a three-game series in Washington on Friday.

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Nats beat Mariners behind Joe Ross' career day in return from minors

Nats beat Mariners behind Joe Ross' career day in return from minors

WASHINGTON -- Anthony Rendon homered twice and drove in five runs, Joe Ross returned from the minors to allow one run over a career high-tying eight innings, and the Washington Nationals routed the Seattle Mariners 10-1 on Tuesday night.

Bryce Harper added his 14th homer and Jayson Werth hit his seventh off Chris Bergman (1-2), who allowed all of the Nationals' runs and 14 of their 15 hits.

Rendon doubled before his second homer -- and seventh of the season -- completed an eight-run fourth inning. Ryan Zimmerman also had three hits.

Mike Zunino homered off Ross (2-0) in his return from his own minor league stint. Robinson Cano was hitless in his first game back from the disabled list following a thigh injury as Seattle dropped its fourth straight.

Ross showed no signs of the late April struggles that ended with a demotion to Triple-A Syracuse. He yielded five hits and a walk while striking out six, and retired 12 straight batters after a leadoff single to begin the game.

By the time Seattle finally put multiple runners aboard, Washington had already opened a 10-0 lead.

Rendon's second-inning shot around the left field foul pole made it 2-0.

Then Werth, Harper and Rendon all connected in the fourth, helping the Nationals score seven of their eight runs in the inning with two outs.

MORE NATIONALS: WATCH: Werth, Harper go back-to-back, Rendon hits 2 HRs in Nationals win