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Ramos, Zimmermann fuel Nats' win over Mets

With Atlanta's loss, Washington's magic number is down to four

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NEW YORK -- Wilson Ramos' two-run homer proved to be the difference on Sunday afternoon, as the Nationals blanked the Mets, 3-0, at Citi Field.

Combined with Atlanta's loss, Washington shaved its magic number to four games to win the National League East title. The Braves were pounded by the Rangers, 10-3, in Arlington to fall 10 1/2 games behind the Nats.

For Ramos, winning the division would mean a lot to him. When the Nationals won their last division title in 2012, Ramos missed most of that season after tearing his right medial meniscus while chasing a ball. Ramos remembers being on the bench that year while rehabbing the knee.

"For me, this is a very important year," Ramos said. "I remember in 2012, I was on the bench for the playoffs. It's totally different this year. I want to help the team to make the playoffs. That's the reason I'm working hard, I want to play this year in the postseason and not be on the bench."

The game remained scoreless until the seventh inning. With Jonathon Niese on the mound, Ian Desmond beat the pitcher to first for an infield single. After Bryce Harper sacrificed Desmond to second, Ramos clobbered a 1-1 pitch over the right-field wall to give Washington a two-run lead. It was Ramos' 10th homer of the season.

"I was looking for one pitch to try to hit the ball well," Ramos said. "I tried to put a good swing on the ball. In that at-bat, I was concentrating just put a good swing on the ball."

Nationals right-hander Jordan Zimmermann pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings to win his 12th game of the season. He also struck out five batters in the contest.

The Mets had Zimmermann on the ropes during three different innings. In the second, after Wilmer Flores tripled with one out, Curtis Granderson flied out to Harper in left and Anthony Recker struck out to end the threat.

An inning later, New York had the bases loaded, but Ruben Tejada lined out to Desmond at shortstop, while Niese popped up to third baseman Anthony Rendon to end the inning.

"It's just a sign of a veteran pitcher that knows what he is doing out there," manager Matt Williams said about Zimmermann.

In the fifth, the Mets had runners on first and second with two outs, but Granderson flied out to Harper.

"For a few innings, I had my hands full. I was able to make the pitch when I needed to. I got that popup to Bryce to where he could throw him out. The guy didn't score," Zimmermann said. "I had the bases loaded with Niese. He gave me a little bit of a battle, and I was able to get him to pop up. So I made the pitch when I had to get out of those jams."

Washington added an insurance run in the ninth, as Desmond scored after an error by Flores. The Nationals improved their record to 85-63, the best mark in the NL.

The Nationals have a chance to win the division title sometime during the upcoming week in Atlanta. Most of the players want to get it over with and get ready for the postseason.

"It would be nice to clinch it up and get all the regulars a day off. Guys have been playing a lot here. It will give everybody a day just to relax. The sooner the better," Jayson Werth said. "Things are kind of clicking on all cylinders. We are playing well, we have good energy, we have good life to us. Guys have really come into their own and are performing the way they can. It makes for fun baseball -- especially this time of the year."

Zimmermann joined the Nationals in 2009, when they were the worst team in baseball. Now, he's close to helping Washington get its second division title in three years.

"We're in good shape going to Atlanta. We're still taking it one day at a time. Hopefully, we can celebrate down there," Zimmermann said. "As long as we do it, I don't care where it is. It would be that much more special if we did it down there. Hopefully, we win two out of three and we see what happens."

Mets manager Terry Collins came away impressed by how the Nationals were able to build their solid team.

"They have some of their kids, they were patient with them, got them to the big leagues," Collins said. "You know, even with [Ryan] Zimmerman not being here, Rendon has stepped up and really, really picked up the slack. They got a lot of big pieces for you. They're tough throughout the lineup. They've got power. You look at the shortstop [Desmond]. [He has] 22 homers. The first baseman [Adam LaRoche] has 24 homers. The third baseman [Rendon has] 20 homers. They've got a good team. They're deep on the bench, they're deep in the bullpen. They've done a nice job."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time He can also be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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After jacking homer, Ramos ready for postseason action

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NEW YORK -- Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos made it clear after the team's 3-0 victory over the Mets on Sunday afternoon that he wants to play in the postseason.

Ramos was with Washington in 2012 when it won its last division title. But he missed most of the season after tearing his right medial meniscus while chasing a ball against the Reds that spring. Ramos remembers being on the bench that year while rehabbing the knee.

"For me, this is a very important year," Ramos said. "I remember in 2012 I was on the bench for the playoffs. It's totally different this year. I want to help the team to make the playoffs. That's the reason I'm working hard, I want to play this year in the postseason and not be on the bench."

The Nationals have chance to clinch the division title as early as this Tuesday against the Braves in Atlanta.

"That's the team we have to beat," Ramos said. "We have to compete against those guys and try to win every time we play against them. They are in second place. We have to win, especially against that team."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Span eyeing more milestones this season

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NEW YORK -- Nationals center fielder Denard Span reached a personal milestone on Friday, when he stole his 30th base of the season. But Span has two other goals he would like to reach before the regular season ends.

Span is aiming to score 100 runs and collect 200 hits. He is seven runs shy of the century mark in runs scored and 27 hits away from 200 after the Nats' 3-0 win over the Mets on Sunday. What would those numbers mean to Span?

"One of my goals was to score 100 runs, because that's part of my job description -- which is getting on base and scoring runs for my team," Span said. "I didn't set out to have 200 hits, which seems like a historic milestone for hitters that have good seasons. It would be nice to get that."

Span didn't come close to reaching those numbers during the previous four seasons because of slumps or injuries. This year could be a different story. It helps that he has a great relationship with hitting coach Rick Schu, whom Span credits for his success this year.

"It started all the way from last year during the second half of the season with my hitting coach, Rick Schu," Span said. "It's just forming a good relationship, good communication. I think we just formed a good bond. We work real well together. He has been a huge part of my success."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time He can also be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Nats look to move closer to East title in Atlanta

Nats look to clinch division on road while Atlanta eyes Wild Card

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The Nationals lead the Braves by a 10 1/2-game margin in the National League East, but that doesn't make this three-game series between the rivals any less important. Both squads have plenty of motivation.

Atlanta is fighting for its life in the NL Wild Card race after being swept by the Rangers while Washington is battling in a tight race with Los Angeles and St. Louis for homefield advantage in the postseason. The Nats can also potentially lock up the NL East as their magic number sits at 4.

The Braves hope their upcoming 10-game homestand can help them recuperate and make a run.

"We have a long ways to go to get where we need to go. We need to play good baseball from here on out," closer Craig Kimbrel said. "Hopefully, we can take care of business today and get on a nice long home stretch. The odds are in our favor, especially with a lot of home games coming up. We've just got to go out there and play good ball."

Ervin Santana and Stephen Strasburg take the mound on Monday hoping for much more success against each other's teams. Strasburg notched a quality start in his last outing against the Braves, but he owns a 7.17 ERA against them in 2014.

He surrendered three earned runs on seven hits in six innings against Atlanta last Tuesday, but that effort was not enough in a 6-2 defeat. One of those hits was a solo home run off the bat of the struggling B.J. Upton.

"The ball just found his bat," Strasburg said. "I just have to make a better pitch. I felt great out there. I felt I was hitting my spots. A couple of hits that were out of our reach, and that was the ballgame."

Meanwhile, Santana hopes to avoid the first-inning struggles he endured against Washington as he gave up four runs in the opening frame of a loss to the Nationals last Monday, giving up six runs (five earned) in five innings in a loss.

With Atlanta's postseason chances hanging in the balance, Santana knows he must bounce back.

"Nothing different, Santana said. "Just trying to do the same thing I've been doing all year. I'm not changing anything. I had a bad time last time, but you just prepare for the next time and do better."

Braves: Upton nearing milestone
• In what has been his best offensive season since 2011, Justin Upton has hit several significant statistical marks this season. Most notably, he achieved his 1,000th career hit and 500th career RBI on one home-run swing against the Nationals on Aug. 10 at Turner Field.

Upton is only five stolen bases away from 500 for his career, but he sports only seven swiped bags this year. If he does not steal any more, it will be his lowest total since he played only 108 games with Arizona in 2008.

Nationals: Turning the tables
• Atlanta has dominated Washington head-to-head since the beginning of 2013, going 23-12 in those games. However, the rivalry has taken a sudden turn in its past few meetings.

The Nationals have won five of the past eight, five of those games at Nationals Park. The true test will come at Turner Field as Washington is just 5-11 in Atlanta since the beginning of last year.

Worth noting
• Ervin Santana needs eight strikeouts on Monday night to reach 1,500 for his career.

• The Nationals are the only team in the Majors who have four players with 80 or more RBIs: Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche, Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth.

Joe Morgan is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Key connections: Star-Spangled Banner, baseball forever linked

Verses that became National anthem celebrates 200 years, is part of baseball's fabric

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Francis Scott Key never got to see a big league baseball game. He died in 1843, some 26 years before the first professional team was established. But you can imagine his joy if he did get that chance. These days, he'd probably sit in a shiny bleacher seat, waiting for a batting-practice homer with a soft, weathered glove raised high ... in his non-writing hand. Maybe he'd inhale a hot dog while jotting down a few pretty lines for his next song. That would come about an hour before he'd hear the iconic bars of his first one, which, contrary to American lore, does not end with the words, "Play Ball." Odds are he'd be pretty happy at the twilight's last gleaming.

This weekend, the celebration of the 200th anniversary of our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," is on, and Key's memory is being rightly feted for his poetic description from the "dawn's early light" of Sept. 14, 1814, at the height of the War of 1812.

Hours after being stuck on a ship in Baltimore Harbor as the British pounded Fort McHenry in the Battle of Baltimore, Key saw the skies clear from the smoke and the indelible image that "our flag was still there."

The verses were called "The Defence of Fort M'Henry," and it was put to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven," a British drinking song purportedly written by John Stafford Smith that had been composed more than 30 years earlier and served as the theme of the Anacreontic Society of London, a men's club of amateur musicians.

Soon after Key wrote the words, a local newspaper gave it the title "The Star-Spangled Banner," and in 1931, it became our official anthem. All the while, another grand tradition steeped in collective nostalgia and American togetherness -- the game of baseball -- was steaming along, gaining prominence in our country's conscience.

Not surprisingly, the national anthem and the National Pastime became stitched together forever, like red laces in white horsehide.

According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, the playing of the national anthem before big league games did not become an everyday tradition until 1942. Taking that into account (and including a slight margin of error based on the lack of documentation regarding split doubleheaders in the earlier days), the Star-Spangled Banner has been heard right before the first pitch of at least the last 121,000 games. Oh, say can you see, indeed.

So with that in mind, 200 years after the night a 35-year-old Washington, D.C.-based attorney known to friends as Frank found himself under a war-torn sky, with honor in his heart and a pen in his hand, we go around the horn with nine things to know about "The Star-Spangled Banner" and its now-eternal link to the national pastime.

1. A first for everything
The first time the song was played at a baseball game was May 15, 1862, at William Cammeyer's Union Grounds park in Brooklyn. It had been converted from an ice skating venue into a field for summer sports, including what, at the time, was known as "base ball." In the midst of the Civil War, a band played "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The first big league Opening Day to feature the eventual anthem took place in Philadelphia on April 22, 1897. The New York Tribune newspaper included a brief and lyrical account of the game: "Opening Day here was a great success. The weather was delightful and the attendance numbered 17,074. The players paraded across the field, company front, and then raised the new flag, while the band played 'The Star Spangled Banner.' "

In spite of all the pageantry, there had to be some accounting for the four errors that led the Phillies to a 5-1 victory over the Giants at the Baker Bowl.

"The game was rather dull and long-drawn out," the article read, "and on the part of the New-Yorkers was somewhat unsteadily played."

2. An unforgettable rendition
The first national anthem played at a World Series game occurred on Sept. 5, 1918, during World War I, when Major League players were in the midst of being drafted into service. The regular season was ordered by the government to be completed by Labor Day, hence the Fall Classic that year was played in September.

The Cubs borrowed Comiskey Park from the White Sox to take advantage of the larger seating capacity, but things got quiet in Game 1, a 1-0 shutout by Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth. But that game will be forever remembered for what occurred in the seventh inning.

That was when the military band on hand struck up "The Star-Spangled Banner," and the song took on a different meaning. Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas, for example, was on furlough from the Navy, and he saluted the flag during the playing of the song.

And then the crowd caught on. The New York Times opened its account of the game by writing, "Far different from any incident that has ever occurred in the history of baseball was the great moment of the first world's series game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, which came at Comiskey Park this afternoon during the seventh-inning stretch" and then continued with the play-by-play … of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day's enthusiasm."

The Cubs and Red Sox repeated the tradition for the rest of the Series.

3. Making it official
Even though the Secretary of the Navy in 1889 had designated "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the official song to be played at the raising of the flag, and even though President Woodrow Wilson, a huge baseball fan himself, treated it and referred to it as our national anthem, it had failed to stick in Congress after numerous attempts in the 1920s.

Baseball's increased use of the song prior to games, a petition with millions of signatures, and a nice little push from noted composer John Philip Sousa helped finally get the job done on March 3, 1931, when President Herbert Hoover signed into law the establishment of the song as the official national anthem of the United States of America.

4. A lasting tradition
"The Star-Spangled Banner" still wasn't being played before every baseball game in 1941, but on April 26, 1941, the ball got rolling in the Bronx. As The New York Times reported, "With more war new in the making, president Ed Barrow of the Yankees ordered that 'The Star-Spangled Banner' be played before all games at the Stadium.

"Meanwhile, all continued to go well for the Yankees and [Joe] DiMaggio. He singled home a run in the first and scored twice as New York beat Washington 8-3 for its fourth straight victory."

By the following year, with the country deep in World War II, the anthem became the daily staple of baseball that we know today.

And DiMaggio was still hitting.

5. Controversy hits the field
It was October 1968, and the country was fighting in Vietnam and had already lived through the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that year. Protests were boiling over in the streets at home, and the Detroit Tigers were hosting the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.

Jose Feliciano was a 23-year-old blind folk singer from Puerto Rico who had scored a hit on the U.S. charts with a cover of The Doors' "Light My Fire," and Tigers radio legend Ernie Harwell invited him to sing the national anthem at Tiger Stadium prior to Game 5.

Feliciano was accompanied in left field by his acoustic guitar and his guide dog, Trudy, and he launched into an emotional, heartfelt, and, well, different version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." He strummed the guitar in a slightly syncopated, Latin-influenced rhythm, careened back and forth from the traditional vocal melody to something more adventurous, and offered the finishing flourish of "Yeah, yeah."

It was bold and innovative and fresh, but it was also many years ahead of its time. Feliciano was booed heartily by the crowd and caused a public uproar that took years to live down.

"Back then, when the anthem was done at ballgames, people couldn't wait for it to be over," Feliciano told The Guardian last month. "And I wanted to make them sit up and take notice and respect the song. I was shocked when I was booed. I felt, 'God, what have I done wrong?' All I was trying to do was create a soulful rendition. I never in my wildest dreams thought I was going to have the country against me, radio stations stop playing me.

"But in part, it was good -- because I ended up meeting my wife. She couldn't understand the injustice and started a fan club, even though we'd never met. We fell in love and the rest is history."

On Oct. 14, 2012, prior to Game 1 of the National League Championship Series at AT&T Park in San Francisco, the same stylized, heartfelt version of the national anthem was performed by Feliciano on his acoustic guitar.

This time the crowd roared.

6. "O"-dience participation
The anthem itself is a tradition, and at Oriole Park in Camden Yards in Baltimore, there's a tradition baked into the tradition. When the song rounds third base and heads for home with, "O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave," the crowd screams the "O" together, celebrating their beloved O's.

This started at the old Memorial Stadium in the club's pennant-winning season of 1979. Out in Section 34 of the upper deck, Orioles superfan Wild Bill Hagy would lead fans in chants of O-R-I-O-L-E-S, with the emphasis on the "O." Mary Powers sat nearby and took the inspiration to another level.

"We would accentuate the 'O' in any word that would have an 'O,' and one night when they were playing the anthem, I thought, 'There's an 'O!' in this song,' and the first time I did it, I remember people turning around and looking like, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe she just did that,' " Powers recently told WBAL-TV.

"Well, Wild Bill had a little grin on his face, so the next night, he did it with me, and once he put his blessing on it, everybody started to do it."

Orioles fans still do it -- loudly -- and will likely be doing it in October this year.

7. Setting the (low) Barr
We all know now that Feliciano's rendition was eventually respected, if not appreciated. We all also know now that the version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" performed by comedian Roseanne Barr before a Padres-Reds doubleheader at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego on July 25, 1990, was not.

Barr screeched a fast, off-key rendition of the anthem that drew loud boos midway through, and when she was finished, she grabbed her crotch and spit, as if to mimic a ballplayer. The joke bombed, she was lambasted all over TV and in the newspapers, and she inspired President George H. W. Bush to call the whole act "disgraceful."

Bush's comment was met with bipartisan approval.

8. A hymn of healing
The horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the United States forever, but not only in tragic ways. The courage, brotherhood and human decency shown that day in New York, Washington, D.C., and on a hijacked airplane that would crash in a Pennsylvania field showed our country's strength and will to persevere.

The emotion was palpable 10 days later when the Mets played the Braves at Shea Stadium in the first professional sporting event in New York City since the attacks. Marc Anthony delivered a somber rendition without musical accompaniment and the game was played quietly until the eighth inning, when Piazza's two-run home run gave the Mets the lead and got the crowd going again.

"I remember standing on the line during the national anthem -- actually when the bagpipes and band came out -- I said to myself, 'Please, God, give me the strength to get through this,' " Piazza told the New York Daily News in 2008. "I was fortunate to find the strength to hit a home run in that situation. I'm flattered, I'm honored that people put that moment as a time where it helped the city at least have a little bit of joy in a really tough week."

9. 200 and many more
Every year now, we're treated to incredible musical talent on the baseball field. From the seasoned operatic pipes of longtime Yankees national anthem singer Robert Merrill to commercial acts James Taylor, Paul Simon, Sammy Davis Jr., John Legend, Lyle Lovett, the Grateful Dead, Slash from Guns N' Roses, Mary J. Blige, Billy Joel, Idina Menzel, Kelly Clarkson and countless others, it's now a grand American tradition to bring out the best in the business to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the biggest baseball games.

But Sunday, the song itself will shine.

At Fort McHenry in Baltimore, a real-time anniversary program will kick off, with artillery salutes, a reading of the song's four stanzas and a replica 15-star, 15-stripe flag raising at precisely 9 a.m. to commemorate the history that Key had witnessed.

And MLB teams playing at home will show a special video montage of "The Star-Spangled Banner." In conjunction with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the program Great Performances, Maryland Public Television has provided the montage originally seen in the PBS production Star-Spangled Banner: The Bicentennial of our National Anthem to the ballparks and to MLB.com and all 30 club websites and official MLB social media channels.

Fittingly, the last game on Sunday will be played at Camden Yards, about three miles away from Fort McHenry, and fittingly, the Orioles will play the Yankees.

We all know what song we'll hear right before the first pitch.

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Desmond in exclusive SS club with third 20/20

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NEW YORK -- Shortstop Ian Desmond set a personal milestone in the Nationals' 10-3 win over the Mets on Saturday night, as he reached the 20/20 (homers and stolen bases) plateau for the third straight season.

Desmond joins Hanley Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins and Alex Rodriguez as the only shortstops in Major League history to go 20/20 at least three times. Desmond didn't even know which players were on the historical short list, as he said the ultimate goal is to win the World Series.

Desmond, who had 22 home runs entering Saturday, stole his 20th base in the fourth inning against right-hander Zach Wheeler. After he reached third, Desmond scored on a throwing error by catcher Travis d'Arnaud.

Desmond downplayed his accomplishment.

"This is something I'm not going talk too much about," Desmond said about the 20/20 milestone. "I'm really happy where we are at as a team. We are playing pretty good baseball. It's just an exciting time of the year for everybody.

"Individual stuff has never exited me. Like I said, I'm really happy that we are playing really good baseball. We kind of extended the lead in our division. We are putting ourselves in a good position to get to the postseason."

Desmond swiped his 21st base after hitting a two-run single in the Nationals' three-run fifth that helped them trim their magic number to win the NL East to six games.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Zimmerman looking to play instructional games

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NEW YORK -- Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is expected to travel to Viera Fla., after Sunday's game against Mets, to start playing instructional league games by Tuesday, according to manager Matt Williams.

Zimmerman, who has been on the disabled list since July 23 because of a Grade 3 hamstring strain, is expected to play third and first base, along with left field.

"That's kind of a tentative plan. It all depends how he comes out with all the workouts and all the tests," Williams said. "I think he has to get to the point where he just plays and doesn't think. Ultimately, that's what he has to do anyway.

"We are doing baby steps with him in that regard, he will go three innings, five innings, play seven innings, he'll get a DH day and play nine. That's four days at least and a bunch of at-bats. The good thing we can do is lead innings off and he can have those multiple at-bats. That's important."

Zimmerman acknowledged that it's tough to sit out as long as he has. But he is happy knowing the Nationals are close to winning a National League East title.

"The team has been playing great, so it has made it a little easier, but I miss competing, just being out there," Zimmerman said. "I miss being a part of a team. It's a fun team to be a part of."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Nats blast Mets to trim magic number to six

Harper belts key early home run, while Fister picks up his 14th win

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NEW YORK -- The Nationals lowered their magic number to win the National East title to six games as they pounded the Mets, 10-3, on Saturday night at Citi Field. Earlier in the day, the Braves were edged by the Rangers, 3-2, in Arlington.

Bryce Harper was one of the heroes for Washington and it started against right-hander Zach Wheeler in the second inning. After Ian Desmond led off with a walk, Harper belted a 3-2 pitch for a two-run homer that landed in the second deck in right field. Harper ended up with three hits in the win.

"From one to nine, I think everybody was swinging the bat," Harper said. "We jumped on a great pitcher like Wheeler early. That was key. I think we did pretty well as a team."

An inning later, it was Desmond who scored the third run of the game. With runners on first and second and Asdrubal Cabrera at the plate, Desmond stole third base -- his 20th theft of the season -- and scored on a throwing error by catcher Travis d'Arnaud to make it 3-0.

Desmond joins Hanley Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins and Alex Rodriguez as the only shortstops in Major League history to go 20/20 (homers and stolen bases) at least three times. Desmond didn't even know which players were on the historical short list.

"This is something I'm not going talk too much about," Desmond said. I'm really happy where we are at as a team. We are playing pretty good baseball. It's just an exciting time of the year for everybody."

After five innings, the Nationals held a 6-0 lead. Desmond capped a three-run fifth with a two-run single off Gonzalez Germen. Desmond finished with three RBIs. The runs were charged to Wheeler, who lasted four-plus innings and allowed the six runs on seven hits.

Wheeler figured out that his fastball didn't have the life that it had in previous starts.

"They got the best of me tonight and hopefully I can turn it around next start," Wheeler said. "Yeah, something was wrong with my mechanics, I couldn't figure it out. I came in looked at the videotape, still couldn't figure it out. So I just felt a little awkward, different out there and hopefully me and [pitching coach] Dan [Warthen] can figure it out between now and the next start. "

Washington starter Doug Fister picked up his 14th victory. He lasted six innings, allowed three runs [two earned] and struck out three batters. He threw only 75 pitches, but he left the game for a pinch-hitter in the seventh. Manager Matt Williams wanted to add more runs and he had plenty of help in the bullpen.

But the biggest blow for Fister came in the fifth inning when Wilmer Flores hit a two-run homer.

"He allowed the home run to Flores, but other than that, he pitched really well," Williams said. "He got out of some jams."

The Nationals (84-63), who lead the Braves by 9 1/2 games in the division standings, scored their seventh run against right-hander Buddy Carlyle when Werth hit into a fielder's choice that scored Span, who later belted a two-run homer in the ninth.

For Werth, it was his 80th RBI of the season. The Nationals now have four players -- Werth, Desmond, Rendon and Adam LaRoche with 80 RBIs or more. It shows the balance the club has on offense. It helps to have table-setters like Span and Rendon because they see a lot of pitches and get on base for the rest of the lineup.

"We don't have that one superstar. We all do it as a team," said Rendon, who went 4-for-5. "Any one of our guys, at any time, can beat you. That's what's awesome about this team."

Said Williams, "It tells me we have pretty good on-base guys and guys are out there. We have some guys with some homers, not 40 [homers], not 120 [RBIs]. We have guys who have been consistent. That's good. If we can get a deep lineup, we feel good about our offense. That's just speaks to consistency and guys being on base."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Soriano discovers form during recent relief work

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Soriano discovers form during recent relief work play video for Soriano discovers form during recent relief work

NEW YORK -- Nationals right-hander Rafael Soriano, who spent most of the season as the team's closer, entered Saturday night's 10-3 victory over the Mets in a mop-up role. He pitched the seventh inning and didn't allow a hit, while striking out one batter. In his last two outings, Soriano has pitched two shutout innings.

"His slider was down, the fastball was down. He threw a couple of back-door cutters which were good," manager Matt Williams said. "He felt good. He will continue to work on the mechanics. ... He threw well."

Before losing the closer's job to Drew Storen, Soraino was hit hard. After having an All-Star-caliber first half, Soriano has nine saves with a 6.64 ERA, while opponents are hitting .325 against him since the break.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Rendon stays humble swinging a red-hot bat

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Rendon stays humble swinging a red-hot bat play video for Rendon stays humble swinging a red-hot bat

NEW YORK -- Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon has performed like the club's Most Valuable Player this season. Not only has he done the job offensively, but he plays Gold Glove-caliber defense at third and second base.

Just ask the Mets. In the first three of a four-game series at Citi Field, Rendon went 10-for-15 [.667] and raised his batting average to .289, which is second on the Nationals.

I'm having a fortunate series, so far, taking one day at a time," said Rendon, who went 4-for-5 in Saturday night's 10-3 win.

One would never know that Rendon is one of Washington's best players based on his personality. After great games, Rendon is a man of few words. He sometimes tries to avoid the media. He would rather stay humble and credit God for his success.

"I don't like being in the spotlight as you guys [in the media] might have figured out," Rendon said. "It's not who I am. It's not how I was raised. I don't like seeking all the attention. When you start doing stuff like that, it gets into your head, you are not being yourself. ... I just like playing the game. I don't like all the extra stuff that comes with it."

Rendon received similar recognition for his play while attending Rice University. Even there, he decided to remain humble.

"I didn't like the attention and that's what's awesome about Rice. I would go to class, walk around campus and do my thing," Rendon said. "No one even noticed who I was. You hear all these stories about Johnny Manziel going to school at [Texas] A&M and he can't even go to class because everyone is trying to get his autograph, take pictures with him, and stuff like that. That's not what I like."

Rendon doesn't have to look far for who he credits for his success today -- his parents.

"They raised me and my brother wonderfully," Rendon said. "I credit them for where I am today. I have my faith in God. I was told to be humble before him. Don't boast about what you have done. Don't put credit in your own hands. You have to realize He got you there."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Span attains milestone with 30th steal

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Span attains milestone with 30th steal play video for Span attains milestone with 30th steal

NEW YORK -- Center fielder Denard Span reached a personal milestone in the ninth inning of Friday's 4-3 loss to the Mets, stealing his 30th base of the season.

It's a particularly meaningful accomplishment for Span, who never stole more than 26 bases in a season, and that occurred in 2010, when he was with the Twins.

"It means a lot to me. You set out a goal to do something. I'm still pumped about it, to be honest with you," Span said after the game. "I worked very hard to get 30. To other big-time basestealers, it might not mean a lot, but I've come a long way in my basestealing. It's a good feeling. I want to continue to get better."

Span credits his success to first-base coach Tony Tarasco, who taught him how to prepare both mentally and physically.

"He worked with me during Spring Training," Span said. "I'm getting my technique down. He kept me confident out there. He never let me get down on myself, even when I get thrown out or make a mistake on the bases. He is always there in my ear. He tells me to keep going, and I owe him a lot."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Gonzalez, Williams clear the air after Gio pulled

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Gonzalez, Williams clear the air after Gio pulled play video for Gonzalez, Williams clear the air after Gio pulled

NEW YORK -- There were some tense moments between manager Matt Williams and left-hander Gio Gonzalez during the Nationals' 4-3 loss to the Mets on Friday night.

Gonzalez pitched 6 2/3 innings, allowing four runs (three earned) on six hits and striking out seven. But he wasn't happy when Williams took him out of the game with two outs in the seventh, and he expressed his displeasure by slamming the ball in Williams' hand.

Gonzalez wanted to face Juan Lagares, but Williams felt the better matchup was between right-hander Aaron Barrett and Lagares.

Television broadcasts showed Williams and Gonzalez engaged in a heated discussion in the dugout.

"I wanted to explain to him, it's not my objective to take him out [of] there. ... I want to leave him in and finish that inning and give him a chance to get off the hook, but it's a good matchup for Barrett, too," Williams said. "And [Gonzalez] is upset, and I understand that. I also want to do the best job I can to help us try to win a game, too. So we had a talk about it. He understands, and I understand. That's how far as it goes."

Gonzalez was calm when he spoke to the media after the game. He is a competitor, and wanted to stay in the game.

"Matt did his best to defuse as much as possible. It's part of the sport. It's high intensity, trying to keep the game close," Gonzalez said. "You want to keep pitching, you want to keep going out there. ... [Williams] has every right, and there are two sides to every story, too. He is doing his job as a manager to make sure I'm doing all right. I'm just being a player, just wanting to go out there and keep pitching. It's not bigger than it is."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Nats' Citi Field winning streak snapped

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Nats' Citi Field winning streak snapped play video for Nats' Citi Field winning streak snapped

NEW YORK -- The Nationals' 12-game winning streak at Citi Field came to an end when they were edged by the Mets, 4-3, on Friday night. The last time the Nationals lost in Flushing prior to Friday was on June 29, 2013, when the Mets won, 5-1.

"It's really nice. We've played them good, they're just really tough," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "There have been a lot of nights where we've had them late in the game and they've come back and done some big damage against us, but it was a good win for us tonight, for sure."

Even though the Nationals lost, their magic number to win the National League East title went down to eight after the Rangers downed the Braves, 2-1.

The score was tied at 3 in the fifth inning when New York scored the go-ahead run against left-hander Gio Gonzalez. After leading off with a single, Eric Young Jr. scored all the way from first on a double by Juan Lagares.

Gonzalez ended up pitching 6 2/3 innings, allowing four runs (three earned) on six hits and striking out seven. But he wasn't happy when manager Matt Williams took him out of the game with two outs in the seventh, and he expressed his displeasure by slamming the ball in Williams' hand.

Gonzalez wanted to face Lagares, but Williams felt the better matchup was between right-hander Aaron Barrett and Lagares.

Television broadcasts showed Williams and Gonzalez having a heated discussion in the dugout.

"I wanted to explain to him, it's not my objective to take him out [of] there. … I want to leave him in and finish that inning and give him a chance to get off the hook, but it's a good matchup for Barrett, too," Williams said. "And [Gonzalez] is upset, and I understand that. I also want to do the best job I can to help us try to win a game, too. So we had a talk about it. He understands, and I understand. That's how far as it goes."

Gonzalez was calm when he spoke to the media after the game. As a competitor, he wanted to stay in the game.

"Matt did his best to defuse as much as possible. It's part of the sport. It's high intensity, trying to keep the game close," Gonzalez said. "He has been part of it; it's part of baseball. You want to keep pitching, you want to keep going out there. … [Williams] has every right, and there are two sides to every story, too. He is doing his job as a manager to make sure I'm doing all right. I'm just being a player, just wanting to go out there and keep pitching. It's not bigger than it is."

Gonzalez got off to a rough start, allowing three runs in the first inning. With the bases loaded, Travis d'Arnaud doubled to left field, scoring Young and Lagares. Left fielder Bryce Harper made a perfect throw to catcher Wilson Ramos to nail Lucas Duda, but Duda kicked the ball out of Ramos' glove and was safe on the play.

Gonzalez settled down after that inning and allowed one more run in 5 2/3 innings.

"Second inning, it was a clean start, and I just tried to pound the strike zone, keep going after them," he said. "Throwing the changeup for strikes. I'm trying to work fast and get us back in the dugout as soon as possible to get [our] guys to swing the bat."

Washington tied the score against right-hander Dillon Gee. In the top of the third, Adam LaRoche continued his hot hitting by singling to left-center, scoring Anthony Rendon. LaRoche then scored on a single by Ramos.

Three innings later, Rendon tied the score with his 20th home run of the season, becoming the third member of the Nationals to hit at least that many this season, and he finished a triple shy of the cycle.

"[Rendon] has been unbelievable. He has been our most valuable player from start to finish," Span said. "He has been in the lineup pretty much every day, giving us everything we need. He is scoring runs. We need him to steal a bag, he steals a bag, driving in runs. He is doing it all. He has a world of talent, that kid."

But the Nationals fell short after Mets right-hander Jenrry Mejia picked up his 26th save of the season.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Recovering from flu, Werth gets night off

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Recovering from flu, Werth gets night off play video for Recovering from flu, Werth gets night off

NEW YORK -- Outfielder Jayson Werth was not in Friday's lineup against the Mets due to, as manager Matt Williams put it, "dead legs." The scheduled day off was also needed because Werth is recovering from the flu, which had been going around since the team played the Dodgers in Los Angeles. Williams is hoping that Werth can return to action on Saturday.

"It has been a long year for him, certainly for all of us," Williams said. "Today was just a normal day off, but nothing from the hit by pitch [on Thursday] or in regard to the shenanigans from last night."

With Werth out of the lineup, Nate Schierholtz received the start in right field. Although Schierholtz is 1-for 16 with the Nats entering Friday's action, Williams believes he is swinging the bat well.

"He doesn't have a lot to show for it," Williams said, "but he is on everything. We want him to have meaningful at-bats. He was brought over because of Nate [McLouth's shoulder] injury, and he is going to be a big part of our team until the end of the season. We want him to get in there as many times as he can. He gives us another option left-handed, and he certainly has experience playing right."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Two reviews go visitors' way in Nats-Mets

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Two reviews go visitors' way in Nats-Mets play video for Two reviews go visitors' way in Nats-Mets

NEW YORK -- For the second time this week, the orange line at the top of Citi Field's left-field wall created a moment of confusion, resulting in the first of two reviews over the course of several minutes that went in the Nationals' favor.

The first came as a result of an Anthony Rendon line drive in the fifth inning. The Nationals' third baseman sent a 2-2 slider to left that originally went for a double, but after a crew-chief review, replay officials overturned the call, and Rendon completed his trip around the bases. The review took 36 seconds.

Two batters later, Mets manager Terry Collins challenged the ruling on the field that deemed Ian Desmond safe on a 4-6-3 double-play attempt. Officials needed one minute and 15 seconds to determine Desmond was, indeed, safe.

Rendon's blast, his 20th of the season, tied the score at 3, erasing the Mets' early three-run lead.

Tim Healey is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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LaRoche, Rendon supply power to rattle Mets

Magic number at nine after Nats' 12th straight win at Citi Field

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LaRoche, Rendon supply power to rattle Mets play video for LaRoche, Rendon supply power to rattle Mets

NEW YORK -- Adam LaRoche drove in three runs and helped the Nationals pound the Mets, 6-2, at Citi Field on Thursday night. The magic number to win the National League East went down to nine for Washington. The second-place Braves, who had the day off, open a weekend series Friday against the Rangers.

The Nationals went to work on Bartolo Colon in the first inning. With Anthony Rendon on first, LaRoche swung at a 3-2 pitch and hit a long home run that hit the foul pole in right field to give Washington a 2-0 lead.

Washington added four runs by the fourth inning. In the third, LaRoche ignored the shift in right field and drove in his third run of the game when he singled to left field, scoring Jayson Werth. LaRoche would then score on Wilson Ramos' groundout.

LaRoche's swing looks effortless and the ball is jumping off his bat. In fact, he is one of the hottest hitters on the Nationals. Not only is he hitting .361 against the Mets this season, he also is 11-for-28 [.393] with five home runs and 15 RBIs since driving in five runs against the Dodgers on Sept. 5.

"He has been doing it a long time," Werth said about LaRoche. "He has been a consistent second-half player his whole career. ... He is a good player. He has been doing it a long time. He is a big left-handed bat right in the middle of our order."

LaRoche, 34, needs five RBIs to reach 90 for the fourth time in his career. What does he think of his season?

"I really don't reflect back [on the season] until it's all said and done and I'm in the car driving back to Kansas," LaRoche said. "Until then, I try not to think about it."

An inning later, after Denard Span bunted for a base hit, Rendon belted an 0-1 pitch over the left-center-field wall to make it a 6-0 game. Rendon -- who is still trying to get over the flu -- ended up going 3-for-5.

"He has been doing it all year," LaRoche said about Rendon, 24. "The guy is unbelievable. You would not think how young he is because of his poise and the way he never changes regardless of the situation. Just the same old smooth swing. It's fun to watch."

Following Rendon's homer, Colon and Mets manager Terry Collins were ejected after Werth was hit with the next pitch on his left arm. It was the second time Colon hit a batter in the game. In the first inning, Colon hit Ian Desmond after LaRoche's homer.

Asked if Colon was trying to hit him, Werth said, "I don't know. It doesn't matter what I think. The umpire [John Tumpane] thought so. He hit Desi earlier in the game after a homer. He hit me right after. The home-plate umpire thought that was enough."

When a situation like that occurs, Werth realizes that the Nationals have a bigger goal to reach and that's to win the National League East. In fact, Werth never charged the mound.

"That goes without saying. I know the situation as good as anybody," Werth said. "We have a lot at stake this time of year. We don't have time for [stuff like that]."

Tanner Roark (13-10) broke a personal three-game losing streak by allowing two runs in 6 1/3 innings. The Mets didn't get to Roark until the fifth inning when Anthony Recker hit a solo homer.

Roark was taken out of the game after he allowed a bases-loaded single to Dilson Herrera two innings later. Craig Stammen entered the game and stopped the bleeding by inducing Wilmer Flores to hit into a double play to end the threat.

"I was commanding both sides of the plate. I'm not trying to nibble. I'm trying to make pitches, but trying to go right after them," Roark said.

The Nats won their 12th consecutive game at Citi Field, and that streak appears to be getting to Collins.

"We've got to play better. That's the only reason why they're beating us at home. We're just not playing," he said. "Just like tonight, we had several opportunities to get back in the game, and we didn't do anything. They did it. They have opportunities and they get big hits. Again, that's a credit to their team."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Werth keeps cool after getting plunked on arm

Hit by pitch follows Rendon's HR, leads to ejections of Colon, Collins

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Werth keeps cool after getting plunked on arm play video for Werth keeps cool after getting plunked on arm

NEW YORK -- During the Nationals' 6-2 victory on Thursday night, Mets right-hander Bartolo Colon and manager Terry Collins were ejected after Jayson Werth was hit by a pitch on his left arm. It came immediately after Anthony Rendon hit a two-run homer.

It was the second batter Colon hit in the game. In the first inning, he plunked Ian Desmond after Adam LaRoche's two-run shot.

Nationals manager Matt Williams was a teammate of Colon in the 1990s when both were with the Indians.

"I know Bartolo has fantastic control. ... I don't have an opinion one way or the other," Williams said. "All I know is [Colon] has exceptional control. We deal with it and move on."

Colon didn't think he did anything wrong and was surprised by the ejection.

"That was a two-seam fastball that moved inside to [Werth]. I was trying to pitch him inside. If it would have been a four-seam, it would have been a different story," Colon said.

Asked if Colon was trying to hit him, Werth said, "I don't know. It doesn't matter what I think. The umpire [John Tumpane] thought so. He hit Desi earlier in the game after a homer. He hit me right after. The home-plate umpire thought that was enough."

When a situation like that occurs, Werth realizes that the Nationals have a bigger goal to reach and that's to win the National League East. In fact, Werth never charged the mound.

"That goes without saying. I know the situation as good as anybody," Werth said. "We have a lot at stake this time of year. We don't have time for [stuff like that]."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Umps confirm Rendon's HR with brief review

Two-run shot precedes plunking of Werth, ejections of Colon, Collins

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Umps confirm Rendon's HR with brief review play video for Umps confirm Rendon's HR with brief review

NEW YORK -- Mets manager Terry Collins' contention of a home run call Thursday night at Citi Field initiated a crew-chief review, and it took replay officials only 54 seconds to determine that Anthony Rendon's line drive indeed cleared the wall in left.

The homer gave the visiting Nationals a 6-0 lead, and Rendon was the penultimate batter starter Bartolo Colon faced before being ejected. He hit Jayson Werth with the next pitch.

Rendon's hit landed between the orange line at the top of the wall that the ball must clear to be a homer and a fence immediately beyond it, then bounced back onto the field, which led to the brief confusion.

Tim Healey is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Nats would like extra oomph from Strasburg

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Nats would like extra oomph from Strasburg play video for Nats would like extra oomph from Strasburg

WASHINGTON -- Here's what Nationals manager Matt Williams had to say about Stephen Strasburg's performance against the Braves on Wednesday at Nationals Park: "I thought he was pretty good. I thought he pitched pretty well."

That summed it up perfectly. Strasburg turned in a quality start: six innings, seven hits, three earned runs, eight strikeouts and no walks. He kept his team in it and gave it a chance to win, even though, in the end, Washington lost the series finale to Atlanta, 6-2.

It was Strasburg's 31st start in what could also be described as a pretty good season. He's 11-11 with a 3.46 ERA. Strasburg reached a career high in innings pitched (195). He leads the National League in strikeouts with 223. Strasburg's fastball consistently hit 96-97 mph and 67 of his 99 pitches went for strikes. Pretty doggone good.

The thing is, the expectations for Strasburg have always been higher than pretty good. That may not be fair. But that's the way it is.

It certainly wasn't Strasburg's fault that veteran right-hander Aaron Harang did a good job of shutting the Nats' offense down or that the Braves put it away by tacking on three insurance runs against Washington's bullpen.

"I felt great out there. I felt like I was hitting my spots. Just a couple hits just out of reach and that was the ballgame," Strasburg said. "I feel good. The life's there. I'm just going out there and trying to compete, commit to every pitch and let the chips fall."

The chips have not fallen well for Strasburg against the Braves lately. In nine starts against Atlanta since the beginning of the 2013 season, he's 0-4 with a 4.98 ERA. There have been times when the bounces have gone against Strasburg, such as the sixth inning on Wednesday after Freddie Freeman led off with a double.

Justin Upton followed with a grounder to the right side that glanced off the glove of diving first baseman Adam LaRoche and dribbled into shallow right field, allowing Freeman to score. A second run scored when catcher Christian Bethancourt poked a single through the hole after Tommy La Stella doubled.

"Good piece of hitting by Upton, trying to move the guy from second to third," Williams said with a shrug. "Then the pitch to Bethancourt was down and off the plate, and he did a nice job of serving it to right."

The manager, however, had an interesting pregame reaction when asked about the possibility of Strasburg leading the league in strikeouts.

"I don't know. I think it's a double-edged sword, honestly," Williams said. "For me, when he doesn't have a lot of strikeouts pile up during the course of a game, he goes deeper in a game for us. It means he's getting early contact and the strikeouts don't come necessarily, because there's contact being made. But I think that's a good thing for him. If he's pinpointing his fastball, using that little sinker he's got, using his changeup and they're swinging and they're grounding balls in the infield, that's a good sign for him.

"So I don't know. It's really nice to strike guys out and have that. But from a team perspective, I think it's better when he doesn't have as many strikeouts. He's going to get them. It's just kind of the function of his pitches and the way he goes about it. But his pitch count tends to get a little higher a little earlier when he's punching a lot of guys out. For his longevity in that game, less strikeouts is probably better."

Strasburg has pitched more than seven innings four times this season. Williams also mentioned fastball command and first-pitch strikes as keys for the 26-year-old.

By taking two out of three from Atlanta -- the Nationals had lost 25 of their previous 35 against the Braves -- Washington strengthened its grip on the NL East, holding an eight-game lead with a magic number of 10. And while Williams resolutely declined to discuss the postseason yet, the reality is that what happens for the remainder of the regular season has to affect his thinking going into the playoffs.

There are three other right-handed starters, and Doug Fister (2.53 ERA), Jordan Zimmermann (2.93) and Tanner Roark (2.97) all have lower ERAs. Gio Gonzalez is the only lefty. That's not to say that Strasburg won't be in the playoff rotation. He almost certainly will. It's just that the Nats would love to see Strasburg pitch better than pretty good in his last few starts of the regular season.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Storen steps in seamlessly to fill closer's role

Nats right-hander dazzles after returning to familiar job

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Storen steps in seamlessly to fill closer's role play video for Storen steps in seamlessly to fill closer's role

WASHINGTON -- With Rafael Soriano taking time off to fix his mechanics, Nationals right-hander Drew Storen took over the role of closer and has dominated, pitching three shutout innings, saving three games and striking out six batters.

Storen was not expected to be available in Wednesday's series finale against the Braves, for he has pitched in four out of the last five games.

"It has been a lot of fun," Storen said about his new role. "I've been happy with the way I've thrown the ball. I'm commanding my offspeed pitches. I'm keeping guys off balance. Throwing offspeed for strikes has been really huge."

Closing is nothing new to Storen. He saved 43 games in 2011 for Washington. But Storen says he is a better pitcher now than he was back then. It helps that Storen has an arsenal of pitches: fastball, sinker, changeup and slider.

"You looked at all the experience that I've had; there were a lot of ups and downs," Storen said. "Adding a changeup helped, my fastball command is a lot better. I just feel like, stuff-wise, I might not be throwing as hard, but I feel I can pitch a lot better."

There were more ups than downs after Storen returned from the Minor Leagues in 2013. From Aug. 18 of last year to Wednesday, Storen has a 1.36 ERA, 29 holds and eight saves in 76 games. Going back to the Minors was a blessing in disguise. After getting hit hard in the first half of '13, Storen went to Triple-A Syracuse to fix his mechanics.

"The results speak for themselves," Storen said. "I needed to work on things and get back to where I wanted to be. In the end, it really worked out. It's not ideal, but you can't argue with the results."

Manager Matt Williams declined to name Storen his closer, insisting that the Nats' closer will be based on matchups from game to game. But if Storen keeps it up, he could be Washington's full-time closer by the time the postseason starts.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"event":["prospect" ] }

Potomac wins Mills Cup behind Oduber, Silvestre

Nationals prospects lift club to Class A Carolina League championship

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Potomac wins Mills Cup behind Oduber, Silvestre

After losing Game 1 of the Mills Cup to Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach on Saturday, Potomac rallied. The Nationals won three straight games and captured the Carolina League championship with a 5-1 victory Wednesday in Game 4.

Many of the Nationals who were celebrating Wednesday were a part of the Class A Hagerstown team last year that lost the South Atlantic League championship series in four games to Savannah. There would be no such disappointment for them this year.

Potomac jumped out to an early lead thanks to a three-run home run from left fielder Randolph Oduber in the first inning. The Nationals added another run in the second and tacked on a final insurance run in the seventh.

The early runs proved to be enough, however, thanks to Potomac's pitching staff. Left-hander Hector Silvestre struck out six batters and held Myrtle Beach to one run on five hits and one walk in six innings. Right-handers Manny Rodriguez and Gilberto Mendez combined to strike out four batters in three perfect innings to close out the title.

Oduber finished the night 2-for-3 with a walk, a run and three RBIs. Catcher Pedro Severino, the Nationals' No. 12 prospect, added an RBI single and a walk. The 21-year old hit .333/.450/.467 in the playoffs.

Second baseman Tony Renda, the Nationals' No. 18 prospect, went 1-for-3 with a triple, a walk and two runs. After hitting .307/.381/.377 in the regular season to win the Carolina League batting title, Renda hit .304/.385/.435 in six playoff games.

Potomac went 78-58 during the regular season and won the Northern Division in both halves of the season. It swept Lynchburg in their best-of-three semifinal series last week to reach the Mills Cup for the second consecutive year.

This year's Mills Cup had a different ending for Potomac, however. A year ago, it was swept by Salem. Wednesday night, the Nationals celebrated the franchise's fifth Carolina League championship and first since 2010.

Teddy Cahill is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tedcahill. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"event":["prospect" ] }
{"event":["prospect" ] }

Game slips away after Strasburg's quality start

Bullpen allows three runs in seventh as magic number stays at 10

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Game slips away after Strasburg's quality start play video for Game slips away after Strasburg's quality start

WASHINGTON -- The magic number remains at 10. That's the number of games needed for the Nationals to win the National League East title. On Wednesday, Stephen Strasburg made several mistakes, and it proved costly as the Braves pounded the Nats, 6-2, at Nationals Park.

Strasburg (11-11) pitched six innings and allowed three runs on seven hits, including a solo homer by B.J. Upton in the fifth inning. The pitch was on the inside part of the plate, but Upton golfed it over the left-field wall.

"The ball just found his bat," Strasburg said. "I just have to make a better pitch. I felt great out there. I felt I was hitting my spots. A couple of hits that were out of our reach, and that was the ballgame."

It was also a game in which Strasburg extended his career high with 195 innings pitched this season. He is expected to reach 200 innings in his next start against the Marlins. For most of his career, Strasburg has been on an innings limit because of injuries or simply team orders.

Washington tied the score in the fifth off Braves right-hander Aaron Harang. After Denard Span and Kevin Frandsen reached base on consecutive singles to put runners on first and third, Span scored on catcher Christian Bethancourt's passed ball to make it a 1-1 game.

Harang pitched seven solid innings without allowing an earned run. The shadows gave Harang some help as well.

"Harang pitched well today. No ifs, ands or buts about it" Span said. "He did the job and they had a good win today.

"[The shadows were] tough. It was tough to pick up his pitches. I think in the middle part of the game, it was tough. When I was on base, a couple of their players said it was tough to pick up Strasburg as well. You saw a lot of guys swinging and missing and taking pitches right down the middle. You just have to battle through it and play through the conditions."

Harang was happy to turn the tables on the Nationals.

"It's big to help flip things around and get us out of here on a good note," Harang said. "If we had come in here and gotten swept, that is going to be a sour taste in everyone's mouth going into the next series and even next week when [the Nationals] come to our place."

It was nearly all Atlanta starting with the sixth inning, when Freddie Freeman led off with a double and scored on a single by Justin Upton. After Upton was erased after attempting to steal second, Tommy La Stella doubled to left-center field and scored on a single by Bethancourt to make it a two-run game.

Nationals left-hander Jerry Blevins entered the game in the seventh and had a tough time getting hitters out. With the bases loaded, Freeman hit a sacrifice fly -- which Jayson Werth hauled in with a great running catch -- to score Harang.

Ryan Mattheus replaced Blevins and allowed a two-run double to Justin Upton. The runs were charged to Blevins, who saw his ERA go up to 5.37.

It is a possibility that Blevins could lose his spot on the playoff roster. But for now, he will continue to get the ball, according to manager Matt Williams.

"Today, he gave up a base hit to the pitcher and then a broken-bat hit. Then you get to the middle of their order. They are tough on anybody," Williams said. "It's a situation where we have to continue to give him the baseball in those types of situations. We lined it up pretty good to face lefties. It didn't happen today."

The Nats showed signs of late life when Bryce Harper launched a solo homer off the upper-deck facade in right-center in the ninth, but it was the only other run Washington could muster.

Frandsen went 3-for-4 as a fill-in at third base for Anthony Rendon, who was not in the lineup because of the flu.

The Nationals have an eight-game lead over the Braves in the NL East with an 82-62 record. If there was any good news, it was the fact that Washington took two out of three games from Atlanta.

"In order to win the division, you have to beat them," Span said. "It was definitely a good series for us. We did what we wanted to do. We won the series against them and we are sitting pretty good.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Soriano in and out of trouble in eighth-inning appearance

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Soriano in and out of trouble in eighth-inning appearance play video for Soriano in and out of trouble in eighth-inning appearance

WASHINGTON -- Right-hander Rafael Soriano pitched one scoreless inning in Wednesday's 6-2 loss to the Braves. It was his first outing since Friday, when he pitched two-thirds of an inning and allowed three runs in a 9-8 loss.

In between, Soriano worked on his mechanics and his slider. He was having a hard time keeping the slider down in the zone.

Soriano entered the game in the eighth inning. After getting B.J. Upton to fly out, Soriano allowed a double to Ryan Doumit and a single to Jason Heyward to put runners on first and third. However, he struck out Phil Gosselin, and Freddie Freeman lined out to third baseman Kevin Frandsen.

"[Soriano] had a better down angle. He threw some really good sliders today, had depth to them," manager Matt Williams said."The mechanical stuff he is working on ... he was much better today."

Soriano said he felt better on the mound and felt he had good command of his pitches.

"I tried to stay back [on the mound]. I had good balance," Soriano said. "My power is in the back. That's what I did today."

While Soriano was working on his mechanics, reliever Drew Storen was dominating this week, saving three games and striking out six batters in three shutout innings.

"I'm happy because we won and he did the job. I'm happy for him," Soriano said about Storen.

Asked if he would accept a setup role if the team decides to have Storen pitch the ninth inning, Soriano said, "I don't know. I'll figure it out. I have not talked to anyone yet about how I'm going to be in the bullpen. I'll wait and see."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"content":["injury" ] }

Infielders get breather to recover from maladies

Rendon dealing with flu, Desmond with lower back tightness

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Infielders get breather to recover from maladies play video for Infielders get breather to recover from maladies

WASHINGTON -- Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon and shortstop Ian Desmond were given Wednesday off because of the flu and lower back tightness, respectively.

Rendon has been under the weather for a couple of days, but it got worse Wednesday. Manager Matt Williams decided to give him a day off and place Kevin Frandsen at third. Williams did say Rendon could be available late in the game.

"[Rendon] is quarantined in the back [of the locker room] and sleeping," Williams said.

As for Desmond, he texted Williams and told him that he was ready to play, but Williams gave Desmond the day off and slotted Danny Espinosa at shortstop. Desmond left Tuesday's 6-4 victory over the Braves in the sixth inning because of lower back tightness. The injury is not considered serious.

Desmond started feeling pain in his back before Tuesday's game, but he decided to play through it. By the fourth inning, his back wasn't cooperating and he soon thought it would be better to get out of the game and not create further damage.

"Yeah, I feel better. [The back] kind of just [loosened up], kind of like I expected it to yesterday and it never did. I guess I just needed to take a little more time," Desmond said.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"content":["injury" ] }

Williams pushing right buttons in Nats' bullpen

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Williams pushing right buttons in Nats' bullpen play video for Williams pushing right buttons in Nats' bullpen

WASHINGTON -- Nationals manager Matt Williams stays on message. Each game is important, he says. No game is more important than any other. Williams is not going to approach a stretch-run game in September any different than he did a game in April.

Except that it really isn't working out that way. Through some happenstance -- the funk that closer Rafael Soriano is trying to correct by taking a step back from that role, a bullpen stuffed with September callups -- Williams has deployed his relievers differently in taking two straight against the Braves, including a 6-4 win at Nationals Park on Tuesday night, than he has most of the season.

Until now, with a lead, it was routinely Drew Storen in the seventh, Tyler Clippard in the eighth, Soriano in the ninth.

Against the Braves, Williams has been mixing and matching. In each of the first two games of this series, he used three relievers in the eighth. It may be a coincidence, but it's the way managers often have to adjust in October when the lineups are tougher and every loss is one step closer to the abrupt end of the season.

So it was instructive to think along with Williams as he maneuvered to get the final nine outs after starter Jordan Zimmermann departed with a two-run lead.

Clippard was unavailable after three appearances in the past four days. Storen has become the de facto closer, even though, officially, the structure is to go with a bullpen-by-committee approach. The first decision, then, was to figure out who would face the bottom of the Braves' order in the seventh.

Right-hander Aaron Barrett got the nod. The rookie had pitched well earlier this season, but he faltered and was sent to the Minors. Recalled when rosters were expanded, it will be a real boost if he can handle the seventh-inning role. Barrett retired the side in order.

Six outs to go.

"He was really economical, so we decided to send him back out," Williams explained. "During his time in Triple-A, he went an inning-plus. We wanted to take him through [second baseman Phil Gosselin, the second scheduled Braves hitter of the eighth] and then match up from there."

Emilio Bonifacio led off with a double, but Barrett got Gosselin to ground out.

Five outs to go.

With the dangerous Freddie Freeman representing the tying run at the plate, Williams brought in Ross Detwiler to play the left-left percentages. It was an interesting choice.

Detwiler wasn't happy when he was taken out of the rotation during Spring Training, and he has been used mostly as long man ever since. But he rose to the occasion and struck out Freeman.

"He can do that. He can also go multiple innings," Williams said. "He made really nice pitches on Freddie and threw him a real good curveball. Those are situations that he wants to be in, that we want him to be in. For the most part this year, he's been a longer guy. But he's certainly capable of coming in like he did this game."

Four outs to go.

With Braves cleanup hitter Justin Upton at the plate, Williams countered with Craig Stammen. It was the second straight night Stammen had been summoned to face Upton with the game on the line. For the second straight night, he got him out to end the eighth.

"He threw him a couple sliders to get ahead, bounced a couple and then made a really nice pitch to strike him out," Williams said. "Those two guys have really been our longer guys this year. But the matchups were there, and they came in and got the guys they had to get."

Three outs to go.

Since Storen had saved the previous two games, Williams considered starting the inning with left-hander Matt Thornton to face lefty-swinging Jason Heyward. But he decided that if Storen was available to pitch at all, he might as well have the opportunity to start the inning. Three quick outs later, the Nats' magic number was down to 10.

Williams disarmed an inquiry about whether Storen has won the closer's role, noting that he won't be available Wednesday, so if another save situation arises, somebody else will have to pitch.

Zimmermann, who got the win, said the team is comfortable no matter who has the ball as the final outs are counted down.

"We're really confident. Those guys are among the best," Zimmermann said. "Anytime you go six, seven innings and hand if off to those guys, you pretty much know they're going to put up zeroes. We have trust in all those guys. All those guys can give you an inning, two innings, whatever. They've been good all year."

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"content":["injury" ] }

Desmond OK after exiting with lower back tightness

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Desmond OK after exiting with lower back tightness play video for Desmond OK after exiting with lower back tightness

WASHINGTON -- Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond left Tuesday's 6-4 victory over the Braves in the sixth inning because of lower back tightness. The injury is not considered serious. In fact, Desmond indicated that he could play against Atlanta in the series finale Wednesday afternoon.

"I feel like I can play tomorrow. This is something I've had before," Desmond said following Tuesday's win. "I'll sleep tonight, get some treatment and I should be all right tomorrow. This isn't something I have to deal with every day. It's something that pops up. I probably had it two or three times this year, where it just comes and goes. So it's no big deal."

Desmond started feeling pain in his back before Tuesday's game but decided to play through it. By the fourth inning, his back wasn't cooperating and he soon thought it would be better to get out of the game and not create further damage.

Desmond, who went 1-for-3 with an RBI and a run scored, was replaced by Danny Espinosa, who picked up a double in his only at-bat of the game.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"content":["injury" ] }
{"event":["prospect" ] }

Nats prospect Difo has big night for Hagerstown

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Nats prospect Difo has big night for Hagerstown play video for Nats prospect Difo has big night for Hagerstown

Second baseman Wilmer Difo's breakout season got another highlight Tuesday night in Game 2 of the South Atlantic League championship series.

Difo, the Nationals' No. 20 prospect, came to the plate with Class A Hagerstown and Asheville tied at 3 and two outs in the 10th inning. After taking a first-pitch ball to get ahead of right-hander Troy Neiman, Difo drove a solo home run over the right-field fence, giving Hagerstown the lead. His second homer of the night gave Hagerstown a 4-3 victory, evening the best-of-five series at one game apiece.

Difo finished the game 3-for-5 with two solo home runs and a double.

Third baseman Drew Ward, the Nationals' No. 8 prospect, went 2-for-4 with two doubles and two runs. He is hitting .438/.471/.750 with five doubles and four runs in four playoff games.

Difo had one of the best seasons of any player in the Nationals' system. The 22-year-old hit .315/.360/.470 with 14 home runs and 49 stolen bases in 136 games during the regular season and was named MVP of the South Atlantic League. He ranked second among all Minor Leaguers with 176 hits and ninth in stolen bases.

Before this year, Difo had struggled in the low levels of the Minor Leagues. In his first four seasons of professional baseball, he hit .248/.344/.346 in 224 games. But with a better mental approach to the game, Difo found success in Hagerstown and has carried that momentum into the playoffs, where he is hitting .471/.526/.941 in four games.

Difo and the Suns will try to build on Tuesday's victory when the championship series moves to Hagerstown for Game 3 on Thursday. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. ET.

Teddy Cahill is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tedcahill. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"event":["prospect" ] }

Nats extend Potomac PDC for two more years

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WASHINGTON -- The Nationals announced the signing of a two-year player development contract extension with Class A Advanced Potomac on Tuesday.

Potomac is 625-553 (.531) since aligning with the Nationals and won two Mills Cup titles in 2008 and 2010.

Many players on the Nationals' current roster played for Potomac over the years, including Ian Desmond, Anthony Rendon and Jordan Zimmermann.

"We are very pleased to extend our working relationship with the Potomac Nationals for another two years," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "What we value in Potomac goes well beyond the obvious proximity and mutual fans that our clubs share. [Potomac general manager] Josh Olerud and his staff have done a tremendous job over the past few years enhancing the Carolina League experience for our players and staff."

The Potomac Nationals play their games at Pfitzner Stadium, which is located just 30 miles southwest of Washington.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Nationals looking good with multiple closers

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Nationals looking good with multiple closers play video for Nationals looking good with multiple closers

WASHINGTON -- The first-place Nationals are, until further notice, going with the bullpen-by-committee approach. Which dredges up the old baseball saying that a team with two closers really doesn't have any.

Of course, old baseball sayings aren't always true. And there are at least a few reasons to suspect this could actually turn into a positive development for the Curly Ws.

It certainly hasn't been a problem so far. Drew Storen struck out the side in the ninth Monday night at Nationals Park to preserve a 2-1 win over the Braves. It was his second straight save since Rafael Soriano began a sabbatical to try to straighten himself out after struggling mightily in the second half.

One reason this might turn into an advantage is that as long as Soriano was the designated go-to guy in save situations, manager Matt Williams was going to stand by him, unfailingly use him to protect a lead in the ninth unless he was unavailable after pitching multiple days in a row. Williams is now free to use the pitcher he believes has the best chance of nailing it down on a given night.

Second, without rigid roles, Williams can also mix and match in the seventh and eighth. After all, games can be won and lost there as well.

"A lot of it also depends on the seventh and eighth," said Williams, who used Tyler Clippard, Matt Thornton and Craig Stammen to get through the eighth Monday night. "How do we get a chance to potentially have a lead going into the ninth? That also plays a big part in it. So we'll do whatever we can to put guys in a position to succeed, whether it's seven, eight or nine. And it could be a number of guys."

Finally, the Nats have several relievers who have been used as closers in the past, which might be the biggest key to making it work.

"They've got a closer-by-committee, but it's a pretty good committee," observed Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. "It's not like it's chopped liver. Clippard has done it in the past. Storen pitches the eighth inning because they have Soriano. But he could pitch in the ninth inning for a lot of clubs in the big leagues."

Including the Nationals, as it turns out. Storen struck out Chris Johnson, Tommy La Stella and Andrelton Simmons as the crowd of 25,448 roared its approval.

"That's as loud as I've ever heard it here," said Storen, who also saved Sunday's game against the Phillies. "I felt great. That was a big win for us, and as usual, it's all about locking it down. [Closing has] been fun. I've done a bunch of different roles down there. Any time you can throw the ninth inning, it's quite the adrenaline rush."

Williams noted that the right-hander has added a changeup to his fastball and slider, and he said that the expanded repertoire has made a big difference. Storen said that's helped his confidence.

"Absolutely. Any time you can go to three different pitches in a two-strike count, it helps," said Storen. "The changeup has been huge for me, and I've been able to use it against righties and lefties. So that's been something that's helped me a lot this year, and it's really helped out recently."

Said shortstop Ian Desmond: "The last two outings have been great, but really he's been throwing the ball well [1.31 ERA] all year. He's got a lot of confidence in himself and all his pitches. And [the catchers] are putting down good fingers for him. It's pretty exciting to see."

Added starter Doug Fister, who got the win: "We've got confidence in the whole bullpen, but Drew has come out and shut guys down all year. He's a guy we trust and have full faith in, and that's what you want."

Williams stressed that this doesn't mean Storen will pitch in every save situation from here on out.

"I would say it's fluid. It's depends on a matchup, it depends on a success for that particular pitcher against that particular team," the skipper explained. "So right now, that's the way we're going to go about doing it. We're going to try to get the best guy out there, given all that experience that they have, that can close that game out for us."

Clippard opened the eighth. He gave up a one-out double to Ryan Doumit that right fielder Jayson Werth almost caught, then walked Jason Heyward. Ramiro Pena struck out and the left-handed Thornton came in to face the dangerous left-handed-hitting Freddie Freeman, who delivered an RBI single to right. Stammen then came in to get Justin Upton to pop out, ending the inning.

That set the stage for Storen in the ninth. A few minutes later, a baseball with "Save #3" -- he had one earlier in this season -- was sitting on a shelf in his locker.

It wouldn't be surprising for several Nats pitchers to receive similarly inscribed baseballs before the regular season ends. And in this case, that ain't necessarily a bad thing.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"content":["top_pitching_performances" ] }

Nats ride Fister's effort to expand lead over Braves

Righty tosses seven shutout innings as East margin now eight games

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Nats ride Fister's effort to expand lead over Braves play video for Nats ride Fister's effort to expand lead over Braves

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals are a step closer to clinching a division title for the second time in three years. Doug Fister broke a personal three-game losing streak and helped the Nationals down the Braves, 2-1, at Nationals Park on Monday night.

The Nationals increased their lead in the National League East race to eight games and reduced their magic number to 12.

"It would be nice to win the division knowing that we can beat the Braves more than winning the division knowing that we can't beat the Braves," reliever Craig Stammen said. "This proves we can play good baseball against a good team, and [it can] prepare us for a playoff-type atmosphere if we get to that point."

Fister (13-6) pitched seven shutout innings, allowed two hits, struck out three batters and walked three others. It helped that he threw mostly fastballs during the game. Fister didn't throw many breaking balls to the Braves.

"That's our game plan, attack with our best. To me, my sinker is my best pitch. If I can locate that in and out and down, good things will happen," Fister said. "The biggest thing is let the guys hit it. That's the game plan going in, that's what we stayed with, and our defense was terrific. They made every routine play that we needed to make. I can't say enough about our defense."

The only time the Braves had runners in scoring position against Fister was in the top of the seventh.

The Braves had runners on first and second with two outs, and it appeared that manager Matt Williams wanted to take Fister out of the game. But Williams went out to the mound to let Fister know that Andrelton Simmons was his guy to get out. Williams looked in Fister's eyes and asked if he wanted Simmons. Fister's eyes were intense.

"Yeah, baby," Fister replied.

"I want to read him. I want to make sure that he is feeling OK. I asked him how he was and he said he was good. So I turned around [and went back in the dugout]," Williams said.

Fister appreciated that his skipper kept him in the game.

"That's epitome of showing confidence. That's what great managers do, they have confidence in their guys, and that's what he did tonight," Fister said.

Fister came through, inducing Simmons to ground into a fielder's choice to end the threat.

"We felt good going up there, as a group, to the plate," Braves right fielder Jason Heyward said. "I felt like [Fister] was just missing barrels, and that is kind of what he does. He wiggles his way around."

Braves left-hander Mike Minor was solid himself, allowing two runs in six-plus innings. Washington scored the first run in the first frame, when Ian Desmond singled to right field, scoring Anthony Rendon.

"I was able to get a fastball up, but I was able to stay on it and drive in a run," Desmond said.

Minor was out of the game in the seventh inning when the Nationals scored their second run. With the bases loaded, one out and right-hander David Hale on the mound, Rendon hit into a fielder's choice, but pinch-runner Jeff Kobernus scored on the play.

Atlanta made it interesting in the eighth, with reliever Tyler Clippard on the mound for Washington. With one out, pinch-hitter Ryan Doumit doubled into the right-field corner, and Heyward followed with a walk. After he struck out Ramiro Pena, Clippard was taken out of the game in favor of Matt Thornton, who allowed an RBI single to Freddie Freeman to make it a one-run game.

Clippard acknowledged that he wasn't happy about being taken out of the game. The eighth inning has been his the entire season.

"Yeah, I was hot, but I don't think they have a problem with me doing that," Clippard said. "Obviously I want the ball. They know that. [Williams] has to make tough decisions, and that was the decision he made."

Though he is usually not in the game when it is close and late, Stammen entered and was able to get Justin Upton to pop up to first baseman Adam LaRoche to end the threat. Stammen thought it was best to use the sinker over the slider.

"I was trying to pound him in," Stammen said. "In the past, I threw him a bunch of sliders. If things got to that point, I was going to use that pitch, too. I think the sinker was probably best rather than risk hanging a slider. That's kind of right in his swing path. He could do some damage. I wouldn't just lose the lead, but lose the game. The sinker was probably the safest."

Drew Storen pitched the ninth inning, striking out the side and saving his third game of the season. Storen has been unhittable in closing the last two games for Washington.

Williams declined to name Storen -- who saved 43 games in 2011 -- his closer, insisting that the Nats' closer will be based on matchups from game to game. But if Storen, who now features four pitches -- fastball, sinker, changeup and slider -- keeps it up, he could be the closer by the time the postseason starts.

Storen relishes being in the closer's role again.

"It's been fun," he said. "Obviously I've done a bunch of different roles down there, so anytime you can throw the ninth inning, it's quite the adrenaline rush."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"content":["top_pitching_performances" ] }
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