Nats Lower Magic Number to Three

Nationals vs. Phillies: Michael Morse hits two homers as Washington lowers magic number to three, The Washington Post, Thursday, September 27, 10:50 PM

PHILADELPHIA — They had a Cy Young candidate on the mound, living history in center field and an acrobat at third base. And yet, if you had to pick one reason the Washington Nationals pushed closer to the National League East title Thursday night, it would not be Gio Gonzalez, Bryce Harper or Ryan Zimmerman.

For the past few weeks, Nationals Manager Davey Johnson has singled out Michael Morse as the only missing piece of a potent offense. Pain fired through his left wrist and his right hand, and one of their biggest sluggers had become a hole in the middle of their lineup. In time for the playoffs, it seems the Nationals can close the file on that problem.

In the Nationals’ 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, Morse drove in four runs and crushed two homers. The second came in the sixth inning and soared some 451 feet, landing in the back bullpen in right-center field. Morse hopped after he finished his wicked swing and admired the flight of the ball, the blow that provided the separation the Nationals needed to lower their magic number, with six games remaining, to three.

Down in Atlanta, the Braves won their fifth straight, which meant the earliest the Nationals can clinch the East is Saturday night in St. Louis. But the Nationals know they can clinch if they handle their own business, which is what they did Thursday night in full force.

Gonzalez, the Nationals’ No. 1 starter for the playoffs, turned suddenly from horrendous to splendid for his major league-best 21st win. Harper inched closer to another teenage milestone with another home run. Zimmerman made a pair of dazzling plays. As a bonus, scuffling setup man Tyler Clippard struck out two in a 1-2-3 eighth inning.

They give the Cy Young award for mastery, not mettle, and so Gonzalez may not have helped fill his trophy case Thursday night. But after he allowed three runs in the first, Gonzalez fulfilled his role in the victory. He refocused after the first and finished his start with five scoreless innings, which left his ERA at 2.89.

Harper had given Gonzalez a lead by drilling a home run in his first at-bat for the second consecutive night. He launched Tyler Cloyd’s 0-1 cutter into the right field seats. Nearing the end of his remarkable rookie season, any swing Harper takes may generate another slice of history.

Harper’s 21st home run placed him three behind Tony Conigliaro’s total in 1964, the most for a teenager ever hit in a single season. For Harper, the number that mattered most was 95, his run total for his rookie season after he crossed the plate. The history of matching Conigliaro does not interest Harper much. It would mean a great deal for him to join Buddy Lewis of the 1936 Washington Senators as the second teenager to ever score 100 runs in a single season. Harper sits at 94 with six games left.

“I like those runs a lot better,” Harper said Wednesday night. “Just getting on base, letting them get those ribbies and whatnot, getting things going. Getting on base for all the guys to drive me in, being key in that aspect, doing things on the base paths, I think that’s huge.”

As Gonzalez settled on the mound, the Nationals chipped away. Morse crunched a solo homer in the second inning to the first row in left field, just his third home run since Aug. 18. Zimmerman laced a leadoff double in the fourth and scored on Morse’s groundout to tie it.

In the fifth, with Danny Espinosa on first base, Jayson Werth drew a two-out walk to bring Harper to the plate. Harper had yanked pitches foul all night, and Cloyd threw him off-balance with change-ups to run the count to two strikes. Harper stayed back and flared a cutter to left, just over Jimmy Rollins’s glove. Espinosa raced home to give the Nationals the lead, 4-3.

Morse finished Cloyd’s night in the sixth when annihilated a 2-1 change-up. The crowd gasped as the ball carried to right-center field. There was no doubt from the moment the ball left the trademark. Morse tossed his bat and took two slow steps.

In the visitors’ bullpen, Nationals left-hander Tom Gorzelanny leapt off the bench, peeled off his cap and chased after the ball. He snagged the ball in his cap, then held it aloft as his fellow relievers, the tightest-knit, goofiest segment of the team, celebrated.

If Morse’s power comes around, the Nationals would give pitchers’ no place to breathe. Six of their everyday hitters have smashed at least 15 homers this year, and four have at least 20. Even catcher Kurt Suzuki, their eighth hitter, is slugging .530 in September.

Morse’s blast given the Nationals enough breathing to begin thinking about where Gonzalez may hit in the Cy Young race. Thursday afternoon, New York Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey bolstered his case with 13 strikeouts in a win, his 20th, over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Gonzalez took the mound in Philadelphia trying to earn the win that would keep him one ahead of Dickey.

Gonzalez retired the first two batters he faced, two quick groundballs, and then, after Chase Utley rolled a single through the right side, he suddenly unraveled. He walked the next two hitters to load the bases before Darin Ruf pulverized a 2-0 fastball off the center field fence. Ruf’s double cleared the bases and gave the Phillies a 3-1 lead. In the first, Gonzalez walked three and threw only 17 strikes in 37 pitches.

Jimmy Rollins and Kevin Frandsen smacked consecutive one-out singles, and it appeared Gonzalez may be headed for an early exit. Something changed. For the remainder of his start, Gonzalez allowed two hits and walked none, striking out six. At night’s end, he ranked sixth in ERA, fourth in strikeouts.

Gonzalez received help from Zimmerman. He made one play on a ball that deflected off Gonzalez that required him to throw parallel to the ground, and somehow he fired a strike in time to retire Rollins. He made another charging play and running the fifth. The Phillies couldn’t hit a ball by him all night.

The Nationals left Citizens Bank Park for the final time this year, headed for St. Louis and, they hope, the biggest celebration in their history.


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