August 2012

What to Watch For: 8/12

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Washington Nationals (71-43) vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (57-57)

LHP Ross Detwiler (6-4, 2.99) vs. LHP Patrick Corbin (3-4, 3.53)

After falling behind early, the Nationals used a five-run fifth inning to grasp the lead, then held on down the stretch for their eighth consecutive victory, 6-5 over the Diamondbacks. Ross Detwiler takes the hill today in a battle of lefties as Washington looks to continue its flawless road trip.

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Espinosa SS

2. Harper CF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. Morse RF

5. LaRoche 1B

6. Moore LF

7. Suzuki C

8. Lombardozzi 2B

9. Detwiler LHP

GREAT EIGHT

Thanks in part to a season-high eight straight wins, the Nationals are a season-best 28 games above .500. The ‘33 AL Nationals (99-53) were the last big league club representing the Nation’s Capital to climb as many as 28 games above the break-even mark.

GOLD ON THE ROAD

Saturday’s win in the Valley of the Sun was also Washington’s eighth straight on the road. If the Nationals can cap a sweep today at Chase Field, they’d match a franchise mark for consecutive road wins at 9 (also Sept 12-26, 2011). The 1994 Expos also won nine straight outside of Quebec from July 29-August 10.

AUGUST AND EVERYTHING PRIOR

The Nationals are an MLB-leading 10-2 thus far in August and are the only big league team to have played winning baseball every month this season: July (17-9), June (15-10), May (15-13) and April (14-8). Including September of ’11, Washington has posted five straight winning months.

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What to Watch For: 8/11

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Washington Nationals (70-43) vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (57-56)

RHP Edwin Jackson (6-7, 3.56) vs. LHP Wade Miley (12-7, 2.85)

Michael Morse homered for the third time in two days and Ryan Zimmerman went deep as well as the Nationals continued their flawless road trip with a 9-1 win over the Diamondbacks. Stephen Strasburg allowed a single hit over six innings of work in earning his 13th win of the season. Edwin Jackson takes the hill tonight against impressive rookie Wade Miley looking to extend Washington’s winning ways.

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Werth CF

2. Espinosa SS

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. Morse RF

5. LaRoche 1B

6. Moore LF

7. Flores C

8. Lombardozzi 2B

9. Jackson RHP

7TH HEAVEN

Thanks in part to a season-high seven straight wins, the Nationals are a season-best 27 games above .500. The ‘33 AL Nationals (99-53) were the last big league club representing the Nation’s Capital to climb as many as 27 games above the break-even mark.

NIFTY 50

In Friday’s 9-1 win at Chase Field, Stephen Strasburg secured the 50th win by a Nationals starting pitcher in 2012. The starting staff of the inaugural-campaign 2005 Nationals currently holds the mark for most wins (52) in single season.

SMOOTH ROAD

At 38-21 (.644), Washington owns the best road winning percentage in MLB, and the Nationals have won 17 of their last 22 road contests. Washington is 12-4-2 in road series play in 2012.

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What to Watch For: 8/9

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Washington Nationals (68-43) vs. Houston Astros (36-76)

RHP Jordan Zimmermann (8-6, 2.45) vs. RHP Lucas Harrell (9-7, 3.98)

The Nationals leaned on Gio Gonzalez – who hit his first Major League home run and finished his first nine-inning complete game – to take their third straight one-run win over the Astros in Houston. Washington will send Jordan Zimmermann to the hill in search of a four-game sweep and its sixth consecutive victory overall.

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Lombardozzi 2B

2. Bernadina CF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. LaRoche 1B

5. Morse LF

6. Werth RF

7. Espinosa SS

8. Suzuki C

9. Zimmermann RHP

SO LONG, SPACE CITY 

Tonight’s tilt will be the last time the Nationals and Astros will meet as NL brethren, as Houston will join the AL West beginning in 2013. Since baseball returned to The District in 2005, the Nationals lead the series 29-26 heading into tonight’s matchup.

J-ZIMM: ROAD WARRIOR

Jordan Zimmermann will make his fourth career start against the Houston Astros tonight, a club against which he has yet to record a victory. The Cubs, Dodgers and Pirates join the Astros as National League clubs that have never been defeated by Jordan. Zimmermann, who is 6-3 with a 2.03 ERA (16 ER/71.0 IP) away from Nationals Park, has allowed one earned run or less in eight of his 11 road starts this season.

MICHAEL MORSE(L) 

Michael Morse has hit safely in a career-high 17 straight games, going 23-for-73 (.315) with four doubles, three homers, 11 RBI, two walks and nine runs. Morse’s team season-high 17-game run is the longest current hitting streak in MLB, as Miami’s Jose Reyes saw his 26-game streak come to an end today in New York. The last National to register a hit streak of this length or longer was Ryan Zimmerman, who posted a 19-gamer from July 22-Aug. 11, 2011.

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Going The Distance

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While the Nationals back-to-back extra-inning wins on Monday and Tuesday night over the Houston Astros provided plenty of drama and fodder for water cooler chatter, they also left Washington’s bullpen dangerously thin entering the third of a 10-game road trip. So much so, in fact, that Davey Johnson sent starter Edwin Jackson down to be on standby as an emergency reliever, should Washington need one. Thankfully, the Nats didn’t need any bullpen help at all Wednesday night, as Gio Gonzalez stepped up with perhaps his biggest all-around performance of the season. Not only did Gonzalez toss his first career nine-inning complete game, he also belted his first Major League home run, a two-run shot that proved to be the difference in a 4-3 victory.

Gonzalez hit his first Major League home run and tossed his first nine-inning complete game.

Gonzalez made a splash in his first home start back in the home opener on April 12, twirling seven spotless innings and logging his first Major League hit. If that game set the tone for the All-Star’s season, his outing Wednesday night may have provided its defining moment. Reunited for the first time in a game with Kurt Suzuki, his old catcher from Oakland, the 26 year-old southpaw reminded Nationals fans of exactly why Mike Rizzo traded for him this past offseason. Finishing what he started, Gonzalez scattered nine Astros hits and two walks over his 117-pitch outing as he became just the second Nationals starter this year to go the distance after Jackson did so all the way back in April.

As if that wasn’t enough, Gonzalez also delivered the biggest performance of the game on offense. After the Nationals made two quick outs to start the second inning in a 1-1 game, Suzuki came to bat. Astros starter Armando Galarraga plunked the Nats backstop on the rear with his first pitch. Gonzalez stepped up immediately to pick up his teammate. He turned on Galarraga’s very next pitch and belted it deep into the top of the Crawford boxes in left field for a two-run shot, giving Washington a lead it would never relinquish.

Although the left-field seats in Houston are notoriously easy to reach, the tater was a no-doubter, and would have been a number of rows deep at any ballpark in the league, including Nationals Park. See for yourself.

As a result, the Nationals staff now holds a unique distinction. Three Washington starting pitchers – Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, who toes the rubber in Thursday’s series finale – have each hit home runs and have each been honored as National League Pitcher of the Month. With the start Ross Detwiler is off to in August (1-0, 1.29 ERA in two starts), that got us thinking: which is a more likely accomplishment for this Nationals staff: another Pitcher of the Month award, or another home run?

What to Watch For: 8/8

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Washington Nationals (67-43) vs. Houston Astros (36-75)

LHP Gio Gonzalez (13-6, 3.34) vs. RHP Armando Galarraga (0-1, 5.23)

The Nationals and Astros played their second consecutive extra-inning game, and for the second time, Washington came away a winner. Michael Morse’s leadoff double in the 12th extended his hit streak to 16 games and led to the winning run, and Roger Bernadina’s highlight-reel catch saved the day in a 3-2 final.

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Lombardozzi 2B

2. Harper CF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. LaRoche 1B

5. Morse LF

6. Werth RF

7. Espinosa SS

8. Suzuki C

9. Gonzalez LHP

BERNADINA SHARKS VICTORY FROM JAWS OF DEFEAT

Danny Espinosa homered and provided all three RBI required for Washington to edge Houston, 3-2, on Tuesday in 12 innings at Minute Maid Park. With the potential tying and winning runs on base and two outs in the bottom of the 12th, Bernadina dashed over 125 feet to make a jumping catch at the wall, denying Brett Wallace’s bid for a game-winning double. By improving to 10-6 in extra-inning contests (5-1 since the All-Star break), Washington jumped a season-high 24 games above .500. With 11- and 12-inning victories here at Minute Maid Park the last two nights, the Nationals have won consecutive road games in extra innings for the first time since October 3-4, 2009 at Atlanta (6-4 in 11 innings, 2-1 in 15 innings).

IZTURIS MAKES DEBUT

Last night, Cesar Izturis became the 40th National to appear in a game this year when he pinch ran for Morse after he doubled in the 12th inning. Izturis would come around to score the eventual game-winning run on Espinosa’s RBI-single. Acquired via waiver claim from the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday, Izturis is hitting .235 with 2 HR and 11 RBI so far in 2012.

GIO VS. HOUSTON

Tonight, Gio Gonzalez will take to the hill for the first time at Minute Maid Park. He faced the Astros for the first time of his career in his third start as a National on April 17 in D.C. In Washington’s 1-0 win, Gio worked 7.0 scoreless innings and allowed just two hits. In his last outing, Gonzalez matched a season-high with 10 strikeouts without a walk in 8.0 innings against Miami on August 3.

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The Case for Catch of the Year

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The Washington Nationals and Houston Astros opened their second and final series of the season with a pair of extra-inning games Monday and Tuesday night, and a pair of Nationals wins. But despite the apparent similarities, the defining plays of these two contests could not have been more different. We have already chronicled Houston’s defensive lapse from the 11th inning on Monday night that led to the game-winning run. However, to fairly and accurately chronicle the importance of Roger Bernadina’s jaw-dropping, game-saving catch for the final out of Tuesday night’s contest, we must look at it in the larger context – as a frontrunner for catch of the year in Major League Baseball.

Humor us, if you will. Watch the video below, no matter how many times you’ve already seen it, just so the play is fresh in your mind. Then, as we take you through our five reasons, we encourage you to read through each point individually, then watch the video again. By the end, you can tell us if you also believe that what the Shark reeled in last night was more impressive than any other catch made this season, including Mike Trout’s now legendary leap (video also below, for comparison).

Catch of the Year…Roger Bernadina

Or Mike Trout

1. The Amount of Ground Covered

Well positioned before the pitch, just to the left side of second base, Bernadina nevertheless had to run full tilt deep into the left-center field gap and leap, arms extended into the awkwardly shaped façade in front of the Nationals bullpen. But it’s not like he had time to set himself underneath the ball and try to time his leap – it was all on the run.

2. The Ballpark

Minute Maid Park is…unique. From the notoriously easy-to-reach Crawford Boxes in left field to Tal’s Hill in center field that rises behind the warning track and includes a foul pole in play, it is easy to forget the minefield that awaits outfielders in left-center. As you can see in the photo to the right, the angle of the wall changes every few feet, often causing awkward caroms and general confusion for visiting players trying to decide how to pursue fly balls in the area. Bernadina disregarded all of that, threw caution to the wind, and literally threw himself into one of the recesses of the wall, emerging with the ball.

3. The Game Situation

This cannot be overstated. After Washington had finally broken through in the top of the 12th with the first run scored by either team since the second inning, the Astros had the tying run at second and the winning run at first with two outs in the bottom of the frame. If Bernadina does not come up with that ball, the Astros not only tie it, they likely win the game on that play, with the runner on the move in the two-out situation. It’s that simple – the catch was literally the difference between a win and a loss. When is the last time you’ve seen that in a game?

4. Steve Pearce/Craig Stammen

You can tell the significance of any play in the game as much as anything by the reaction of the other players on the field. Steve Pearce was the runner at second on the final play Tuesday night, representing the tying run. Check him out on the replay (0:57), fist raised in triumph as he heads towards third base, confident he is watching a game-ending play of an entirely different nature.

Meanwhile, Craig Stammen stood in the Nationals bullpen, just on the other side of the chain link fence from where Bernadina came crashing into the cutout. After the Shark came away with the ball, watch Stammen (at 0:11 and again at 1:03) jumping around, fists raised like a kid in the stands. Sure, Tyler Clippard’s primal scream and Jayson Werth’s bear hug speak volumes as well, but nothing matches Stammen’s unbridled joy from the ‘pen.

5. The Pennant Race

Oh yeah, the pennant race. As hot as the Nationals have been since the All-Star break, winning 14 of their last 18 games (including last night), the Atlanta Braves have kept pace. Washington held a four-game lead at the break, a mark that had not been matched until they were stymied by Cole Hamels and, some time later, Brett Wallace’s walk-off bid came to rest in Bernadina’s mitt. For the second time in four days, the Nationals have added to their division lead, and once again own the best record in baseball at 67-43. None of these things would be true if not for Bernadina’s catch.

Still want more on the Shark’s heroics? The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg also did a great job of capturing some of the initial reactions – on the field, in the clubhouse and around the Twitter-sphere.

From the Desk of Mark Lerner: Envious No More

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Just about every night, I remind myself, be careful what you wish for.

For years now, we watched with silent envy as teams played meaningful games late into the season. We were thrilled to play a role — any role — in the season’s outcomes, to affect the standings from the outside.

Some call it playing the “spoiler.” Whatever they called us, it fit at the time.

But when everyone went home at night, all we could do was picture and dream what a pennant race was like from the inside.

Well no longer. Friends, we are in the midst of a real pennant race. And, bonus, this one appears to have started a bit earlier than most.

Honestly, my early impression is that it is equal parts pleasure and agony.

As if the late innings of a tight game are not grueling enough, let me tell you that I literally cringe every night about 7:10 p.m. upon checking the out-of-town scoreboard for the first time. Not much changes either during my 62 subsequent glances, as I wait for the scores to flip or turn over at inning’s end.

The man known as “Kurt Klutch” has already made his presence felt with the Nationals.

Honestly, this is so fun and much more invigorating than I imagined during all those blank nights. This is daily drama that only our sport can provide.

The ups and downs … they are amazingly addictive, but as we all know, the nightly outcomes cannot always work in our favor.

And it is in those moments that I remind myself … be careful what you wish for.

*It has been a busy week with the additions of Kurt Suzuki and Cesar Izturis. Suzuki has made an immediate impression in the clubhouse — he is so upbeat and personable, it is as if he’s been with us for 3-4 years, not 3-4 days. I know he’s still feeling his way, trying to learn about our pitchers and their various strengths. But our fans should feel comfortable with not only his talents behind the plate, but also in a one-on-one setting.

*A little bit was made about the Suzuki acquisition being some sort of commentary on the play of Jesus Flores, especially since Wilson Ramos went down in early May. I can assure everyone that Mike Rizzo does not feel this way. This was an opportunity to acquire another front-line catcher. Mike was understandably nervous about the worst case scenario: losing Flores to injury. This trade makes us better and deeper. And as we’ve seen all season long, our depth is a big part of what has set us apart.

Danny Espinosa has played the hero role lately, with the Nationals rookies in support.

*I know I wrote about the agony that comes with a pennant race, but one recent high point was Saturday night’s big comeback win over the Marlins. That was as loud as I have heard our ballpark. The only other moment that could potentially stack up was Ryan Zimmerman’s game-ending homer to open up Nationals Park on March 30, 2008. As up-to-the-task as Danny Espinosa was in Saturday night’s critical at-bat, I genuinely believe that the fans primarily fueled that six-run eighth inning. We’ll need much more of this in the next 2 months.

*I do not think it is any exaggeration to think that Adam LaRoche should be a part of any NL MVP discussion. At the very least, he is the NL Comeback Player of the Year. He carried us in April and has never let up. He leads all big league first basemen in home runs with 23. Yep, that’s one more than even Albert Pujols (22).

*I’d also like to welcome Jayson Werth back to the active roster. And he is not just back and working himself into shape. Rather, he is helping us win games. Wrist injuries are probably the most disruptive ailments that can plague hitters, and for him to come back and to have already raised his batting average above the .300 mark? It is a remarkable testament to his will and determination. His body’s ability to heal quickly is something to behold.

Bryce Harper continues to dazzle with the bat and the glove.

*I’d be remiss if I did not mention the many contributions of our rookies: Bryce Harper, Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore. Go back to Saturday. Bryce, Steve and Tyler accounted for half of the runs in the aforementioned six-run eighth inning. Some say the best thing about rookies is that they become second-year players. Well, in my mind, the best thing about these rookies is that they are not going anywhere any time soon.

I hope to see everyone during our next homestand. Remember, the next homestand includes a big 3-game series against the Braves. I’ve had friends tell me that this might be the biggest baseball series in D.C. since the 1933 Fall Classic. This is what it’s all about.

What to Watch For: 8/7

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Washington Nationals (66-43) vs. Houston Astros (36-74)

LHP Ross Detwiler (6-4, 3.02) vs. RHP Jordan Lyles (2-8, 5.95)

After Houston erased a 4-1 deficit to tie the game in the ninth on Monday night, the Nationals scored a run on a bizarre play that included two errors to win the series opener, 5-4 in 11 frames. Washington will look to Ross Detwiler in the second meeting of the series, as it hopes to extend its three-game winning streak.

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Lombardozzi 2B

2. Harper RF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. LaRoche 1B

5. Morse LF

6. Bernadina CF

7. Espinosa SS

8. Flores C

9. Detwiler LHP

LIVING SINGLE

In Monday’s 5-4 victory in 11 innings, each of the Nationals 14 hits were singles. Before Monday, the Nationals (2005-present) had never posted more than 11 hits, of which all were singles, in the same game. The Nationals posted at least one extra-base hit in each of the season’s first 85 games, the longest such streak in MLB to begin 2012, however, they have failed to do so seven times in 24 contests since. In addition to Mon.’s 14-single attack, the Nationals posted 10 singles and zero extra-base hits on Sunday vs. Miami. Thus, the Nationals are the first big league club to post at least 24 hits in a two-game span, all of which were singles, since 2000, when the Royals turned the trick September 28 (12, vs. Detroit) and 29 (14, at Chicago AL).

BE LIKE MIKE

Including a 2-for-5 effort last night, Michael Morse has hit safely in a career-high 15 straight games. During the streak, Morse is 21-for-63 (.333) with two doubles, three homers and 11 RBI. Morse’s team season-high 15-game run is the second-longest current hitting streak in the NL (Miami’s Jose Reyes is riding a 24-game streak). The last National to register a hit streak of this length or longer was Ryan Zimmerman, who posted a 19-gamer from July 22-August 11, 2011.

THE NATIONAL DET

Ross Detwiler looks to collect his third win in his last four starts tonight in Houston. In each of those wins, Detwiler tossed 7.0 innings, allowing a combined one earned run on 10 hits along the way. Despite his 6-4 record, Ross is without a win in his last six road starts. He has faced the Astros just once in his career, collecting the victory while allowing two runs on seven hits in 6.0 strong innings on 9/23/10 in D.C.

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A Win Is A Win

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It seems that with each and every passing week of this 2012 season, the Washington Nationals are finding increasingly more dramatic and creative ways to win baseball games. There have been late-inning rallies, beginning on the season’s first two days at Wrigley Field. There have been walk-off wins of nearly every variety, from wild pitches (twice), to sacrifice flies, to heart-stopping, come-from-behind home runs. There have been victories of nearly every shade, coming in just about any way the mind can dream up. And then there was Monday night.

Overlooked in last night’s madness was another solid performance from Craig Stammen.

After carving out a 4-1 lead, the Nationals found themselves in extra innings against an Astros team that had won just four its last 34 games. Fortunately for Washington, that Houston squad had yet to win any of its nine extra-inning contests, and the Nats – no stranger to free baseball – were not about to become their first victim. But for all of the timely, clutch hits the team has put together lately and, really, all season long, this game turned on something entirely different.

We will make our best attempt to describe the play on paper, though it deserves to be seen, if you haven’t already watched it. After Roger Bernadina pulled a single through the hole between first and second base to open the top of the 11th, new Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki bluffed at a bunt and took strike one. He squared again on the next pitch, popping the ball in the air in front of first base. Steve Pearce crashed from first, but the ball dropped in front of him, just as pitcher Wilton Lopez closed in to try to make a play of his own. Then, Pearce and Lopez literally crashed – into one another – with the ball glancing off the first baseman. Matt Downs came running in from third just as Pearce made a desperate effort to collect the ball and throw out Suzuki. Downs pulled up at the last second, flailing over Pearce as he dropped his elbow, the throw towards first instead sailing into foul ground and up the right field line.

Meanwhile, Bernadina raced from second to third, where Bo Porter held his hands up to stop the speedy outfielder, a prudent decision with none out in the inning. But the Shark had other plans. He blew right past Porter for the plate, and right fielder Brian Bogesevic’s throw, which seemed destined to make a close play at the plate, airmailed the catcher and went to the screen. When the dust settled, Bernadina had scored and Suzuki stood at third base.

The run would be all the Nationals would need to end a game they no doubt feel they should have won in much less time than the four hours and 15 minutes it took to complete.

Surely, they won’t be happy about the events that led up to the 11th inning on Monday, or that forced extra innings in the first place. The relief corps, which has been one of the most solid in baseball this season, suddenly became allergic to their own fastballs, falling behind hitters with off-speed pitches. After loading the bases in the eighth, Drew Storen escaped with the lead. When Tyler Clippard walked and hit a batter in the ninth, he did not. However, after allowing a game-tying double that left the winning run at third base with just one out, Clippard buckled down to strike out the next two batters, pushing the game to extra innings.

There was another bright spot from the relief corps’ performance, thanks to Craig Stammen. The same hurler who came up with 2.1 innings of clutch relief eight days prior in the Nationals maniacal, 11-10, multi-comeback game in Milwaukee, delivered again with 2.0 innings of hitless relief. No reliever in baseball has pitched at least two frames as often as Stammen, who did so for the 21st time on Monday. And so while the focus will remain, undoubtedly, on “what turned into a three-ring circus,” as Nationals radio man Charlie Slowes put it, the ultimate takeaway from Monday night is this: some way, some how, the Nationals just keep finding ways to win.

What to Watch For: 8/6

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Washington Nationals (65-43) vs. Houston Astros (36-73)

RHP Edwin Jackson (6-7, 3.57) vs. LHP Dallas Keuchel (1-4, 5.77)

The Nationals took three-of-four from the Astros when the teams met in D.C. in April, and will look to continue their winning ways after doing the same to Miami this past weekend. Led by the red hot Adam LaRoche – who has gone 23-for-52 (.442) with four walks, seven home runs, 10 runs scored and 16 RBI in his last 14 games – Washington has won four of five and 12 of its last 16, holding a 3.0-game lead over the Atlanta Braves entering play Monday night.

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Espinosa SS

2. Harper CF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. Morse LF

5. LaRoche 1B

6. Werth RF

7. Suzuki C

8. Lombo 2B

9. Jackson RHP

EDWIN IN SPACE CITY

Edwin Jackson looks to get Washington’s three-city, 10-game roadtrip off to a good start tonight at Minute Maid Park in Houston.  Jackson has earned at least one win in 21 Major League ballparks, but Minute Maid is not one of them. He sports a 4.55 ERA in six career games (five starts) against the Astros. When pitching against Houston, his team is 5-1. Jackson last faced the Astros on April 19 in D.C. and took the loss in an 11-4 setback.

NATS HURLERS DON’T DIG THE LONGBALL

Nationals pitchers are currently riding a string of 49.0 consecutive innings in which they have not allowed a home run. Washington last allowed a long ball when Jimmy Rollins and Nate Schierholtz hit homers in consecutive at-bats in the fifth inning on Wednesday at Nationals Park. Washington’s streak of not allowing a homer in five straight games also matches a season high set twice previously: April 16-20 and April 10-14. Last season, from September 5-16, Steve McCatty’s pitchers strung together an 11-game homerless streak.

MICHAEL MORSE(L) 

Michael Morse has hit safely in a career-high 14 straight games, going 19-for-58 (.328) with two walks, three doubles, three homers, nine runs scored and 10 RBI. Morse’s team season-high 14-game run is the second-longest current hitting streak in the National League (Miami’s Jose Reyes is riding a 24-game streak). The last National to register a hit streak of this length or longer was Ryan Zimmerman, who posted a 19-gamer from July 22-August 11, 2011.

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