Nats drop finale to Phillies, will face Cubs in NLDS (updated)

PHILADELPHIA - Trea Turner reached base five times. Jayson Werth hit a pair of balls as well as he has in a while. Michael A. Taylor homered. Sammy Solís continued his late-season resurgence.

And Bryce Harper again looked healthy, and even picked up his first hit in six at-bats since returning from the disabled list.

None of that, though, catapulted the Nationals to victory tonight in an excruciating game at Citizens Bank Park. Tanner Roark's struggles on the mound and a bunch of squandered opportunities at the plate doomed the Nationals during a 7-5 loss to the Phillies that required a staggering 3 hours, 53 minutes to complete.

"Lately we're not hitting with runners in scoring position," manager Dusty Baker said. "So we've just got to get back to the drawing board on that one. And we've just got to pick up our overall game."

The loss, which leaves the Nationals at 95-63 heading into their season-ending home series against the Pirates, ensures they cannot get to 100 wins. They would need to sweep four games from Pittsburgh to get to 99 and establish a new franchise record.

None of what takes place this weekend, however, can alter this simple fact that became official tonight: The Nationals will be facing the Cubs in the National League Division Series.

Chicago wrapped up an NL Central title that had been expected by everyone all season but required far more time and effort than anyone expected. The defending World Series champs have their flaws, but they'll enter October with a whole lot less pressure on them than they had one year ago while breaking their 108-year curse.

The Nationals, who will host Game 1 on Oct. 6, Game 2 on Oct. 7 and a potential Game 5 on Oct. 12, will go into that marquee matchup with plenty of star power, a deep lineup, an elite one-two punch atop their rotation and a dominant bullpen. But they'll also enter the NLDS with the pressure that comes from a franchise that has not yet advanced out of the first round despite three attempts in the previous five seasons.

"My thoughts are: Finish the season strong, and then we worry about Chicago," said Baker, who managed the Cubs from 2003-06 and led them to within a game of the World Series. "We've got another four days to go, and we want to finish strong and go into the new season with some momentum"

Tonight's game has little bearing on how things will play out a week from now, but this wasn't an especially encouraging game for the Nationals (aside from the notable exceptions listed above, especially Harper, who went 1-for-4 with a single, a strikeout and two double plays).

Tanner-Roark-throw-blue-sidebar.jpgRoark has enjoyed a resurgent second half - entering tonight, his 3.24 ERA since the All-Star break ranked fourth in the NL - but this start won't send him into the postseason on a high note.

The right-hander labored from the outset, walking the first batter he faced, one of five free passes he issued in the game. He really labored in the bottom of the second, needing 34 pitches to complete an inning in which three runs crossed the plate. And by the time he finished the bottom of the fourth, his pitch count already stood at 72.

"I just feel like I didn't have anything, really," he said. "More of a battling myself and trying to throw strikes. I was behind a lot, and they take advantage when you've got to throw fastballs. It's one of those games."

The Nationals did supply Roark with run support, slowly but surely delivering against rookie Mark Leiter Jr. Daniel Murphy's RBI double in the third got them on the board. Taylor's solo homer added another run in the fourth. And then a sustained sequence in the fifth that included Anthony Rendon's RBI single and Werth's two-run double gave the Nats a 5-3 lead and gave their starter new life.

Alas, Roark couldn't take advantage of that newfound lead and wound up giving it all back in a ragged bottom of the fifth. He walked two more batters, then after getting two outs served up a two-run triple to Aaron Altherr and a run-scoring double to Odúbel Herrera that raised his pitch count to 105 and ended his night.

It was a disappointing way for Roark to tune up for a projected Game 4 start against the Cubs. The Nationals may find a way to get him an inning or two out of the bullpen this weekend, but that's the most work he'll get for nearly two weeks.

"I think it's a good thing," said the right-hander, who has thrown 180 1/3 innings and was already pitching in high-leverage spots in March during the World Baseball Classic. "I had an early start to the season. Just getting my body feeling the way it should be coming into playoff time, and I'll just come in mentally prepared. You can't really worry about when I'm going to be throwing next, until they let me know. And whenever they let me know, I'll prepare mentally."

Baker believes Roark's strong body of work over the last two-plus months should override one rough start to end the regular season.

"Yeah, it has to," the manager said. "You have to trick yourself, and you have to realize ... I don't think Tanner's lacking any confidence. I don't think one bad outing will take Tanner down. It's OK to get down for a while. You just don't stay down. I don't see Tanner doing that."

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