Nationals remain players for big pitching names after averting disaster in series with Braves

Take the eight weekend sweeps, what the Oakland Athletics did to the New York Yankees (over four games), where the Toronto Blue Jays left the Boston Red Sox, how the Pittsburgh Pirates punished the Miami Marlins.

This morning, there's life in Baltimore (who could make it nine sweeps Monday against the Cleveland Indians) and St. Louis, perhaps dark inevitability in Queens and Milwaukee.

Take all that.

The greatest statement this weekend was made not by the A's (although quite impressive), or the Detroit Tigers (this was coming), and certainly not the Los Angeles Dodgers (it was the Mets), but by the Washington Nationals, who split four games with the Atlanta Braves.

Yeah, just a split.

Remember, in perhaps the most significant series in D.C. since Ossie Bluege was running things, sweeps weekend began Friday night with the Nats taking a 9-0 lead into the sixth inning against the Braves. Stephen Strasburg on the mound. Thirty-five thousand people in the joint. The Nats' lead in the NL East teetering toward 4½ games.

It was a glorious night. Until it wasn't.

"That," manager Davey Johnson told reporters later, "was arguably the worst game I've ever managed in my life."

Johnson is 69. He'd top-stepped more than 2,200 games in the big leagues alone, and autopsied going on a thousand of them.

The Nats, of course, lost, 11-10.

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"Ninety-nine times out of 100," closer Tyler Clippard told Washington reporters, "we win that game."

Nah. They win 100 out of 100. That was the 101st.

The next day, a double-header loomed, and the Braves won the first, 4-0, over Edwin Jackson. Two more wins – Saturday night and Sunday afternoon – and the hardened Braves would take over the division lead. The Nats would start John Lannan, the 27-year-old left-hander who'd become minor-league insurance and hadn't thrown a big-league inning since last September. Ross Detwiler, the very capable left-hander who'd nonetheless bounced from rotation to bullpen to rotation and hadn't won since early June, would start Sunday.

The Nats won both, by 5-2 Saturday night and 9-2 Sunday afternoon. Facing the possibility of falling out of first place for the first time in two months and whatever psychological blow that might deliver, Lannan went seven strong and Detwiler went seven more. They'd outscored the Braves, 14-2, over the final 14 innings of the series. They'd committed no errors over two games, thrown four scoreless innings out of the bullpen. Ryan Zimmerman hit two home runs, Roger Bernadina had six hits.

Johnson and his Nats awoke Monday morning 3½ games in front, a seven-game road trip ahead through New York and Milwaukee (both sweep-ees from the weekend). The Braves go to Miami (another of the swept).

The wins did come with a price. Shortstop Ian Desmond went to the disabled list because of an oblique tear. He'll miss at least two weeks. But, Danny Espinosa steps in at short, Steve Lombardozzi goes to second and the Nats consider what the next week could bring their starting rotation.

Because of the Strasburg situation, the assumption is the Nats are monitoring high-end and mid-level starters available, and certainly have the farm system, finances and motivation to make something happen. So, as the Cole Hamels negotiations go to the final hours, watch the Nats. As we approach Ryan Dempster's start Wednesday afternoon in Pittsburgh, watch the Nats. As Matt Garza recovers from triceps cramping, watch the Nats. Zack Greinke? Watch the Nats.

And then …

So, the best weekend belongs to the Nats. The worst? Tie between Boston and Miami, who've played themselves to the brink of desperation.

The A's are 14-2 in July. They've also played 12 home games in July. Their next six games are in Toronto and Baltimore. And they still need a bat. They'd do well to engage the Arizona Diamondbacks on Stephen Drew and the Marlins on Hanley Ramirez.

Big start Monday night in Chicago for Francisco Liriano, who is on some radars as an alternative to the Hamels-Greinke-Dempster group. He is 3-4 with a 2.84 ERA in 10 starts since returning to the Minnesota Twins' rotation full-time, and has 25 strikeouts and four walks in his past two starts.

[Jeff Passan: Buy, sell or hold dilemma grips fringe teams as deadline nears]

The Chicago Cubs are asking enough for Dempster that teams are turning the conversations to Garza, and the Cubs are listening. Garza's Friday start against the St. Louis Cardinals may be pushed back, but he's hoping to avoid the disabled list.

The Minnesota Twins are listening on Justin Morneau, but are asking for a big-league player in return and for teams to take on Morneau's full contract (about $20 million through 2013).

Buyers are still waiting on the Phillies and Marlins to white-flag the season, slowing negotiations for the likes of Shane Victorino and Anibal Sanchez.

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