April 17, 2014

Caps clearout day provides more questions than answers

Washington Capitals Head Coach Adam Oates addressing media during Clear Out Day at Kettler, 4/14/2014 (Photo: Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Washington Capitals Head Coach Adam Oates addressing media during Clear Out Day at Kettler, 4/14/2014 (Photo: Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

The Washington Capitals conducted their clearout day and final media availabilities with the players on Monday, following the final day of the regular season, having been bounced unceremoniously from playoff contention with three games remaining on the schedule. None of the questions that were present before the day started had been answered before the day was over.

As in, who will be directing this organization going forward and who will be this team’s coach?

General Manager George McPhee is squarely on the hot seat. Head coach Adam Oates and his coaching staff’s status probably hinges on McPhee’s job security. On Monday, there was no resolution to the situation.

During the day, news that McPhee had met with owner Ted Leonsis and President Dick Patrick surfaced and that McPhee would not meet with the media during the day. But later, while the media was meeting with Mike Green, McPhee surfaced briefly, only to tell the assembled media that he would talk “in a couple of days.” It was a surreal sidebar to an already stressful day.

McPhee had no reason to appear in this instance, with the media already having been informed that he would not speak. Yet, here he was — very briefly — telling the media what we already knew and nothing more.

Never, in his 17 years, had McPhee not addressed the media on clearout day.

Later, when Oates was made available to the media, the head coach indicated that he had not spoken with McPhee or Leonsis yet, and that he did not have any indication of his continuing status with the team. He did indicate that should he be retained, he would return his entire coaching staff. Oates also said that though he had talked to a couple of players individually, he had not met with the team as a group since before Sunday’s finale and did not have formal exit interviews scheduled for any of the players, though he had hopes that would still happen.

“Some of the decisions are above me that have to be told, and I haven’t been told either way,” said Oates.

“I would say that me and my staff, we really enjoy coaching here, love coaching the guys. I feel that we’ve started a little process in terms of what we want from them in terms of how they’ve got to improve. We’ve got to improve,” Oates said. “Of course I want to coach the guys. But whatever happens, whatever’s best for the organization. That’s fine.”

Oates, for his part, answered every question directed his way by the assembled media in earnest. But as with McPhee, he’s twisting in the wind.

While Leonsis and Patrick contemplate the future of the franchise, both McPhee and Oates remain in limbo.

There are many ways this scenario can play out. The most obvious is the team is deliberating whether or not to retain McPhee and they needed some time after Monday’s initial meeting to decide. Another possibility is that McPhee was given the option of whether or not to return and it is he who is undecided. Yet another possibility is that the team has invited McPhee back with conditions — an assistant GM or executive between McPhee and team President Dick Patrick — and McPhee is deciding if that’s a situation he’d find tolerable.

But all of these scenarios are simply conjecture. We don’t know anything, much like how we went in. All that we know is McPhee met with Leonsis and Patrick, there is no resolution, and Oates hasn’t spoken with anyone about anything, including his players.

Opinion: Washington Capitals five biggest changes needed for 2014-15

The Washington Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. There wasn’t enough talent on hand, the talent available was mismanaged and there was discord between the front office and the on-ice staff. Missing the playoffs should finally be motivation to make the changes necessary for the Caps to truly contend for the Stanley Cup.

Here are the five biggest changes needed by the Caps as they enter what could be offseason full of change and drama.

1) Settle the General Manager and coaching situations.

It’s widely rumored that GM George McPhee’s contract expires following the NHL Draft. Adam Oates has another year on his contract. There’s plenty of evidence (Martin Erat, Dustin Penner, Dmitry Orlov, the goaltending situation, Tom Wilson) that McPhee and Oates’ talent evaluation doesn’t mesh. Somewhere between Ted Leonsis, President Dick Patrick and McPhee, the Caps need to decide who’s going to be in charge of this latest reboot. [By the time you read this on Monday, changes may already have been made.]

Oates’ insistence on players skating on their strong side has handicapped the organization. He’s tried to switch wingers to center (Martin Erat, Eric Fehr) and centers to wingers (Mikhail Grabovski). He played the world’s greatest goal scorer with Jay Beagle as his center on purpose. He’s banished players that were traded for by McPhee to the point of rendering them useless. His systems are indecipherable. In short, the Caps have been a disaster on the ice, much less than the sum of their parts. That falls on Oates.

McPhee is far from blameless. In fact, the collection of defensemen McPhee provided for Oates to employ this season was embarrassing, After the top combo of Karl Alzner and John Carlson, every single defenseman the Caps played this year was flawed. Mike Green isn’t nearly the offensive weapon he was during his back-to-back Norris Trophy finalist days. He still drives play, but his defensive shortcomings and gaffes often lead to bad goals. Orlov is a work in progress — talented, but raw and impetuous. The rest simply aren’t yet, or are no longer, NHL caliber. And it’s been like that the entirety of Ovechkin’s illustrious career. That falls on McPhee.

Either or both could be replaced for 2014-15, and it’s imperative the Capitals figure it out before the draft.

2) Seriously upgrade the defense.

People have said for years the Caps need a “stay-at-home” defenseman, responsible for shutting down opponents’ top lines. But the problem lies deeper than that. The Alzner/Carlson duo are good, but not great. They are a No. 1 pairing in name only. That results in a trickle-down effect. The Caps have some young talent (Orlov, Connor Carrick, Patrick Wey, Madison Bowey), but only Orlov is really close enough to the NHL level to contribute meaningfully next season, despite the experience Carrick gained this season.

The Capitals need to acquire 2-3 legitimate NHL defensemen, including a puck mover. If they can acquire a true top-pairing defenseman — probably via trade — they should do all they can to make that happen, then fill in the other spots with veteran free agents.

3) Improve play at 5v5.

The Caps were one of the worst teams in the league in puck possession, and has gotten consistently worse throughout Oates’ tenure. The team is lackadaisical and sloppy in its own end, the breakouts are unorganized, team defense suffers from lack of structure and focus, not to mention talent level.

One of the biggest problems for the Caps is one of the simplest: attempting to exit their own zone with the puck. Oates and Calle Johansson have instructed the defensemen to get rid of the puck within a second and a half of gaining possession. The idea is that if the puck is being passed, the defensemen aren’t putting themselves in danger of having their head separated from their bodies. While those instructions might have provided better health for some of their blueliners, it also neutralizes much of what makes those players effective.

Mike Green, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov — hell, even Jack Hillen — are puck-moving defensemen. McPhee drafted or obtained these players with the idea that these guys are strong skaters and can carry the puck out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone, therefore setting up the offense.

But Oates’ and Johansson’s instructions to chip the puck to the neutral zone has instead stymied the offense. Wingers now have to battle for pucks in the neutral zone instead of setting up the attack. Instead of even attempting “dump and chase”, the Caps end up playing “dump and change”, so tired from fighting puck battles that they have to dump and go for a line change.

Either the players or the system has to change.

4) Reduce the team’s salary burden ever further.

McPhee did a great job at the trade deadline to reduce the Caps salary constraints next season by dealing Martin Erat and Michal Neuvirth. He — or whoever will be in charge — should go even further by buying out Brooks Laich (pending health) and/or trading Mike Green.

The Caps already have a good deal of cap space next season, currently $14.2 million. But Laich accounts for $4.5 million against the cap and Green’s hit is a staggering $6.083 million. Neither player is anywhere near what they were when they signed the deals.

Laich was — emphasis was — a 20-goal scoring two-way player. He was equally adept on the power play as he was on the penalty kill. He could fill a center or winger role on a scoring or checking line. But a groin injury sustained while playing abroad during the lockout has destroyed his past two seasons. When he has been able to take the ice, he’s been completely ineffective.

Green was — emphasis was — a two-time Norris Trophy candidate. He possessed singular skill at the position, producing back-to-back 70 point seasons. But again, accumulation of injury (concussions, groin, shoulder) has reduced Green to a shell of the player he once was. His nine goal, 29 assist season wasn’t bad, but the production pales in comparison to the expectation — or paycheck.

Buying out Laich and trading Green would free up another $10 million plus against the cap, giving the Capitals even more flexibility to go about rebuilding this team.

5) Inspire and motivate Alex Ovechkin — or trade him.

Alex Ovechkin is the most valuable asset the Washington Capitals possess. He registered 51 goals in 13-14, but had one 5v5 goal in the last two dozen games. Some of that has to do with Oates’ curious choices for his linemates, some of it was the result of the Caps’ systems, and some of it lies with Ovechkin himself.

His revitalization the past two seasons has occurred on the strength of the Caps prodigious power play. But the team’s inability to drive play at 5v5 has crippled any chance of this team to be successful. While Ovechkin has never played defense with the enthusiasm he utilizes on offense, at times this season he showed open disdain playing in his own end.

Ovechkin himself said the team pays him to score goals. That much is true. But it also pays him to sell tickets and the brand. And he can’t do that cruising through the neutral zone while his man streaks through the slot en route to another goal. This organization has to find a way to motivate Ovechkin to at least make consistent effort in playing defense. He doesn’t even have to be good at it. But as the captain of the team, he at least has to look like he’s trying.

At this point, Ovechkin is part of the problem. No, he isn’t going to be confused for a Selke finalist. But as captain, he needs to be more involved in all aspects of the game. He needs to show effort in every facet of his game. He needs to be a leader. It’s always been said that Ovechkin is a “lead by example” type of leader. Right now, the example he’s setting to Evgeny Kuznetsov and other young players is that defense and accountability doesn’t matter — that he’s above the rules. That’s not acceptable.

It’s simply not enough for Ovechkin to score 50 goals for this team. If it was, they’d have won multiple Cups by now as Ted Leonsis promised they would. If Ovechkin isn’t able or willing to invest the requisite effort to provide a better example to follow, then the organization should seriously consider trading him to a team where he wouldn’t have to carry that burden.

Washington Nationals Game 12 Review: Nats blasted by Braves 10-2

The Washington Nationals would just as soon forget about the past weekend and get the heck out of Atlanta.

For the third day in a row, the Atlanta Braves took charge early and knocked off the visiting Nats. On Sunday, the Braves scored six run off Gio Gonzalez in the first two innings and cruised to a 10-2 win.

Gonzalez (L, 2-1, 3.50) gave up six earned runs on nine hits and four walks, striking out six. Atlanta scored three runs in both the first and second innings, including Justin Upton’s fourth home run of the season in the first inning, and Freddie Freeman’s fourth of the season in the second. Upton went 8-for-10 with two homers and five RBIs in the three-game sweep.

Gonzalez gutted out another four innings, going six total. Ross Detwiler took over in the seventh, and promptly allowed four more runs — through just two were earned — on two hits and a walk, and Andrelton Simmons’ first homer of the season.

The Nats got a run in the fifth inning. Kevin Frandsen doubled to lead off, took third on Danny Espinosa’s bunt single, and scored on Jose Lobaton’s ground out.

Adam LaRoche homered in the ninth inning off reliever Gus Schlosser.

The Nats move to Miami to face the Marlins on Monday. Jordan Zimmermann (0-0, 8.10) takes on Brad Hand (0-0, 3.24) at 7:10 pm.

Washington Capitals Game 82 Recap: All over but the crying

The Washington Capitals fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning 1-0, in a shootout naturally, ending their season in what most folks would consider a premature manner. It was the 21st time this season that a Caps game ended in a shootout, an NHL record. That, in itself, says a lot about this team this season.

If you polled people across the NHL this preseason, most would have accepted the idea of the Capitals qualifying for the playoffs. I don’t think anyone expected them to be serious Cup contenders, but even with the move to the Metropolitan Division, this team on paper seemed to have enough talent to survive to the second season.

But they don’t play hockey on paper, they play on ice. And this season, the Washington Capitals weren’t good enough on the ice.

There’s a large segment of fans in any fan base, but they seem more vocal here, that believes any time their team isn’t successful they aren’t trying hard enough, or they don’t “want it” enough. They equate poor play with desire. But that’s very rarely the case. Modern professional athletes are highly-driven, highly-motivated individuals.

At the very least, these players are motivated to achieve the highest success their talent can carry them to.

This season’s failures weren’t about motivation or desire. It was about talent, and mismanagement of that talent. It was about players playing out of position — intentionally. It was about a difference in philosophies between the general manager and the head coach. It was about carrying three goalie for a month and a half. It was about performance — or lack thereof – on the ice.

So while we wait to see what changes are made at Kettler this week, next week, over the offseason, the only thing for certain now is that the Washington Capitals were simply not good enough on the ice to qualify for the playoffs this season, which should provide all the motivation the organization needs to make the necessary changes to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

Washington Capitals Game 81 Recap: Caps dump Blackhawks 4-0 in meaningless exhibition

In a completely meaningless hockey game at the end of a lost season, the Washington Capitals defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 4-0 before a less-than capacity crowd at the Verizon Center Friday night. That the Blackhawks had nothing to play for other than not getting any more injured than they already are speak a lot to the final score of the contest.

Jaroslav Halak made 33 saves in the shutout.

The Caps got going early in the first period. Just 1:03 in, Marcus Kruger went off for a holding penalty. 1:01 into the power play, John Carlson slid the puck to Alex Ovechkin in his normal spot in the left wing faceoff circle and as he’s done so many times before, Ovechkin buried it past Corey Crawford, registering his 51st goal of the season.

A few minutes later, Dmitry Orlov’s shot from the point was knocked down, redirected right to Jay Beagle, alone on the right post. Beagle calmly knocked it to the back of the net for his third of the season and the Caps had a two-goal lead before the half-way point of the first period.

On the next shift, Joel Ward sprung loose on a breakaway and beat Crawford stick-side, but his shot rang off the post.

The Capitals made it 3-0 just 1:19 into the second period. Ovechkin handed the puck to Nick Backstrom and the Swede sent a shot from an almost impossibly tight angle past Crawford for his 18th goal of the campaign.

They tacked on another one with 3:44 left in the frame. Beagle, again on the doorstep, banged home a pass from Jason Chimera from behind the goal for his second of the game, and his first multi-goal game of his career.

The Capitals conclude the 2013-14 season Sunday when they host the Tampa Bay Lightning, at which point a critical offseason will commence.

Nats Nightly for April 10: Strasburg Ks 12, Desmond’s slam leads to 7-1 win over Marlins

Dave Nichols of District Sports Page and Patrick Reddington of Federal Baseball discuss the Washington Nationals 7-1 win over the Miami Marlins, finishing a three-game sweep before they head off for a three-game weekend series with the Atlanta Braves.

Discover Baseball Internet Radio with District Sports Page Nats Nightly on BlogTalkRadio

Washington Nationals Game 9 Review: Strasburg dominates, Desmond slams as Nats sweep Marlins 7-1

DESMOND’S SLAM IN THE EIGHTH PROVIDES CUSHION FOR 7TH WIN OF THE SEASON

The Washington Nationals burned through their long-men Wednesday night after starter Jordan Zimmermann managed just five outs. On Thursday afternoon, Stephen Strasburg bailed his beleaguered bullpen out, tossing a masterful 6 2/3 innings as the Nats played a tightly contested game for eight innings until Ian Desmond’s grand slam in the eighth inning opened the flood gates to a 7-1 win for the Nats before 20,869 at Nationals Park.

It was just the performance manager Matt Williams needed from the nominal ace of his rotation. Strasburg finished with 12 strikeouts, the 13th time in his career he has K’d more than 10 batters in a game. He threw 71 of his 98 pitches for strikes and struck out Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton twice, putting his newly developed slider to good use.

The Nats went up 2-0 in the third. With one out, Anthony Rendon drew a walk from Marlins starter Tom Koehler. Jayson Werth then clubbed a 1-0 pitch into the Marlins bullpen for his second home run of the season — and second in as many days.

From there, it was all Strasburg. The big righty plowed through the Miami batting order, generating strikeouts and ground outs with equal ease. Strasburg recorded 13 straight outs, including six Ks, between Derek Dietrich’s fielder’s choice in the first and Ian Desmond’s error on a grounder in the fifth.

Strasburg then struck out six of his last 10 batters faced. But a homer allowed to Marcel Ozuna in the seventh, followed two batters later by a walk to catcher Jeff Mathis, signaled the end of his day. Strasburg struck out 12 total in 6 2/3 innings with one walk and three hits allowed.

Jerry Blevins came on and retired pinch-hitter Reed Johnson following the walk to Mathis. He struck out lefties Christian Yelich and Derek Dietrich to start the eighth inning, and Williams then called upon rookie Aaron Barrett to face Stanton. Barrett fed Stanton slider after slider until the hulking slugger finally swung through for strike three.

The Marlins turned to Arquimedes Caminero in the bottom half of the inning, but the Nats battered the reliever. Rendon led off with a double, followed by a single from Werth. Adam LaRoche grounded out to first with the infield drawn in, but Caminero then walked Kevin Frandsen and Bryce Harper — the second forcing in the Nats third run.

Ian Desmond then delivered the big blow, a clout to the Red Porch for the Nats second Grand Slam of the series to make it 7-1.

NATS NOTES: Rendon’s eighth inning double extended his hitting streak to nine games, the longest such streak to begin a season for the Washington Nationals.

 

 

Washington Capitals eliminated from playoffs; Plenty of blame to go around

Wednesday night, the Washington Capitals were officially eliminated from playoff contention. There will be no second season when the 2013-14 regular season concludes on Sunday. It’s the first time since 2007-08 the Caps haven’t taken part in the tournament for Lord Stanley’s Cup. It’s a drastic, severe and unexpected wake up call to the entre organization: the status quo is no longer good enough.

There have been plenty of pixels generated already — enough to kill a virtual forest — about the demise of this once-proud franchise. Most articles try to isolate the single determining factor contributing to the Caps missing out on this year’s playoffs.

But there’s plenty of blame to go around.

We can start back in 2010, when the Caps were bounced form the first round of the playoffs by Jaroslav Halak and his teammates with the Montreal Canadiens. It was the result of that playoff series loss that general manager George McPhee and then-head coach Bruce Boudreau allowed the Canadian media to dictate how the Caps should play. It was, in effect, the beginning of the end of this franchise’s identity.

Boudreau tried to instill a hybrid of his high-flying offense with the left wing trap, and it was a disaster. It was akin to asking a thoroughbred to pull a plow. The team was disjointed and distracted, and eventually Boudreau paid for his indecisiveness with his job. He said later, while coach of the Anaheim Ducks, that it was the biggest mistake of his coaching career, allowing others to influence how he should coach his players.

McPhee went overboard, bringing in Caps Mt. Rushmore member Dale Hunter to take the helm. Hunter had terrific experience guiding major juniors with the London Knights, but had no NHL coaching experience whatsoever. He promised a balanced system between offense and defense, but no such thing happened.

Hunter’s ultra-conservative approach and lack of tact and communication with his players led to a practical revolution. For Hunter’s part, he bolted the minute the team was bounced after a second-round loss to the New York Rangers after playing three months of coin-flip hockey.

Enter Adam Oates. Oates came to town promising to fix the power play and reinvigorate Caps superstar Alex Ovechkin. He succeeded in both, but little else.

Oates got a pass during the lockout season, but even after a full training camp and full season under Oates’ tutelage (along with first-time NHL assistants Calle Johansson, Blaine Forsythe and Olie Kolzig), it’s still almost impossible to decipher Oates’ systems.

The Caps were mired all season on the wrong side of possession metrics. Their breakouts resembled little more than defensemen — instructed to carry the puck no longer than two seconds at a time — chipping the puck to the neutral zone and hoping the forwards could recover loose pucks. The idea of “dump and chase” became “dump and change” as the Caps spent too much time getting out of their own end all they could once they did so was to go for a line change.

Meanwhile, Oates, buoyed by the success Ovechkin was having nominally playing right wing, insisted playing wingers and defensemen on their natural wings, to the detriment of many. He exiled top-six forwards Martin Erat and Dustin Penner – traded for valuable assets — to fourth line duty, driving Erat out of town in less than a season and neutralizing any benefit Penner might have brought to a playoff chase.

The team carried three goaltenders for six weeks over the winter, turning to untested minor leaguer Philipp Grubauer for a long stretch, completely ignoring Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby at times. Eventually, Neuvirth was shipped out unceremoniously at the trade deadline and alienated Holtby, who should be this franchise’s future between the pipes.

All the while, the defensive crew McPhee gave Oates to work with was not up to NHL caliber. The team shuttled AHL journeymen, over-the-hill has-beens and teenagers through the defensive ranks all season long. Rookie winger Tom Wilson made the team, but was relegated to less-then-fourth line minutes, averaging fewer than eight minutes a night, often doing little than punching and getting punched while burning a year off his ELC.

It’s so bad, last week when Alex Ovechkin notched his fifth 50-goal season, it was little more than a footnote — or a punchline — instead of something to celebrate as the “Great 8″ has been a victim of scorn all season as the only man to lead the league in goals and plus/minus as pundits conveniently ignore the fact that Ovechkin’s linemates have a shooting percentage lower than four percent.

And as for that infamously negative plus/minus, Ovechkin has done himself no favors being lax on defense to the point of gliding thought the neutral zone while his man streaked into the slot to score last week. Ovechkin remains engaged and motivated in the offensive end of the ice. In his own end, it’s a crapshoot between distracted and outright contempt for defense at times.

Where’s the joy of the gap-toothed superstar leaping into the glass after a goal, or wearing an oversized floppy hat and sunglasses in an NHL All-Star skills competition. We haven’t seen many glimpses of that Ovi around here for quite some time. He may never be back.

We haven’t even mentioned Ovechkin and his Russian teammates’ spectacular failure on their home ice in the Olympics, or Nicklas Backstrom’s “doping” scandal, where his team-prescribed allergy medicine got him embarrassingly dumped from Team Sweden’s gold medal game.

Like I said, plenty of blame to go around.

Where do they go from here?

Well, following Sunday’s season-capper against Tampa Bay, it will not be surprising to hear that the Caps expect to replace the entire coaching staff, or at least the head coach and defensive coordinator. In addition, the ownership and executive committee may very well want to relieve McPhee of his duties — if McPhee, who is rumored to be in the final year of his contract anyway, even wants to return.

Owner Ted Leonsis famously said once this team, this organization, was built to contend for multiple Stanley Cups — that it was only a matter of time. Time is running out. The Caps this year wasted another year of the primes of Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom. A new coach or new GM may decide that Ovechkin is part of the problem. Wanting to put a new stamp on the organization — especially if the new regime is bent on a disciplined system — Ovechkin could very possibly be shipped out as well.

At this point, nothing is off the table. This is a franchise at a crossroads. The next week or two could bring many changes to an organization that has tried to maintain a status quo of making the playoffs and taking their shots, but eventually bowing out before many thought they would — or should.

Stay tuned. Things could actually get worse before they get better.

Nats Nightly for April 9: Werth’s slam caps crazy 10-7 win over Marlins

Dave Nichols of District Sports Page and Patrick Reddington of Federal Baseball discuss the Washington Nationals crazy 10-7 win over the Miami Marlins.

Listen To Baseball Internet Radio Stations with District Sports Page Nats Nightly on BlogTalkRadio

Washington Nationals Game 8 Review: Werth’s slam in eighth wins crazy game with Marlins, 10-7

Crazy game.

The Washington Nationals fell behind 5-0 after a stalwart starter got lit up. They clawed back to take the lead in the middle innings. A former 40-save closer gave up a mammoth homer in the seventh to fall behind again. Then, in the bottom of the eighth, the Nats hairy guru made the Miami Marlins pay for intentionally loading the bases.

Jayson Werth clubbed a 1-0 pitch into the visitor’s bullpen in left center for his first home run of the season, a grand slam that delivered the Nats a 10-7 win in one of the craziest games we’ll see all season long.

For starters it wasn’t Jordan Zimmermann’s night. The righty struggled with location and pitch count all night long. He gave up a single to leadoff hitter Christian Yelich and walked second baseman Derek Dietrich. Giancarlo Stanton followed with a run-scoring single and Dietrich moved up to third. Garrett Jones brought Dietrich home with a sacrifice fly to center to make it 2-0 before most folks had settled into their seats.

The second inning was worse. Adeiny Hechavarria lead off with a triple to the left center gap and scored on Yelich’s single. Dietrich then sent a ball that landed in the first row of bleachers above the out-of-town scoreboard in right center before falling back to the field of play. It was ruled a triple on the field, but after review Dietrich was sent home, correctly having been awarded his first home run of the season.

After singles by Jones and Casey McGehee, Zimmermann was done. He was yanked after 1 2/3 innings — his shortest stint as a big league starter. He allowed five runs, all earned, on seven hits and two walks, striking out one.

Marlins’ starter Brad Hand cruised until the fourth inning. Adam LaRoche continued his hot streak, singling to lead off, and Ryan Zimmerman followed with a single. After Ian Desmond struck out, Bryce Harper battled through a 10-pitch at bat, culminating in an absolute moonshot – three rows back in the upper tank in straight-away right field. It was Harper’s first home run of the year.

The Nats clawed their way back to one in the fifth. Anthony Rendon tripled to right field with one out and scored a batter later on Werth’s ground out. Washington completed the comeback in the next frame. Zimmerman doubled to the right field corner over Stanton’s head. The big right fielder bobbled the ball in the corner, allowing Zimmerman to move up to third. Ian Desmond’s swinging bunt brought Zimmerman home and all hands were safe.

Harper followed with a single the other way off lefty Dan Jennings to put runners at the corners, still with no outs. Jose Lobaton tapped a comebacker to Jennings, but the reliever fumbled the ball — Desmond scored to make it 6-5 and Lobaton rumbled safely to first on the E-1. Span singled to load the bass with one out, but Arquimedes Caminero came on to get Rendon and Werth to fly out to end the rally.

Drew Storen came on for the seventh and was rudely greeted, as Jerrod Saltalamacchia blasted a shot to dead center to tie it that was every bit as impressive as Harper’s was earlier.

But this game was far from over. The Marlins called upon Carlos Marmol for the eighth inning, and the Nats made them pay for that decision.

Pinch-hitter Nate McLouth was hit with a one-out fastball and went to third on Denard Span’s bunt single and error on the throw by Derek Dietrich, playing his first MLB game at third base. The Marlins walked Rendon intentionally to set up force plays everywhere with bases loaded, but Jayson Werth wouldn’t have any of it. Werth ripped a 1-0 pitch into the visitor’s bullpen for his first homer of the season, a Grand Slam that gave the Nats a comfortable 10-7 lead.

It STILL wasn’t over. Rafael Soriano put two runners on in the ninth to make sure any fingernails left did not go unchewed, but struck out two to eventually nail down one of the nuttiest wins we’re going to witness in 2014.

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