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Banged-up Nationals struggling to keep home-field advantage for NLDS

WASHINGTON -- The good news for the Washington Nationals? They've already clinched the NL East. The bad news? Pretty much everything else. At least that's how it seems these days.

On Tuesday, the Nats received another dose of downer data when All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos' MRI confirmed he suffered a torn ACL in Monday's 14-4 loss to Arizona and is out for the season. Losing Ramos is simply the latest blow for a Washington squad that, lately, has received more blows than a breathalyzer on New Year's Eve.

Before September, for the most part, the Nationals had managed to avoid the injury bug that bit them early, often and hard last year, when they were preseason favorites to go to the World Series but finished with a disappointing 83-79 record. But earlier this month, All-Star hurler Stephen Strasburg hit the DL with a strained flexor mass that could prevent him from pitching again this year. Last week, MVP candidate Daniel Murphy hit the shelf with a strained buttocks that has kept him out for the past five games. Then Sunday, reigning MVP Bryce Harper injured his thumb while sliding and has missed the past two contests, including the Nationals' 4-2 win over Arizona on Tuesday. Put it all together, and suddenly the Nationals are no longer a shoo-in to have home-field advantage when the NLDS kicks off next Friday.

Two weeks ago, the Nats, who have been on a collision course with the Dodgers for a while and are now officially lined up to face them in the division series, were 4 1/2 games up on L.A. This time last week, that cushion was down to three games. Heading into Tuesday's action, they were just a game up in the loss column and, following Monday's beatdown by the lowly D-backs, trending in the wrong direction. Before Tuesday's game, Nationals manager Dusty Baker was asked about the fine line between getting his guys healthy and getting the higher seed.

"That's a delicate balance, because you want home-field advantage, but you want your guys healthy at the same time," Baker said. "I like to say we'd like a little help from our friends so I can rest some guys. They are playing the Giants, who are still fighting for something, so they're going to play them tough. You look at different scenarios. You got to still play up to that point until we've iced this home-field advantage. That's what I'd like to try to do first."

Then Baker's club went out and helped the cause by beating Arizona for just their fourth win in the past 10 games. Not that the W came easy. Ace Max Scherzer allowed a lead-off homer to Jean Segura on the first pitch of the game and was hit hard, including five balls with an exit velocity of 100-plus mph in the first three innings, before settling down. Meanwhile, D-backs rookie Matt Koch, making his first big league start, didn't allow a hit to the Nats' patchwork lineup through five innings. But in the sixth, Anthony Rendon, filling in at the cleanup spot for, well, pretty much everyone, jacked a three-run homer to left-center that earned him a curtain call. More important, it put the Nats up for good and gave them some much-needed breathing room in the race for the NL's No. 2 seed.

"That's what we're playing for," said Scherzer, who notched his 19th win and set a Nats record for whiffs in a season with 277, one more than the previous record he set last year. "I know the 19 wins, yada, yada, yada, but the most important thing is the team wins. I would love to have Game 5 here at Nationals Park facing the Dodgers. In a short series, home-field advantage matters. We need to go out and get hot and get moving in the right direction and take care of home-field advantage, because it's ours to lose."