- Associated Press
Thursday, September 29, 2016

Sure, the Washington Nationals would love to lock up home-field advantage in the NL Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. What Dusty Baker is more concerned about is getting ready for the playoffs, and that includes having pitcher Joe Ross ready to go, whether that’s as a starter or reliever.

Working his way back from the disabled list, Ross stretched himself out to 90 pitches, although that only carried him through four innings on a dreary Thursday in a near-empty stadium, and the NL East champion Nationals beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 5-3, helped by Wilmer Difo’s first major league homer and Pedro Severino’s second.

“If it was up to me, I would have kept pitching. Same with last game, I would have kept going,” said Ross, who allowed one run and three hits in his third appearance since coming off the DL. “But obviously we have to make a steady progression to build me up for the playoffs, hopefully. So I guess that’s where we’re at. I just prolonged each at-bat more than I would have liked, which led to the early exit.”

His manager, Baker, sounded a more positive note.

“Ross was good,” Baker said. “Very good.”

It’s not yet clear what role Ross will have in the postseason. He could start Game 3 or Game 4 against the Dodgers. Or he could be used only in relief. Baker mentioned the possibility that the righty could be needed in long relief in Game 1 or Game 2 against the NL West champions.

“We’re just kind of playing it by ear,” Baker said.

Ross said pitching in Thursday’s occasional rain didn’t make things easy. Nor did the game’s opening at-bat, in which he was forced to throw 12 pitches before eventually walking Jean Segura.

With a long layoff until the Oct. 7 series opener against LA, Ross will throw bullpen sessions and wait to find out his what his job will be.

“I’m hoping I get the opportunity to start,” Ross said, “but that’s up to (the Nationals), obviously.”

Second baseman Difo and catcher Severino, both rookies, were in the lineup Thursday instead of Daniel Murphy (last started 12 days ago) and Wilson Ramos (out for the season), respectively.

Last in the NL West, Arizona has nothing at stake the rest of the way. The Nationals, meanwhile, cut their magic number for earning the higher seeding against Los Angeles to two.

Reliever Reynaldo Lopez (5-3) was credited with the win. He pitched 3 2/3 innings, letting up Socrates Brito’s two-run homer in the ninth before being lifted.

Mark Melancon got the last two outs for his 45th save.

Robbie Ray (8-15) allowed five runs in 4 2/3 innings, including solo shots by Severino in the third and Difo in the fifth, along with Michael A. Taylor’s two-run single in the fourth.

Segura left in the seventh because of cramps.  Diamondbacks right fielder Yasmany Tomas was a late scratch from the starting lineup because of a stiff neck he got from sleeping awkwardly on a hotel pillow.

For the Nationals, Murphy (glute muscle) and right fielder Bryce Harper (left thumb) sat out again. Baker said he expects to get Murphy back in the starting lineup for Game 1 of the NLDS. Murphy last began a game on Sept. 17. Harper, meanwhile, was out of the lineup for a fourth consecutive day, but mainly as a precaution.

The Nationals’ final regular-season series begins Friday against visiting Miami. Righty A.J. Cole (1-2, 5.09) is slated to pitch for Washington, but he is waiting to hear the outcome of his appeal of a five-game suspension for throwing at a batter.

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