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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Adam Wainwright is rounding back into the shape the St. Louis Cardinals have become accustomed to from their ace.

Wainwright posted his 19th win, pitching a shutout Wednesday night as the Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers 2-0 to hold their 2 1/2-game edge in the NL Central.

It was his fourth consecutive win after a dreadful August during which he lost four of six starts and had a 5.17 ERA.

“For a long while I wasn’t very good,” he said. “It was good to be back making pitches when I need to.”

Wainwright (19-9) worked around seven hits and tied for the major league lead in wins and shutouts.

St. Louis has won four of five and kept its advantage over second-place Pittsburgh. Milwaukee dropped 2 1/2 games behind the Pirates for the second NL wild-card spot.

It was the second time in less than two weeks Wainwright went the distance against Milwaukee. He gave up one run to the Brewers in a 9-1 victory on Sept. 7 at Miller Park.

“I would say that was an impressive pitching performance,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. “He had everything and then when you watch the ninth and see 95 pop up there and you realize that this guy still had a lot in the tank.”

Mike Fiers (6-3) held the Cardinals hitless until Wainwright singled up the middle with two outs in the sixth. It was Fiers’ first start since beaning Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton last week, ending his season.

Fiers said he needed to forget about hitting Stanton in order to help his team.

“Obviously, everyone knows what happened,” he said. “But we have games ahead of us, we have games to win, important games and this was an important one.”

Wainwright struck out seven and walked two in his ninth career shutout. He has thrown three shutouts this year, matching Detroit’s Rick Porcello and Miami’s Henderson Alvarez for most in the majors.

Wainwright and Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw are atop the majors in wins.

This was the Cardinals’ 21st shutout of the season, their most since 1968 when Bob Gibson and the rest of the staff had 30.

Fiers gave up one earned run and three hits in seven innings.

“Wainwright gave up more hits but he was able to pitch out of jams,” he said. “Pretty much the only jam I got into, they made the hits when they had to and they needed to. I needed to be better in that one inning, I wasn’t, so they capitalize.”

The Cardinals broke through in the seventh. After hit a drive that went about 3 feet wide of the foul pole, Matt Holliday walked with one out and reached third on Matt Adams’ single, continuing home when Gold Glove center fielder Carlos Gomez slipped and mishandled the hit for an error.

It appeared as if Holliday was about to stop at third before Gomez stumbled. Once third base coach Jose Oquendo saw the opening, he waved Holliday home to score the Cardinals’ first run in 17 innings.

“I don’t think that surprised anybody, either,” Matheny said. “He was able to turn it back up. When we’re not getting things going, we’ve got to try and make things happen.”

Jhonny Peralta singled home Adams.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Cardinals: RHP Michael Wacha, whose last start was skipped after he struggled in his return from a shoulder injury, is scheduled to start Saturday against Cincinnati. In two starts this month, he pitched seven innings and had a 7.71 ERA. Wacha threw his third bullpen session since his last start on Wednesday and did enough to convince Matheny he was ready.

UP NEXT

Brewers: Kyle Lohse (12-9, 3.81 ERA) pitches Thursday night against the Cardinals. He has lost five of his past six decisions, including twice to St. Louis. In those two losses, in which he lasted four innings both times, Lohse gave up 14 runs on 13 hits, including four homers.

Cardinals: Shelby Miller (10-9, 3.75) has given up one earned run over 20 innings in three starts this month. He has won his past two decisions, following four consecutive no decisions. Miller won both of his starts against Milwaukee this season, giving up four runs in 12 innings.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) looks down after an incomplete pass against the Denver Broncos during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014, in Denver. (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) looks down after an incomplete pass against the Denver Broncos during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014, in Denver. (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The past two weeks, when the Kansas City Chiefs have struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone, Andy Reid has insisted that he needs to put his players in better position to succeed.

What happens when he puts the Chiefs in a bad position, though? Well, the Chiefs are paying quarterback Alex Smith a bunch of cash to get them out of it.

Smith said Wednesday that while his coach often takes responsibility for the shortcomings of the offense, the burden lies on the players to execute on the field. That means executing plays, making smart decisions with the ball and – at least for Smith – checking out of bad calls.

“He calls a play and it’s our job to go make it work regardless,” Smith said. “And it’s my job that not every call is going to be perfect – he’s not clairvoyant – and when he does get the right call, it’s my job to make the play.”

Through two weeks and two losses, that hasn’t happened enough.

Smith has thrown one touchdown pass against three interceptions, and his quarterback rating of 63.6 is last among 35 quarterbacks in the league. In fact, the guy ranked 34th just happens to be Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel, the very same guy who was released by the Chiefs when they acquired Smith in a trade from San Francisco prior to last season.

The sample size is small, of course. And the fact remains that Smith is coming off the finest year of his career, one that helped land him a four-year, $68 million contract extension.

But through two games, Smith is still trying to live up to his new deal.

He threw a pair of interceptions while the Chiefs were nearing the goal line in a season-opening loss to Tennessee, and the only touchdown that Kansas City scored came when the game was already out of reach. Then last week in Denver, the Chiefs had first-and-goal in the final minutes but were unable to punch into the end zone for a tying touchdown in a 24-17 defeat.

“It’s not where you hoped to be two weeks ago,” Smith acknowledged. “It’s a long season though. … The mentality is let’s win this week, put some things together and you never know.”

Reid and Smith have both come under fire for the way the Chiefs executed in Denver.

They had first-and-goal in the third quarter and wound up going backward. Smith misfired on five straight passes, one of which was bailed out by a Denver penalty. But after a sack and a hold on the Chiefs, Cairo Santos was forced to attempt a 37-yard field goal that he missed.

Then the debacle in the fourth quarter, one that cost the Chiefs a chance at overtime.

On first down at the 9-yard line, Knile Davis was stuffed for a 2-yard gain. On second down, Smith completed a 3-yard pass to Donnie Avery. After a penalty gave the Chiefs a second chance on third down, Davis was stuffed for no gain going up the middle from the Denver 2.

It wasn’t until fourth down that Smith threw to the end zone. The pass never got there, harmlessly batted down at the line of scrimmage.

Reid quickly took ownership of the play-calling on both failed series, but Smith came to his coach’s defense on Wednesday. The veteran quarterback insisted that he has the latitude to check out of plays that he thinks may not work; otherwise, it’s on him to execute them.

“He does a good job of that. I think you see that on the field,” Reid said. “Coaches aren’t on the field, so you need someone who has a grasp of everything. That’s one of his real strengths. He gets people lined up if they have a little bit of a slip and he fixes issues.”

Will he be able to fix the Chiefs’ red-zone blues?

The next opportunity comes Sunday in Miami.

“Coach does put it upon himself, takes a lot of accountability, and I think as players we see that and really respect that,” Smith said. “But at the same time, we have to make plays.”

FILE - In this Sept. 14, 2014, file photo, St. Louis Rams strong safety T.J. McDonald, left, comes in to block a punt by Tampa Bay Buccaneers punter Michael Koenen (9) during the second quarter of an NFL football game in Tampa, Fla. McDonald had two blocked kicks in the game.  (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

FILE – In this Sept. 14, 2014, file photo, St. Louis Rams strong safety T.J. McDonald, left, comes in to block a punt by Tampa Bay Buccaneers punter Michael Koenen (9) during the second quarter of an NFL football game in Tampa, Fla. McDonald had two blocked kicks in the game. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

ST. LOUIS (AP) — T.J. McDonald remembers Mike Evans moaning on the turf after the game-ending hit in the St. Louis Rams’ first victory of the season. The second-year safety also will remember it as the biggest play of all on a day to remember.

Besides making the play that led to a 10-second runoff that cleared the clock and prevented a winning field goal attempt in a 19-17 victory at Tampa Bay on Sunday, McDonald blocked a field goal and punt. He’s the first Rams player to do that since 1979, and he also had nine tackles.

McDonald said he wasn’t trying to hurt the Tampa Bay wide receiver, but did not deny the crunching hit that kept Evans down long enough was satisfying. Whatever Evans was saying, McDonald said it wasn’t “words exactly.”

“I heard him on the ground, he was making some noises and stuff, so I knew it wasn’t good,” McDonald told The Associated Press Wednesday. “That was a good feeling, to make sure that ended the game.

“Not to hurt him, but to end the game on a big hit. Let’s just say we took care of that.”

Evans was aware of the runoff rule that prevents players from faking injuries and that ended the game at the St. Louis 32. He was trying to get off the field and a teammate had pulled him off the turf when the Buccaneers were whistled with eight seconds to go.

“I know all the guys are going to say the game wasn’t lost on one play,” Long said. “But to me, I’m the guy that could have changed that.”

Fisher made a subtle contribution to the sudden finish, killing precious extra seconds before Greg Zuerlein’s go-ahead 38-yard field goal with 38 seconds to go. The play clock was down to 2 seconds when Fisher called a timeout.

If Zuerlein would have kicked earlier, a 10-second runoff probably would have given the Buccaneers enough time to try for a winning field goal.

McDonald leads the Rams with 17 tackles this season and started 10 games last season, missing time in midseason with a broken leg. Besides making a smooth transition from USC to the NFL, he’s been a natural on special teams.

He blocked a kick each of his last three seasons in college – and told teammate William Hayes he was going to get a hand on rookie Patrick Murray’s 24-yard field goal attempt before the snap. The kick at the start of the fourth quarter would have put the Buccaneers up 17-13.

On the field goal defensive unit, rookie E.J. Gaines lines up wide left and McDonald is next followed by Hayes. McDonald told Hayes if he was able to grab a Tampa Bay player’s arm, “I’ll get through there.”

“I could tell there was a weakness there, and it opened up for me,” McDonald said. “Having Will Hayes inside me, that’s not a bad thing.”

McDonald also is the second man on the left side on punt defense, also next to Hayes. He came in clean with another nice assist by Hayes late in the second quarter. It led to a field goal by Greg Zuerlein that put the Rams up 10-7 at the half.

“We practice it every day,” McDonald said. “We practice it all the time, and it was there for me.”

Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith knew how large McDonald loomed in this one.

“You lose games when you have a field goal that’s blocked when you’re going to put three points on the board,” Smith said. “When you have a punt that’s blocked and they score, that’s when you lose.”

McDonald Is among several starters also used on special teams. He enjoys it, considering them more snaps on defense and more chances to make an impact.

“I work my butt off on defense to get into that fourth down, whether it’s a punt or holding them to a field goal,” McDonald. “I might as well finish that.

“That’s the way I see that.”

St. Louis Rams quarterback Austin Davis (9) tries to escape the grasp of Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end William Gholston (92) during the first quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

St. Louis Rams quarterback Austin Davis (9) tries to escape the grasp of Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end William Gholston (92) during the first quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Stedman Bailey emerged as a consistent threat late in his rookie season and the St. Louis Rams anticipate plugging the wide receiver back into the mix right away this weekend against Dallas.

Bailey served half of a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. He was at home in Miami when he learned about the agreement on a new policy and took the first plane out Wednesday, arriving in time for practice.

“First and foremost, it feels extremely good to be back here,” Bailey said. “The first two weeks it was a dreadful feeling for me, and I’m just happy it’s all over now.”

Bailey thought the new policy was more reasonable.

“I mean, the rules are the rules, we have to follow those rules,” Bailey said. “But at the same time it’s pretty helpful for a lot of guys where they’d be getting in some severe trouble and taken away from the game.”

Coach Jeff Fisher said Bailey was eager to return to the fold and had no rust. Bailey could replace former West Virginia teammate Tavon Austin, who injured his right knee in Sunday’s victory at Tampa Bay.

“His teammates were really excited,” Fisher said. “He came running into the building as fast as he could.”

Austin was wearing a brace at practice.

“He’s better but he didn’t do anything today,” Fisher said. “Sted gives us some versatility.”

Bailey had two starts last year. He caught 17 passes for 226 yards and had seven special teams tackles.

“We’ll plug him in on his familiar roles on special teams and see how he does for the offense,” Fisher said.

The Rams released defensive lineman Matt Conrath earlier this week in anticipation of activating Bailey. Conrath was re-signed to the practice squad and linebacker Kevin Reddick was released.

Quarterback Shaun Hill (left quadriceps) was limited and Fisher said backup Austin Davis took virtually all of the first-team snaps. Fisher said Hill could get more work Thursday but was noncommittal.

“Better and better every day, absolutely,” Hill said. “That’s about all I can say about it.”

The Rams have a bye after this week and could opt to hold out the 34-year-old Hill to give him plenty of time to recuperate. Hill is understandable anxious to return, giving his start against the Vikings was his first since 2010.

“That is something I struggled with, big time, originally when it happened,” Hill said. “It’s been hard for me to get on the field, especially the last few years.

“What can you do? You pick yourself back up and get yourself back as quick as you can.”

NEW YORK (AP) — The NFL finally will have HGH testing, perhaps as early as the end of this month.

And of more immediate impact – this weekend – the new performance-enhancing drug policy the league and players’ union agreed to Wednesday will allow the Broncos’ Wes Welker and two other suspended players to return to the field.

Welker, Dallas Cowboys defensive back Orlando Scandrick and St. Louis Rams wide receiver Stedman Bailey had been suspended for four games. All can return Sunday under the new rules in which players who test positive for banned stimulants in the offseason will no longer be suspended. Instead, they will be referred to the substance abuse program.

Players who test positive for banned stimulants during the season will continue to get four-game suspensions.

“I said it was flawed and we got it fixed,” said Welker, who tested positive for amphetamines in the offseason. “I think you know that just kind of goes to show it was flawed and it’s fixed now and we can move on from it.”

The league and union are also nearing an agreement on changes to the substance abuse policy. That could reduce Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon’s season-long ban.

Testing for HGH was agreed upon in 2011 when a new collective bargaining agreement ended the lockout of the players. But the players had balked at the science in the testing and the appeals process for positive tests. Under the new deal, appeals of positive tests in the PED program will be heard by third-party arbitrators jointly selected and paid for by the NFL and union. Appeals will be processed more expeditiously under altered procedures.

The new rules also change the length of suspensions. Previously, all first-time violations of the performance-enhancing drug policy resulted in at least a four-game suspension.

Now, use of a diuretic or masking agent will result in a two-game suspension. The punishment for steroids, in-season use of stimulants, HGH or other banned substances is four games. Evidence of an attempt to manipulate a test is a six-game suspension.

A second violation will result in a 10-game ban, up from a minimum of eight games. A third violation is at least a two-year suspension. Before, the ban was at least a year.

“We are talking about cleaning up our game and keeping a clean game,” Scandrick said Wednesday. “We are not cleaning up our game if we are suspending guys for stimulants and not testing guys for human growth hormones.”

Rams coach Jeff Fisher said he will use Bailey on special teams and probably as a wideout.

“It feels extremely good to be back here,” Bailey said. “The first two weeks it was a dreadful feeling for me and I’m just happy it’s all over now.”

Reps. Darrell E. Issa and Elijah E. Cummings, the chairman and ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chipped in with their approval of the HGH testing:

“This new HGH policy sends a clear message to NFL players, as well as student-athletes at the collegiate, high school, and youth levels, that HGH and other performance-enhancing drugs are highly dangerous and will not be tolerated in athletic competition,” they said in a statement.

JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) – Arkansas State University says the placement of crosses on the back of its football helmets as a memorial to two students this year was inappropriate.

In a letter to a law firm Wednesday, the school rejected a demand that it restore crosses bearing the initials of a player and equipment manager who died in the past year. It said, however, that players will be allowed to come up with their own way to remember Markel Owens and Barry Weyer.

Liberty Institute on Monday accused Arkansas State of violating the rights of students who wanted to honor the pair by wearing crosses on their uniforms.

The school said Wednesday that coaches helped develop the memorial without consulting lawyers, putting the school at odds with the U.S. Constitution and court rulings.

DAVIE, Fla. (AP) — Ryan Tannehill stood before the Miami Dolphins’ daily media throng Wednesday with a three-inch scratch on his neck, a large bandage over his knee and an audible bruise to his ego.

“I’m upset with myself at the way I’ve played,” he said. “The first two weeks were both bad. That’s not a good start. It’s huge to be able to bounce back and perform well.”

Tannehill will try to do so Sunday when the Dolphins (1-1) play host to Kansas City (0-2). He came into his third NFL season expecting to make big strides toward becoming a franchise quarterback, but instead he continues to be inaccurate, indecisive and inconsistent.

Tannehill ranks 29th in the league with a passer rating of 76.1, and the Dolphins rank last at 4.4 yards per pass play, sacks included.

“I haven’t been at my best,” Tannehill said. “It has got to change, and it has got to change fast. I look forward to going out Sunday and changing it.”

The Dolphins overcame a shaky performance by Tannehill in the opener, thanks in part to Knowshon Moreno’s 134 yards rushing. Tannehill was even worse Sunday in a 29-10 loss at Buffalo.

And with Moreno sidelined for at least a month because of an elbow injury, the Dolphins know they must get their passing game going.

There should be opportunities against the Chiefs (0-2), whose opponents have a passer rating of 126.9, highest in the league. Kansas City has allowed five touchdown passes and made no interceptions.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid had little to say Wednesday about the Dolphins’ passing game.

“I think they’ve got players and good coaches,” he said, “and I’ll just leave it at that.”

Tannehill acknowledged his accuracy has been an issue. His completion percentage of 60.5 is slightly above his career rate, but ranks only 28th in the league.

“I just haven’t been putting the ball in the right spot,” Tannehill said. “It boils down to being consistent with footwork.”

His inability to connect deep with Mike Wallace has carried over from last year, and Tannehill has missed his speedy teammate open deep four times. He has misfired on short passes too, resulting in incompletions or shorter-than-expected gains because the receiver couldn’t make the catch in stride.

“There’s no doubt Ryan would tell you it needs to improve,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “It’s what separates the great ones from the good ones from the barely there ones. It’s going to improve your run-after-the-catch as well as your completion percentage.”

Tannehill said he’s frustrated but not discouraged, and he remains confident.

“When you don’t make the play, you’re not happy with yourself. You look at it on tape and it doesn’t make you feel good inside,” he said. “But we’ve got a long season ahead of us. You flip it around and play well, and you start stringing good games together.”

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Lance Lynn throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Lance Lynn throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Lance Lynn held the Milwaukee Brewers in check for seven innings. The St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup was stopped cold after the first three hitters.

Manager Mike Matheny agreed that lack of offense was “part of the story” after a 3-2, 12-inning loss Tuesday night that sliced St. Louis’ NL Central lead to 2 1/2 games with 11 to go.

He blamed lefty Kevin Siegrist, too, for allowing Carlos Gomez to run wild.

“I’d say we gave some free bases, too,” Matheny said. “That’s the rest of the story.”

Gomez walked against Siegrist (1-4) with one out, stole second and third and scored the go-ahead run on a bloop hit by rookie Hector Gomez as the Brewers ended the Cardinals’ three-game winning streak.

Carlos said several times he was running on Siegrist, not All-Star catcher Yadier Molina.

Lynn worked seven strong innings, hurt only by Gerardo Parra’s homer in the fourth despite what he said was shaky control.

“As the game went on I got a little better,” Lynn said. “It was one of those things where you just have to get through it when you don’t have your best command, and I was able to do it.”

Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal gave up a tying sacrifice fly to rookie Matt Clark with the bases loaded in the ninth and was saddled with his sixth blown save in 50 chances. Rosenthal also was hurt by a walk to Jonathan Lucroy leading off the ninth.

“I thought the last couple times out he’s looked much better,” Matheny said. “He makes it look sometimes a whole lot easier than what it is.”

Siegrist was the Cardinals’ sixth pitcher and has a 6.30 ERA after giving up a run on one hit in the 12th. The lefty was nearly untouchable as a rookie for the National League champions last year, posting a 0.45 ERA.

Brandon Kintzler (3-3) got the last out in the 11th and Francisco Rodriguez closed for his 42nd save in 47 chances. The third-place Brewers have won five of six and are four games back of St. Louis, which has a 2 1/2-game lead on Pittsburgh with 11 to go.

Hector Gomez earned his first career RBI on a ball that dropped just out of the reach of first baseman Matt Adams in shallow right field. Hector Gomez scored tying run as a pinch runner in the ninth.

The Cardinals were blanked on four hits over the last 11 innings after jumping on Wily Peralta for two quick runs in the first.

St. Louis opened the first with three straight singles and Adams walked on a full count for an RBI, the last two pitches high and well out of the strike zone. A second run scored on a double-play ball by Jhonny Peralta, 2 for 15 with the bases loaded.

“You never want a bases-loaded double play,” Matheny said. “A pitcher like him having the season like he’s having, he’s not going to give up too much.”

Wily Peralta also went seven innings and gave up just two hits in the last six, finishing the year 3-1 with a 2.18 ERA against St. Louis.

The Brewers dropped three of four at home to St. Louis last week and are 7-10 overall against the Cardinals.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Cardinals: RHP Michael Wacha is scheduled to throw in the bullpen Wednesday. He missed his last turn due to ineffectiveness coming off the disabled list from a shoulder injury.

BIG CROWD

Paid attendance of 44,529 was the 47th sellout with five home games to go. Although there were hundreds of empty seats, the Cardinals have capitalized on the Ballpark Village development.

UP NEXT

Brewers: Mike Fiers (6-2, 1.84 ERA) makes his first start since hitting Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton in the face with a pitch last week. Fiers is 2-0 with a 1.31 ERA in five career games against St. Louis, two of them starts.

Cardinals: Adam Wainwright (18-9, 2.56) has won three straight starts, and he beat the Brewers with a complete game his last time out. Wainwright is 11-7 with a 2.43 ERA in his career against Milwaukee, and 2-1 with a 4.22 ERA in three starts this season.

Washington Nationals teammates run out onto the field to congratulate pitcher Drew Storen (22) and catcher Wilson Ramos after clinching the NL East division against the Atlanta Braves in a baseball game Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014, in Atlanta. Washington won 3-0. (AP Photo/David Tulis)

Washington Nationals teammates run out onto the field to congratulate pitcher Drew Storen (22) and catcher Wilson Ramos after clinching the NL East division against the Atlanta Braves in a baseball game Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014, in Atlanta. Washington won 3-0. (AP Photo/David Tulis)

ATLANTA (AP) — The Washington Nationals bounced up and down in unison near second base, not bothered at all by a smattering of boos from the crowd at Turner Field.

They were saving the real celebration for the clubhouse.

The Nationals wrapped up their second NL East title in three years against the team that knocked them out of the top spot last season, beating the Atlanta Braves 3-0 on Tuesday night.

Tanner Roark pitched five-hit ball over seven innings and Ian Desmond’s two-run homer broke a scoreless tie in the sixth, sending Washington back to the playoffs with nearly two weeks to spare.

“Nice to have it done,” said Washington first baseman Adam LaRoche, who began his career with the Braves. “The sooner, the better.”

In the clubhouse, the Nationals drenched each other — and pretty much anything that moved — with seemingly endless streams of beer. Lil Jon’s party anthem “Turn Down For What” boomed from the speakers. Bryce Harper, wearing goggles and a fire helmet with “34″ across the front, posed for selfies with his teammates.

“We want to keep going, keep winning ballgames,” Harper said.

The clinching victory was especially sweet coming against the Braves, who finished 10 games ahead of the Nationals in 2013. The roles were reversed this season as Washington steadily pulled away down the stretch.

The teams were tied for the lead as late as July 20.

It was no contest the rest of the way. The Nationals stretched the lead to a season-high 12 1/2 games with the victory.

“It’s just one step. There’s a long, hard road ahead of us,” Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth said. “But we’re going to enjoy the moment for now.”

Atlanta lost for the 11th time in 14 games, further damaging its hopes of making a third straight playoff appearance, this time as a wild card. The Braves dropped to 75-76 with their fifth straight loss, the first time they have been under .500 since losing on opening day.

“You never want anybody to celebrate on your field,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “But they did it professionally, I thought. I didn’t expect anything less from that organization.”

The Braves fell 5 1/2 games behind Pittsburgh for the second NL wild card with 11 games left in the regular season.

“We’ve still got a chance,” Gonzalez insisted. “Now we’ve got to set our sights on a winning streak and maybe we can come in with a second wild card.”

Roark (14-10) pitched around four leadoff singles by Atlanta, which never got a runner past second base. He struck out four and walked none, lifted after throwing 89 pitches. Tyler Clippard worked a scoreless eighth, and Drew Storen finished up for his seventh save.

The Nationals finally broke through in the sixth against Aaron Harang (11-11). After Werth led off with a walk, LaRoche took a called third strike before Harang worked the count to 2-2 on Desmond.

The next pitch was a breaking ball that stayed up in the zone. Desmond got all of it, sending a drive deep into the left-field seats for his 23rd homer. Left fielder Justin Upton barely moved, while Harang pumped his fist angrily on the mound.

“A curveball down the middle,” Desmond said. “It ended up going out of the ballpark.”

He scored Washington’s other run in the ninth, trotting home on David Carpenter’s wild pitch.

The Nationals will be making just the third playoff appearance in the franchise’s 46-year history. The club reached the postseason only once as the Montreal Expos (in 1981) before moving to Washington for the 2005 season.

Two years ago, the Nationals had a major league-leading 98 wins but were stunned by the St. Louis Cardinals in the deciding game of the NL division series. Washington jumped ahead 6-0 after three innings and still led 7-5 going to the ninth, only to give up four runs with two outs.

“We have a chance for redemption,” LaRoche said.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Nationals: Harper was back in the lineup after leaving Monday’s game in the third inning when he felt light-headed. Manager Matt Williams said Harper had a “little bit of the gunk” that seemed to be going around in the Washington clubhouse.

Braves: C Evan Gattis missed his eighth straight game since coming down with strep throat. Gonzalez said he doesn’t know when Gattis will be healthy enough to return.

UP NEXT

Nationals: LHP Gio Gonzalez (8-10) has won two of his three starts in September after going nearly two months without a win.

Braves: LHP Alex Wood (10-10) has lasted at least seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer in 12 of his 22 starts. Atlanta is 5-7 in those games.

A TRADITION LIKE NO OTHER

It was the 10th time the Braves have watched a visiting team celebrate a playoff victory or postseason-clinching win since moving to Turner Field in 1997.

BALTIMORE (AP) — Champagne was spraying all around him, and Dan Duquette couldn’t help but laugh at the mayhem he helped create.

The Orioles clinched their first AL East title since 1997 by beating Toronto 8-2 Tuesday night, and Duquette was right in the middle of a long overdue celebration in the Baltimore clubhouse.

“The guys are having a great time, and they earned it,” said Duquette, the team’s executive vice president of baseball operations. “We’ve got some more work to do, and these guys know it, but congratulations to them on the division crown. They did a great job.”

With their ninth win in 10 games, the Orioles clinched their second playoff appearance in three years following a run of 14 consecutive losing seasons.

After the final out, the Orioles converged behind second base. Fireworks soared in the outfield, while streamers and confetti sprayed throughout the boisterous crowd of 35,279.

The party continued in the clubhouse, where players wore goggles and smiles while covered in champagne and beer.

“It’s everything I hoped for, man. It’s an awesome experience,” said right fielder Nick Markakis, who experienced six of those losing seasons. “We worked hard all season long to get where we are now. We got one step out of the way. Now we have a couple more steps to go.”

It was Baltimore’s ninth AL East title, but only its second since 1983, when the Orioles last won the World Series.

The franchise has enjoyed a rebirth under the guidance of manager Buck Showalter, whose 1,254th victory thrust him past mentor Billy Martin into sole possession of 36th place on the career list.

“There’s probably not a better strategy guy in the game,” reliever Darren O’Day said. “He sees things days in advance. He put guys in opportunities to succeed. It was pretty special.”

Baltimore is 42-23 in a division that includes the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox, the free-spending New York Yankees and pitching-rich Tampa Bay. The Orioles led by only four games on Aug. 6 before going on a 27-11 run.

“We’re AL East champs,” Steve Pearce said in the midst of the drenched clubhouse. “Awesome.”

The clinching victory featured an unlikely list of contributors, not at all unusual for a team that often delved deep into its 25-man roster.

Ubaldo Jimenez was making his first start in a month; Pearce has morphed from a bit player to a key starter; and Jimmy Paredes didn’t join the team until Aug. 28.

Pearce provided the Orioles with the lead for good with a three-run drive off Drew Hutchison (10-12) in the first inning. He has 18 home runs this year, one more than he had in 290 games as a part-timer from 2007-13.

Paredes hit a solo shot in the second to make it 4-2. It was his second homer in 10 games with Baltimore.

In addition, newcomer Alejandro De Aza hit a three-run triple in the seventh for a 7-2 lead. De Aza came to the Orioles in an Aug. 30 trade with the Chicago White Sox.

“It says a lot about the way these guys can come in and perform,” Duquette said. “They’re good baseball players.”

Jimenez (5-9) survived a rocky start to limit the Blue Jays to two runs and two hits over five innings in his third start since July 5.

After signing a $50 million, four-year deal in the offseason, Jimenez struggled with his control for much of the season, sprained his ankle in a parking lot before the All-Star break and ultimately lost his place in the rotation.

Pressed into service because the Orioles played a doubleheader Friday, Jimenez issued four walks in the first two innings. But he bounced back to retire his last 10 batters.

“I had to find a way to be there for the team,” Jimenez said. “After the start, I was able to do everything good.”

In the other clubhouse, the Blue Jays bemoaned their role at the catalyst to the celebration.

“Watching what we had to watch was probably the worst thing you can experience as a player,” Hutchison said. “It’s something you never want to have to experience again. We have some games left here. We know what the odds are. We just have to win as much as we can. We still have a lot to play for with our pride.”

TRAINER’S ROOM

Blue Jays: Steve Tolleson was available off the bench after being hit on the arm by teammate Munenori Kawasaki’s foul ball while sitting in the dugout the previous night. “We got lucky,” manager John Gibbons said.

Orioles: RHP Steve Johnson will have surgery to have a bone spur removed from the back of his right shoulder later this month and should be ready for 2015 spring training. He did not pitch for Baltimore this year.

UP NEXT

Bud Norris (13-8) brings a 7-1 record against AL East foes into a matchup with Toronto lefty J.A. Happ in the series finale.