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Ethier homer in ninth lifts Dodgers back over .500

Solo shot decisive after Nolasco-Strasburg duel, early Hanley dinger

WASHINGTON -- The Dodgers went into the All-Star break on a tear that carried them back into contention from the brink of a lost season. They picked up right where they left off on Friday night in the opener of a three-game series against the Nationals.

Andre Ethier smacked the go-ahead solo home run in the ninth inning, Hanley Ramirez kept up his hot hitting with a two-run shot, and the Dodgers pulled out a 3-2 victory to begin their abbreviated second-half schedule. Los Angeles, which once faced a 9 1/2-game division deficit, moved back over .500 and pulled within 1 1/2 games of the National League West-leading D-backs.

"Short second half, [68 games], but it's one where we know what our goal is, we know who we're chasing right there," Ethier said.

"If this team shows up focused every day and with a purpose and knowing what that purpose is, I think we hopefully can keep seeing special things."

The Dodgers welcomed back Carl Crawford, Yasiel Puig and Mark Ellis on Friday, as all three used the break to recover from minor injuries. With Matt Kemp still two days away from coming off the disabled list, L.A.'s not-quite-full lineup produced just enough, although Crawford and Puig went a combined 0-for-8 in the top two spots of the lineup.

The big addition on Friday was the power-hitting version of Ethier. The two-time All-Star has hit as many as 31 homers in a season, back in 2009, but entered the day with five this year and none since June 11. In 30 games over that span, he hit .333 but without much thump.

That changed when Ethier led off the ninth inning against Nationals closer Rafael Soriano in a 2-2 game. Soriano (1-2) fed him a 1-2 slider that dove down and in below the strike zone, but Ethier golfed it into the first row of the right-field seats.

"I wouldn't say I was looking for it -- just a tough two-strike count approach right there," Ethier said. "I was up there just trying to battle, get on base any way I can, get that inning started for us. He left a slider high enough where I could put a good swing on it and get it up in the air and find a way over that fence."

Kenley Jansen struck out two in a perfect bottom of the ninth for his 10th save, capping 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief after Ricky Nolasco's start. Ronald Belisario (4-5) recorded the final out of the eighth, following strong efforts by Jose Dominguez and Paco Rodriguez.

That's a major reason why the Dodgers have won 10 of their past 12 games decided by two runs or fewer.

"Our bullpen has been a lot more steady for us, where we've been able to get the outs we need," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said.

The game got to the bullpen after a solid performance from Nolasco, who was making his third start with the Dodgers. He took a no-decision, giving up two runs on eight hits over 5 1/3 innings and working out of a huge jam in the fourth.

Holding a 2-1 lead, Nolasco loaded the bases with no outs. First, third baseman Juan Uribe charged Ian Desmond's slow grounder and fired home for the forceout. Chad Tracy then flied out to shallow left, with Bryce Harper bluffing but ultimately staying at third as Crawford let loose an off-line throw. Nolasco got Wilson Ramos to hit a comebacker to end the inning.

"I just kind of slowed myself down and went pitch by pitch and somehow got out of it," Nolasco said. "So just trying to limit the damage there, get away from the crooked number and was able to stay away from any, so that was big."

The Nats did tie the score in the sixth, when Ryan Zimmerman singled, moved to third on Jayson Werth's single and scored when Desmond hit a blooper that dropped in front of a charging Ethier in center field. Mattingly then brought in Dominguez, who got Tracy to hit into Washington's third double play of the night.

Puig contributed on defense to help Rodriguez work out of trouble in the seventh after the left-hander took over for Dominguez with a runner on first and one out. A groundout moved the runner to second before Anthony Rendon hit a deep drive down the right-field line. Puig, who hurt his left hip crashing into a wall at Colorado earlier this month, launched himself into another one as he snagged the drive in foul territory.

"If it's not a home run, I'll catch it," Puig said through a translator.

Puig came out of the game on a double-switch in the eighth, but Mattingly said he wasn't injured on the catch.

"That's a tough play, and he hits that thing basically full speed, kind of reckless," Mattingly said. "That's a great play. But you always hold your breath when guys go into walls."

Puig also showed off his arm in the second inning, after Harper hit a leadoff double. Werth followed with a deep fly to right, and Harper tagged and went for third. Puig unleashed a tremendous on-target throw to Uribe, but Harper was called safe by umpire Eric Cooper. Replays appeared to show Uribe tag Harper on the leg before he reached the base.

Harper then scored on a wild pitch for a 1-0 lead.

It stayed that way until the third, when Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg gave up his only runs over seven innings. That came courtesy of Ramirez, who got a first-pitch 95-mph fastball on the outside corner and smashed it over the right-field wall for a two-run shot. Ramirez entered play hitting .427 with seven home runs, 22 RBIs and a .771 slugging percentage in his past 26 games.

"I thought it was a good pitch, but it's a guy that's hot right now," Strasburg said. "He guessed right. Oh well. You tip your cap."

Andrew Simon is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @HitTheCutoff.
Read More: Los Angeles Dodgers, Andre Ethier, Yasiel Puig, Ricky Nolasco, Hanley Ramirez