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Healthy and confident, Strasburg returns to form

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Healthy and confident, Strasburg returns to form

If the first step toward solving a problem is admitting you have a problem, Stephen Strasburg crossed an important bridge at some point during his 24-day stint on the disabled list.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to take a step back to realize how bad it was,” the right-hander said. “Once I did, I was able to get back to what my body was supposed to feel like, instead of trying to just mentally grind through it. I feel a lot stronger, and it feels a lot more consistent now.”

Strasburg said this early Wednesday morning, after he and everyone else at Nationals Park had waited out a 2-hour, 12-minute rain delay, one final hold-up before he could take the mound for the first time since May 29 and prove to himself and the world he still has what it takes to be one of baseball’s most dynamic pitchers.

Strasburg isn’t a finished product yet, but with five scoreless innings in the Nationals’ 3-1 victory over the Braves late Tuesday night, the enigmatic 26-year-old looked more like his old self than he had at any previous point in 2015. And that was an especially encouraging sign for the organization that has invested so much in him.

“I just think that tonight was a really good step for him,” manager Matt Williams said.

Though the Nationals espoused confidence in Strasburg heading into this start, nobody knew for sure what would happen once he took the mound to face a big-league lineup again. Placed on the 15-day DL after the worst two months of his professional career — a 6.55 ERA, 81 baserunners allowed in only 45 1/3 innings — he ostensibly needed to let a strained left trapezius muscle heal.

While there were some actual physical ailments affecting him, Strasburg’s biggest problem throughout were poor mechanics. He worked extensively with pitching coach Steve McCatty over the last three weeks, watching old video of his throwing motion and paying particular attention to the alignment of his entire body as he strode toward the plate.

After several throwing sessions on flat ground and the bullpen, a simulated game against teammates in Milwaukee and then a rehab start at Class AA Harrisburg, Strasburg was able to pitch Tuesday night confident his mechanics were proper.

“I think that was the No. 1 goal going out there,” he said. “All this time I’ve been working on the mechanics and working on fine-tuning things. But when you’re out there between the lines, you have to go out there and compete. So I wasn’t going to think about mechanics at all. I was just going to go out there and give it everything I have.”

From the get-go, it appeared he had solved the problem. Strasburg pumped out 97-98 mph fastballs in the top of the first and never let up the rest of his evening. He threw 64 of his 94 pitches for strikes, scattered three singles and a double while striking out six (all on high fastballs).

The difference was noticeable to all.

“It looked like … I don’t know, he just looked like he was a little more confident out there,” center fielder Denard Span said. “For me, in the past or earlier in the season, I could kind of tell what pitch was coming, to be honest with you, from center field. But tonight, he looked a little different. Something just looked different. He looked like he was keeping hitters off-balance. It was kind of catching me off guard what was coming out of his hand. I think some of that was mechanics. But he just pounded the strike zone, went after hitters and he was aggressive.”

The only quibble with Strasburg’s performance was his high pitch count, the byproduct of 22 pitches fouled off by the Braves and of Strasburg’s less-than-perfect command of his curveball and changeup. But that was a minor quibble, and something he and the club expect to improve as he gets back into a regular, 5-day rotation.

“They did do a good job of working up the pitch count and fighting pitches off, but that’s not something I’m going to worry about,” he said. “I’m just going to go out there and make them hit the fastball.”

That mindset, perhaps above all else, may have represented the biggest hurdle Strasburg overcame during his DL stint. At times in the past, he may have worried too much about trying to tweak too many parts of his approach to pitching. Maybe there were too many thoughts swirling through his head.

“I think that’s something that talking to a lot of guys in the clubhouse while I was away really kind of shed some light on what my strengths, what my weaknesses are,” he said. “I really just tried to pitch to my strengths.”

Strasburg’s strengths were on full display Tuesday night. And if this was a tease of things to come, the Nationals will rest easy knowing they’ve rediscovered their dominant right-hander once again.

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The Nationals have had their eyes on Kelvin Herrera for years

The Nationals have had their eyes on Kelvin Herrera for years

On Monday, in the middle of their game with the Yankees, Mike Rizzo did a very Mike Rizzo thing and added another strong arm to the Nationals' bullpen well before the trade deadline.

In a trade with the Kansas City Royals, the Nats dealt prospects Kelvin Gutierrez, Blake Perkins and Yohanse Morel for relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera.

Herrera, who's in his eighth season, has walked only two batters in the last 27 games and is set to become a free agent at the end of the season. 

"We just thought that it was a good idea to strike early," Rizzo said Wednesday on 106.7 The Fan's Sports Junkies, simulcasted on NBC Sports Washington.

"We thought the closer to the deadline we get, the more competition we'll have for Kelvin [Herrera]. We were able to strike a deal with Dayton Moore quickly and [we] couldn't be happier about it."

But Mike Rizzo didn't just come across Herrera by chance, he's had his sights on him for years.

"He was one of the guys that we kind of kicked the tires on [last year] and obviously the price for Kelvin at that time with a year and a half of control was a lot different than it was with four and a half months of control."

"We did have our eyes on him for years. He's been a great reliever for years. He's one of the guys we talked about when we talked about improving our bullpen." 

Herrera has spent all of his eight seasons in the big leagues with the Royals, even winning a World Series. Trades can bring both joy and angst, but Rizzo knows Herrera is excited to get back to playing meaningful baseball.

"This guy is such a competitor; World Series tested and playoff tested. He's happy to be playing meaningful games. He talked about what it takes to win a World Series, and you know, our guys were all ears. I think he's really thankful for getting the opportunity to get after it again and get another ring."

"At the same time, you know, it's hard for those old relationship to die and to move on, but he was very excited about being with us. I spoke to him after we made the trade and he [was] a little shocked, but really fired up about it. And when he got to the clubhouse, [he] met some of his old teammates - Timmy Collins and Ryan Madson -  and was welcome with open arms by not only the bullpen guys but everyone on the team." 

Herrera will join Sean Doolittle, Brandon Kintzler, and Ryan Madson to make about as deep of a bullpen as any in baseball right now.

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Trea Turner goes 4 for 4 to help Nationals beat Orioles

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Trea Turner goes 4 for 4 to help Nationals beat Orioles

WASHINGTON -- Presented with identical opportunities to ring up a big inning, the Washington Nationals took full advantage and Baltimore Orioles squandered the chance.

That goes a long way toward explaining why the Nationals are a contender and the Orioles own the worst record in the big leagues.

Trea Turner went 4 for 4 with a homer , Anthony Rendon drove in three runs and Washington extended its recent domination of the Orioles with a 9-7 victory Tuesday night.

The game was essentially decided in the fifth inning, which began with Baltimore leading 4-1.

In the top half, the Orioles loaded the bases with no outs and scored only one run -- when Manny Machado hit into a 4-6-3 double play.

Washington loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom half and batted around, scoring four runs on four hits and a pair of walks. Adam Eaton contributed a two-run single, Rendon hit a sacrifice fly and Bryce Harper chased starter David Hess with an RBI double.

"They did a lot better job cashing in their bases loaded, nobody out situation than we did," Orioles manager Buck Showalter conceded.

For the game, Baltimore was 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position. The Nationals were 5 for 10.

"This team is starting to become relentless," manager Dave Martinez said. "They kept pounding and pounding and pounding, had a couple of big innings there and scored some runs."

The Nationals trailed 6-5 before getting six hits in a four-run seventh. Rendon delivered a two-run double off Tanner Scott (0-1) that made it 7-6, and Turner capped his four-hit night with a double.

Both teams noted that more than a couple of Washington's hits were bloopers and seeing-eye grounders, but the Nationals certainly weren't about to apologize.

"I feel like all year we've been hitting balls right at people," Turner said, "so it's nice to get a bunch of those in one game and come out with a win."

Washington has won six straight over its neighboring interleague rival, including four games this season by a combined 20-8.

Pitching in his second big league game, Nationals starter Jefry Rodriguez gave up five runs, four hits and four walks in five innings.

Justin Miller (5-0) pitched two innings of relief, newcomer Kelvin Herrera worked a perfect eighth and Sean Doolittle gave up a solo home run to Joey Rickard while earning his 19th save.

Jace Peterson and Trey Mancini each hit two-run homers for the Orioles, who have lost 16 of 19.

This one can be blamed on an all-too-telling fifth inning.

"It's just one of those things where if they got hits they seemed to have found holes," Showalter said. "They hit some balls hard, too."

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