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Strasburg the stopper delivers for Nats

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Strasburg the stopper delivers for Nats

PITTSBURGH -- The sheer numbers blow you away. Thirteen strikeouts in only six innings. Seven in a row. A 1.64 ERA in seven starts this season. A 1.59 ERA and 0.84 WHIP in 12 total starts since returning from Tommy John surgery.

At some point, the Nationals stop being amazed by Stephen Strasburg. Because it seems he never fails to deliver.

"You get used to seeing it," first baseman Adam LaRoche said following Thursday night's command performance in a 4-2 win over the Pirates. "You've got a guy that goes out there and throws the way he does every single fifth day, you kind of start to expect it. That's a good thing."

It's an even better thing when the Nationals are able to send Strasburg to the mound in an attempt to stop a losing streak dead in its tracks. Having dropped three straight and in danger both of being swept by Pittsburgh and falling out of first place in the NL East for the first time in 30 days, the Nationals desperately needed Strasburg to come up big.

Which is exactly what the 23-year-old ace did. Even if he still shies away from the label.

"You guys can put me in that role all you want," he said. "But I'm going to sit here and say that there's four other guys in this rotation that can do it, too."

True, fellow starters Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler all are capable of ending a losing streak. But make no mistake, they can't do what Strasburg did Thursday night at PNC Park. Few in baseball right now can.

Facing the Pirates for the first time since mowing them down during his 14-strikeout, major-league debut 23 months ago, Strasburg again made mincemeat of Pittsburgh's lineup. He struck out seven consecutive batters from the bottom of the first through the bottom of the third, then added six more before finally taking a seat after the sixth.

And this, remember, is the "new" Strasburg who since returning from elbow surgery has made a concerted effort to strike out fewer opposing batters while trying to induce contact earlier in the count.

Did the right-hander surprise even himself with his baker's dozen worth of Ks in this outing?

"Maybe a little bit," he said. "But when the stuff's working like tonight, I'm just going to go out there and just throw it, and it doesn't really matter what you throw."

It didn't seem to matter to the Pirates, who flailed away at everything Strasburg fired in their direction. Of his 13 strikeouts, 11 came on swings-and-misses. Seven came on fastballs. Three apiece came on curveballs and changeups.

"That's a good arm," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said in the understatement of the night. "The arm's fresh, it's legit. And he's got a good head to work with it. The progress he's made in a short period of time at this level is really something."

For a while, though, Strasburg's dominance was in danger of being wasted. Unable yet again to get anything going at the plate, the Nationals entered the top of the sixth trailing 2-0 and having squandered whatever opportunities they had to score against veteran Kevin Correia.

And then with one titanic blast off the bat of Roger Bernadina -- a 430-foot home run into the back bullpen in deep left-center field -- the entire visitors dugout was able to breathe a sigh of relief.

"To get us back to within one, I think it did," LaRoche said. "I think that was kind of the blow we needed to get guys pumped up a little bit."

Two batters later, LaRoche stepped to the plate and nearly duplicated Bernadina's feat, crushing another Correia pitch into the front bullpen to give the Nationals a 3-2 and put Strasburg in line for the win.

"You don't have room for error when you're facing a guy like Strasburg," Correia said.

No, but Strasburg did make things interesting when he retook the mound with that one-run lead in the bottom of the sixth. After recording two quick outs, he proceeded to load the bases on three consecutive walks.

"Just started to nibble a little bit," he said, "trying to throw the perfect pitch."

Strasburg took a deep breath and reminded himself to trust his stuff and not feel the need to try to overpower the next hitter. Which he did in blowing a 96 mph fastball past Garrett Jones to snuff out the rally and end his night on a high note.

"I was going to challenge him," Strasburg said of Jones, who is now 0-for-6 with five strikeouts in his career against him. "I wasn't going to walk him and walk in a run to tie it up. I was going to make him beat me."

Victory was not yet in hand for the Nationals, though. They needed a scoreless seventh inning from Ryan Mattheus and a scoreless eighth from Tyler Clippard. Rick Ankiel's moonshot into the right-field bleachers in the top of the ninth provided a little extra cushion for Henry Rodriguez, who rebounded from his blown save Tuesday night to close out the Pirates and secure this much-needed win.

Not to mention ensure the Nationals didn't waste another dominant performance by the young ace of a supremely talented pitching staff.

"You get down a couple runs, and I think that starts to creep in: Don't let this be another night where you miss some opportunities," LaRoche said. "You get a guy like that out there -- and we've got a lot of them -- you don't have to score too many runs. It's bailed us out more than once."

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The Nationals have had their eyes on Kelvin Herrera for years

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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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