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Strasburg at top of his game

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Strasburg at top of his game

NEW YORK -- As much as Davey Johnson and Steve McCatty have been pounding the idea into Stephen Strasburg's head to use his fastball more and not fiddle around with his devastating offspeed stuff, it's not always as easy as it sounds.

"Once you've got, I guess, the lights are on and you're facing another team, you want to go out there and really make your stuff really dirty," Strasburg said. "It's something that I think when I take a step back and relax and let it happen, instead of force the issue, it helps out a lot."

If that's true, Strasburg might have been so relaxed this afternoon he mistakenly thought he was lounging on a Caribbean beach instead of standing on the mound at Citi Field before a crowd of 35,517.

Utilizing his fastball more than ever and attacking the Mets lineup with an aggressive approach the Nationals haven't always seen out of him, Strasburg steamrolled his way through seven innings and pitched his club to a 5-2 victory, a series sweep and a new high-water mark for the season.

Yes, the Nationals could do no wrong in Queens this week. With three straight victories over the Mets, they improved to 58-39, moving 19 games over .500 for the first time since July 5, 2005 (the best record the club has ever owned since arriving in the District).

Pending the outcome of the Yankees' game in Seattle, the Nationals could arrive in Milwaukee later this evening owning the best record in baseball. And no one inside their clubhouse seems the least bit surprised by it.

"We know we're good," outfielder Michael Morse said. "That's what it come down to. Our pitching's really good. Hitters are doing their job. So why not have confidence? Why not have a little swagger?"

It's not hard to have swagger when you can send a pitcher like Strasburg to the mound in search of a sweep. Even though he hasn't been his absolute sharpest lately, the 24-year-old All-Star did enter this game with a 2.85 ERA and a major-league-leading 140 strikeouts.

And when he mowed down the top of New York's lineup in the top of the first on nine pitches (eight strikes), it quickly became obvious Strasburg would be in top form for this one.

"That is the Strasburg I've know for a long time," Johnson said. "That's him. That's what he does. He was very pitch-efficient from the get-go. He went right after guys."

And unlike Friday night's outing in which he helped strike the match to the Nationals' blown 9-0 lead against the Braves, he never let up.

Strasburg (11-4) retired the side in four of his seven innings. He never faced more than four batters in any frame. The only Mets to reach second base against him were Ike Davis (who homered to lead off the second) and Josh Thole (who doubled with two outs in the fifth).

Strasburg struck out 11, the fourth time he's reached double digits this season. He didn't walk a batter. And most impressively, he did all this while relying on his fastball more than usual.

Entering this start, Strasburg threw his fastball 62.4 percent of the time. Today, he threw it 71.3 percent of the time (67 of 94 total pitches).

"He's got such good stuff. He gets such great publicity," Johnson said. "But he's still a work in progress. The way he pitched today, he didn't use a lot of his breaking stuff, just sparingly. He located his fastball good. When he does that, he's capable of going nine innings. There was a lot left in the tank there today, I'll tell you that."

Indeed, Strasburg easily could have taken the mound for the bottom of the eighth (and perhaps even the bottom of the ninth) had his manager let him.

"Absolutely," the right-hander said. "I want to be a horse in the rotation that can ease up on the bullpen. I want to be the guy that they can trust me to go out there and get the job done late in the game."

The Nationals, of course, won't let Strasburg do that, not this season with a cap on his innings fast approaching. Perhaps in 2013 and beyond.

"No doubt about it, he had plenty left," Johnson said. "But this is kind of a strange year. I'm going to protect him as much as I can. He'll never go as far as he can."

On this day, seven innings of Strasburg's very best were enough.

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Everything you need to know about the new and improved MLB Trade Deadline

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Everything you need to know about the new and improved MLB Trade Deadline

For a long time, Major League Baseball had the best, most exciting trade deadline among the four major sports. In recent seasons, that excitement has been eclipsed by the popularity of the NBA, but baseball still stands ahead of football and hockey in terms of in-season movement.

In an effort to shake things up a bit, baseball’s trade deadline underwent some changes in the offseason.

Notably, while July 31 has always been deadline day, in past years it was a bit of a misnomer. July 31 was technically just the Non-Waiver Trade Deadline in years past. The month of August has always allowed trades to be made as long as players pass through waivers. If a player is claimed off waivers, his team can either pull him back, let him go for nothing, or negotiate a deal with his claiming team only.

This obviously made for much more limited movement in August, but it was always an option. 

Not anymore. Now? July 31 the *only* deadline.

The August revocable waivers trade deadline was always a bit convoluted, and it never made much sense to have more than one deadline. So it’s logical to think the powers that be would want to simplify things for the league.

Reportedly, Major League Baseball is hoping the change will not only help simplify in-season moves, but also help jumpstart offseason activity. The thinking is if teams have even just one fewer option to improve their roster midseason, then contenders will be forced to get aggressive in the offseason.

It remains to be seen if that will come to fruition, but one forthcoming change does seem pretty obvious. The singular trade deadline should make for a much more active July.

Both buyers and sellers have to commit to a direction earlier in the season now. Last year, for example, the Nationals executed their mini-firesale in mid-August, once it had become clear they were not going to compete for the postseason. At the end of the July they were still undecided, which is why they held onto Bryce Harper.

Considering how long it can take major deals to come together, teams have to essentially decide by the All-Star break if they are in or out on competing for October. It will be especially difficult for teams to read the writing on the wall when they are hovering around .500.

As of this writing, there are 10 teams within six games of .500 in either direction, and that doesn’t include organizations like the Red Sox, Nationals and Athletics who have quality records but are way behind runaway division leaders. Will they want to trade away controllable assets for a shot at a one-game Wild Card berth?

General Managers who can forecast their team’s likelihood of competing, and respond accordingly, will be rewarded under the new system. Orioles GM Mike Elias already began his team’s sell-off, trading Andrew Cashner away weeks before the end of July. By contrast, in 2018 both Jonathan Schoop and Kevin Gausman were moved by the Orioles with under an hour to go on deadline day.

It’s hard to perfectly predict all the ways rule changes can affect a sport, but in the case of the singular trade deadline, it’s obvious that teams are now required to commit earlier, with fewer games of information from which to work.

That’s exciting for a sport that could use some more player movement-related excitement.

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Sánchez and Adams lead Nationals in crucial win over Braves

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USA Today

Sánchez and Adams lead Nationals in crucial win over Braves

ATLANTA—Anibal Sanchez outpitched Mike Soroka and scored the go-ahead run in the fifth inning, Matt Adams homered and the Washington Nationals beat the Atlanta Braves 5-3 on Saturday night.

Second-place Washington pulled within 5 games of the NL East-leading Braves, improving to 33-14 since May 24, best in the majors over that span. Atlanta has dropped four of five.

Sanchez (6-6) got a big assist in the bottom of the fifth when shortstop Trea Turner turned a bases-loaded double play, leaping to nab Nick Markakis' liner and throwing to first to beat Josh Donaldson back to the bag.

Soroka (10-2) allowed four runs and nine hits in six innings. He had won 10 straight decisions, best by an Atlanta pitcher since Hall of Famer Greg Maddux had a 10-decision streak in 2001.

Sean Doolittle got the last five outs, facing the minimum, for his 21st save in 25 chances. He struck out Ronald Acuna Jr. with a runner at second to end the eighth and breezed through the ninth.

Washington went up 4-1 in the fifth when Sanchez reached on an infield single to third, took second on Donaldson's throwing error and scored on Turner's double. Turner took third on Adam Eaton's single and scored on Anthony Rendon's single. Eaton scored on Juan Soto's single.

The Nationals took a 5-3 lead in the eighth off A.J. Minter as Turner singled, stole second and scored on Eaton's single.

Adams went deep for the 15th time, an opposite-field homer that bounced off the top of the wall in left-center and into the stands to tie it at 1-all in the fourth.

Sanchez, who pitched for the Braves last year and helped them win the division, allowed three runs and six hits and has a 2.70 ERA in his last nine starts.

Atlanta led 1-0 in the first when Acuna reached on an infield single, stole second base, advanced on a flyout and scored on Freddie Freeman's single.

Brian McCann's ninth homer, a two-run shot in the sixth, chased Sanchez and cut the lead to 4-3.

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NBC Sports Washington's Michael Stearman contributed to this Associated Press story.