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Confident Nats can't lose

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Confident Nats can't lose

PHOENIX -- They trailed early by three runs, facing perhaps the NL Rookie of the Year frontrunner. Their two best setup men were shelved for the evening due to overuse. The relievers who replaced them wound up putting the tying runner in scoring position in three consecutive innings.

Yet, not one uniformed member of the Nationals appeared to break a sweat during Saturday night's 6-5 victory over the Diamondbacks. (And, no, that had nothing to do with the 108-degree dry heat outside Chase Field.)

What gives? Do the Nationals ever worry about losing a ballgame? Evidently not.

"The confidence is at an all-time high right now," right-hander Ryan Mattheus said.

And why wouldn't it be the way things are going for the best team in baseball? This nailbiter resulted in the Nationals' eighth consecutive win, the last six of them coming on the road. They're now 71-43, a full 28 games over .500, knowing they can go 24-24 the rest of the way and still finish with 95 wins.

And maybe most importantly, they've managed to play their very best ball of the year precisely while the team chasing them in the NL East has played its very best ball.

On July 24, the Braves sat 4 12 games behind the Nationals. They've since gone 14-3, a roll that should have catapulted them to the top of the division. Instead, they remain those same 4 12 games back because the Nats have gone 15-4 over the same time frame.

"It's impressive that they're not falling behind at all," said first baseman Adam LaRoche, a former Brave himself. "They're a really good team. They had some streaks earlier in the year where they were struggling. Like you said, they're playing just as good as we are right now, but that doesn't affect us."

Nor does a shaky start from Edwin Jackson, who dug his teammates into an early 4-1 hole, only to watch as they climbed their way out of it during a five-run fifth against Diamondbacks rookie left-hander Wade Miley.

Clutch hits were aplenty during that rally, from Jayson Werth's RBI double to Ryan Zimmerman's two-run single to Michael Morse's RBI double to Jesus Flores' RBI single. This is the norm right now for a Nationals lineup that has transformed from one of the sport's least-productive groups to one of its most-dangerous assemblages of hitters.

On the morning of June 24, the Nationals as a team were hitting .238 with a .304 on-base percentage and .389 slugging percentage. In 45 games sine then, they're hitting a collective .283 with a .339 on-base percentage and a .453 slugging percentage.

Obviously, the return of Morse and Werth from injuries and the reemergence of Zimmerman as a premier offensive player after receiving a cortisone shot in his ailing shoulder has made a huge difference. But manager Davey Johnson believes it's about more than personnel. It's about approach.

"The makeup of this lineup is totally different: It's in attack mode," Johnson said. "They're not up there defending like a goalie. We're out there trying to do some damage, and it's fun to watch. I tip my hat to Rick Eckstein. He's done a great job with the offense and getting a little more aggressive. I know he's been on the gun here in years past, but he's one of the best hitting instructors I've ever met."

That revamped lineup managed to give the Nationals a lead, but a reconfigured bullpen still needed to preserve that lead to ensure this victory. Johnson didn't have Drew Storen or Sean Burnett available after excessive work over the last week, but the manager calmly called upon other relievers to come through with some big outs.

Tom Gorzelanny replace Jackson with two outs and a man on second in the bottom of the sixth and immediately struck out Stephen Drew looking at a 3-2 fastball at the knees. Mattheus then got two important groundballs with another man in scoring position to escape a seventh-inning jam. And Michael Gonzalez pitched around his own wildness to strike out Drew and yet again strand the tying run on second in the bottom of the eighth.

"I just think that speaks about the talent that's down there," Mattheus said. "Sean Burnett got a night off tonight, and Mike Gonzalez threw a perfect eighth inning and got us out of there and got the ball to closer Tyler Clippard. That's big that someone can step in and do that job when Burnie needs a day off. And Drew can close games when Clip's not here. It just speaks volumes for the talent."

And speaks volumes about the confidence oozing out of the Nationals' clubhouse these days. They've held the top spot in their division for 82 consecutive days now. And they're showing no signs of giving it up.

"It's a calm confidence," Clippard said. "Nobody gets too high or too low. Nothing changes. We're not walking around like: 'Oh, we're the best.' We're just keeping our heads down and going about our business, playing each game like it's a must-win game.

"It's a lot of fun, man."

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MLB Hot Stove Rumors: Nationals exploring trading Gio Gonzalez to Yankees

MLB Hot Stove Rumors: Nationals exploring trading Gio Gonzalez to Yankees

Here's an interesting report for Nationals fans to keep an eye on: If Washington lands White Sox ace Chris Sale, they may trade left Gio Gonazlez to the Yankees. 

From Rich Mancuso of New York Sports Day:

A reliable National League source early this morning at the 2016 Baseball Winter Meetings confirmed that the Washington Nationals are close to a deal with the New York Yankees that would send lefthander Gio Gonzalez to the Bronx. In return the Yankees would send the Nationals two minor league prospects and maybe another player.

Mancuso stipulates that the trade agreement, which is not yet official, would be contingent upon the Nationals acquiring Sale. 

Gonzalez, 31, is in the last year of his contact with Washington after arriving in 2012 from Oakland. He finished the 2016 season with an 11-11 record, 4.57 ERA and 171 strikeouts. 

MORE NATIONALS: Syndergaard already tired of Sale to Nationals hype

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Would Scherzer, Strasburg, Sale be best rotation in MLB? Syndergaard disagrees

Would Scherzer, Strasburg, Sale be best rotation in MLB? Syndergaard disagrees

The Nationals are vigorously pursuing a trade for White Sox ace Chris Sale, according to multiple reports. And the collective baseball Internet is hyped for the prospect of a rotation including Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Chris Sale. 

MLB Network's Jon Heyman, who has been reporting on the Sale-to-Washington negotiations, thinks the move could put together the best rotation in baseball. 

Cue Mets righthander Noah Syndergaard, who was all too eager to shut that down.

But look at the numbers. Last season, Scherzer, Strasburg and Sale finished with 2.96, 3.60 and 3.34 ERAs, respectively. Scherzer led the NL with 20 wins, Sale had 17 and Strasburg had 15. As for strikeouts, Scherzer led the MLB with 284, Sale came in 5th with 233 and Strasburg ranked 21st with 183. 

It would be a spectacular group.

Thor didn't say whose rotation would be better than those three. Himself, Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey? Close, but not quite. At least not yet. 

MORE NATIONALS: Nationals may not be willing to pony up for Harper