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Delayed dominance for Strasburg

Delayed dominance for Strasburg

As an out-of-nowhere cloudburst doused Nationals Park and a crowd of 33,388 during a 51-minute delay in the top of the third inning Tuesday night, Stephen Strasburg did whatever he could to stay loose and ready to retake the mound should the skies part and this showdown with the Braves resume.

On the advice of pitching coach Steve McCatty, Strasburg went to the batting tunnel below the Nationals' dugout and threw about 15 pitches. Then he retreated to the clubhouse for a break. Then he returned to the tunnel for another 15 throws. Then back to the clubhouse for another break before finally both teams were summoned to the field for the resumption of play.

"It's my first time really dealing with the rain delay or anything," he said. "Cat kind of coached me through it."

The way he responded to the interruption, perhaps Strasburg should try to incorporate that new routine into all of his starts. He actually got better as the night went on, tossing six dominant innings to lead the Nationals to a 4-1 victory and a 7-game lead over its lone remaining challenger for the NL East crown.

"He was totally locked-in tonight," catcher Jesus Flores said, adding: "He was really even better after the delay for me. It was really fun to catch him tonight."

And really fun for that boisterous crowd to watch and cheer for every time he recorded a big out in perhaps the biggest game he's ever pitched (with all due respect to that NCAA regional he started for San Diego State in 2009).

Facing a desperate Atlanta club trying to not lose all hope of the division title before the calendar even shifts to September, Strasburg rose to the occasion. He struck out 10, including six of the 12 batters he faced after the delay. He located every one of his pitches with pinpoint accuracy, had left-handed hitters flailing helplessly at 91 mph change-ups in dirt and right-handed batters flinching on curveballs that wound up in the strike zone.

"He knows what he wants to do," manager Davey Johnson said. "And he's had enough experience up here against good-hitting ballclubs that he knows exactly the sequence he wants to go in and where he wants to go with it."

Strasburg needed to be that precise most of his evening, because the Nationals held a slim, 1-0 margin through the top of the fifth, Ian Desmond's solo homer representing the lone tally to that point. It wasn't until Flores launched a three-run blast in the bottom of the fifth that the lead was extended to four runs and offered Strasburg some cushion.

With his starter's pitch count at 81, plus however many more tosses he threw in the cage during the delay, Johnson could have turned to his bullpen right then and there. Not that the 69-year-old skipper had any visions of doing that.

"I think the whole stadium -- if I'd have hooked him after five after he punched out the side -- they'd have been, or you guys would have been, wanting to string me up," Johnson said.

As it turned out, Strasburg gave up a run in the sixth after a double, a single and a sacrifice fly. But just when it appeared he might be in actual trouble, the right-hander was bailed out by his batterymate, who gunned down Jason Heyward trying to advance to second base on a pitch in the dirt.

Strasburg, an intense competitor but not one who typically shows his emotions on the field, offered up two fist pumps and then pointed and yelled at Flores to acknowledge the key play.

"I think it reminded me a lot of my debut out there, having the sellout crowd," Strasburg said of the overall environment. "It's great to be pitching for something. And I think you ask any of the guys in here, we're all in it together and we're giving it everything we have every day."

Three relievers (Drew Storen, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard) finished off the game for Strasburg, handing him his 15th win of the season and showing plenty of emotion themselves as they completed each of their innings down the stretch.

"It was huge," Clippard said of Strasburg's outing one night after a 13-inning marathon. "We needed six or seven from him tonight. ... He was unbelievable tonight. He's one of the best pitchers in the game, and that's what he showed tonight, especially in a big game like this."

Strasburg (now 4-0 with a 1.50 ERA in August) will have the opportunity to pitch in a few more big games over the next couple of weeks, but he won't get the chance to pitch in the even bigger games that will come in late-September and perhaps beyond.

His innings total now up to 145 13, he's inching ever closer to the day when general manager Mike Rizzo informs him he's done for 2012.

Strasburg has no idea when that day will be. The Nationals are purposely not spelling out their precise plan so he doesn't start thinking about it.

So he just keeps taking the ball every fifth day, hoping to do whatever he can to help get the Nationals a step closer to their ultimate goal, blocking out all the hysteria around him.

"It's funny, nobody talks to me personally about it," he said. "So obviously I can either scour the internet or watch all the stuff being said on TV, or I can just keep pitching and watch the Golf Channel, I guess."

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Nats fall on wrong side of three challenges by Orioles manager Showalter

Nats fall on wrong side of three challenges by Orioles manager Showalter

Manager Dusty Baker is new to MLB's system of replay challenges as the first-year skipper of the Washington Nationals. There have been times this season where the rules have helped Baker and his team. Tuesday night was not one of those times.

Buck Showalter of the Orioles matched an MLB season-high with three successful manager challenges in the Nats' 8-1 loss at Camden Yards. Two of them pulled Trea Turner off the basepaths. One of them ruled Adam Jones safe to extend an inning.

The two Turner ones hurt the most, as they contributed to a long night for the Nationals offense, one in which they landed 10 hits but scored just one run. Turner was ruled out on two steal attempts at second base. One was in the first inning after he led off the game with a single. The other was in the third inning, again after he got on with a single.

Both plays featured throws by Orioles catcher Matt Wieters that were to the right of the bag, but second baseman Jonathan Schoop was able to pull the ball in and make the tag with Turner sliding past him.

"You can’t do anything if the throws are towards first base," Baker said. "They weren’t very good throws. It just happens they were very good tags. You got a 6-foot-4, long-armed second baseman, and most people don’t even get down in that position to make that tag."

Turner agreed on the throws and wished, in a sense, they were more on target.

"I just wish he would have made good throws right over the bag, I think I have a better chance that way," he said. "Throw gets taken up the line, you know he can put the tag on you a little bit faster and that's what happened tonight."

Getting Turner, one of the fastest players in baseball, into scoring position generally leads to good things. The Nats instead had him sent back to the dugout after lengthy delays while the umpires conferred with New York.

Both Baker and Turner stewed over the replay system itself as they waited. And afterwards each made their opinions clear.

"Don't care for it too much. I don't think I or we or anybody on this side has really benefit from it, so for that reason I don't really care for it," Turner said.

Baker was much more direct and descriptive.

"Number one, I just think it takes too long… they've gotta do something to correct the length of time. Maybe after 30 seconds if they're inconclusive, then come up with whatever the umpire said," Baker said.

"It sort of makes a point of why do we need umpires, if you're going to dispute everything that they say? I don't know. I'm kind of new this year to replay, but it's tough to lose three of them… To me, it doesn't make the umpires look very good. I just hope they correct this."

[RELATED: Lopez rocked as Nats suffer lopsided loss to Orioles]

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Reynaldo Lopez rocked as Nats suffer lopsided loss to Orioles

Reynaldo Lopez rocked as Nats suffer lopsided loss to Orioles

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 8-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday night at Camden Yards.

How it happened: Reynaldo Lopez learned the hard way on Tuesday night that pitching in Baltimore these days is a much different story than pitching in Atlanta.

After two impressive outings against the lowly Braves, Lopez had quite the wakeup call against the Orioles at Camden Yards, a haunted house for pitchers. The Nats rookie had no chance against the O's and was bounced after just 2 2/3 innings of work. That nice little favor A.J. Cole did their bullpen the night before became a distant memory, as Matt Belisle was summoned far earlier than manager Dusty Baker had intended.

Lopez ended up with six runs allowed - four of them earned - on seven hits and three walks. None of his runs came on homers, despite the Orioles' penchant for hitting them.

Lopez was thoroughly outpitched by Orioles starter Kevin Gausman, who - like Dylan Bundy the night before - showed why Baltimore took him with the fourth overall pick. Gausman was sharp with his mid-90s fastball and mixed in sliders and splitters with regularity. He tossed six shutout innings with six hits and two walks allowed on 110 total pitches.

After Lopez left, Oliver Perez gave up an RBI single to Matt Wieters in the seventh. Yusmeiro Petit then offered up a solo homer to Chris Davis in the eighth. 

The Nats had trouble scoring, but they did get on base at a decent rate. Trea Turner had a career-high four hits, including a double. Bryce Harper had two singles. Ryan Zimmerman singled and scored their only run on a Danny Espinosa RBI knock. 

The Nationals lost for the second straight night to the Orioles, who have absolutely owned them in their annual head-to-head series in recent years.

What it means: The Nats dropped to 73-52 on the season and have lost five straight games to the Orioles going back to last season. Since the start of 2012, they are 6-16 against the O's.

Lopez gets rocked: What happened to Lopez on Tuesday night was much more like his first two big league outings, when he got shelled by the Dodgers and Giants. At least in those games he made it at least four innings. Lopez found trouble early against the Orioles, who wasted no time in overwhelming the young right-hander. Mark Trumbo singled home a run in the first inning. Wieters doubled home another in the second. Adam Jones brought in a third run on an infield single soon after.

That was bad, but the third inning saw matters get much worse. Jonathan Schoop doubled home Davis to make it 4-0 with one out. Then, with two outs and the bases loaded, Lopez got J.J. Hardy to hit a hard grounder to Daniel Murphy at second. Murphy booted it and allowed two unearned runs to score. That made it 6-0 and got Belisle into the game.

Despite throwing two consecutive solid games against the Braves, Lopez now has a 5.33 ERA through five total starts with 15 earned runs allowed in 23 1/3 big league innings. 

Turner gets four hits: Turner singled three times and doubled once in the Nats' loss. It was his first four-hit game, but the second time he's reached base four times. He also did that on June 3 in Cincinnati in his first MLB game of 2016.

Turner's night was notable because of the hits, but also because he was caught stealing twice. Both times were on nice throws by Wieters, but even better tags by Schoop. And both times were on Buck Showalter challenges. Turner has been caught stealing three times this year and all were on umpire reviews. Showalter, in fact, won three challenges on the night, which matched an MLB season-high.

Espinosa contributes again: It was just an RBI single on an otherwise forgettable night for the Nats, but for Espinosa it was his second straight game doing something positive at the plate after he homered on Monday night. Espinosa is still just 7-for-47 (.149) in his last 13 games.

Up next: The Nats and Orioles shift to Washington where they play two games at Nationals Park. Wednesday night will pit Tanner Roark (13-6, 2.87) up against O's lefty Wade Miley (7-10, 5.58).

[RELATED: Ross takes big step in rehab, is okay with returning to Nats in bullpen]

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Joe Ross takes big step in rehab, is okay with returning to Nats in bullpen

Joe Ross takes big step in rehab, is okay with returning to Nats in bullpen

It turns out Joe Ross may be closer to returning than originally thought, or at least closer than it seemed on Monday. On Tuesday, Ross took a big step in his recovery from right shoulder inflammation by throwing a bullpen session in Baltimore at Camden Yards.

That was a step Ross waited weeks to take and, though it was only about 30 pitches, the right-hander felt great coming out of it and now has a potential return in much clearer focus.

"The head trainer, Paul Lessard, he came in and gave me the thumbs up," manager Dusty Baker said. "I know Joe has been champing at the bit and it was very successful. He said he didn't feel anything. Hopefully we can put him back to work here pretty soon."

"It feels really good, that's why I'm pretty excited," Ross said. "I finally got to throw off the mound and it's feeling good. Hopefully it feels good from here."

Ross hopes to throw another bullpen session this week and then increase his workload up from there. As for when he will return, that has not been determined.

"I don't know exactly how long, but I want to get back on the mound as soon as possible. I'm feeling better. That's what I'm working towards," he said.

Ross, though, could return sooner than under usual circumstances, as the Nats may be inclined to skip a minor league rehab assignment and instead have him rejoin them as a reliever. He could build his innings that way and eventually return to the rotation some time in September.

"It makes sense," Ross said. "I know the season's coming to an end for the minor league side. So if that what we've got to do, that's what we've got to do. I mean, I'd just be happy being out there pitching. I'll take whatever role I can get for now. But obviously want to try to get back to starting in September, mid-September. That's the goal."

Baker thinks having Ross pitch out of the bullpen could also come in handy later on.

"We're in the middle of a pennant race. I haven't talked to Mike [Rizzo] about it or anything, I just talked to Joe about it. I just didn't want him surprised that that was the case. We want him if possible, if he's ready, on the playoff roster. That's always a possibility for a fourth or fifth starter to be in the bullpen, anyways. So, we'll see. We'll see how his progress comes," he said.

Ross hasn't pitched in the majors since July 2. He hasn't pitched in a game since July 30, when he appeared with the Triple-A Syracuse.

[RELATED: Nats place Strasburg on DL with elbow injury]

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