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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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X-ray on Nationals' star Bryce Harper's left thumb brings good news

X-ray on Nationals' star Bryce Harper's left thumb brings good news

The Nationals got a dose of good news on a night All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos went down with a potentially serious knee injury, as Bryce Harper's X-ray came back negative, meaning there are no broken bones in his left thumb.

Harper, 23, suffered the injury sliding into third base on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh. He had the X-ray on Monday morning and the team is of course pleased to hear the results.

"He could be back within a couple days, a few days. That’s big right there," manager Dusty Baker said. "The swelling’s down, so I think his strength is up, I heard. It’s very positive. We still got time for him to get well.”

Getting Harper back soon would be huge for a Nationals team that just saw Ramos go down and recently saw Daniel Murphy injure his left buttock and Stephen Strasburg strain his right flexor mass.

Murphy's injury is also not expected to be serious. Baker even said on Monday that it's "very likely" he will be ready to go for the playoffs. But that's four of the Nats' five All-Stars now injured to varying degrees with just six games left in the regular season.

At least with Harper, they may have dodged a bullet.

[RELATED: Ramos set for MRI as Nats hope injury isn't serious]

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Wilson Ramos set for MRI as Nats hope and pray injury isn't serious

Wilson Ramos set for MRI as Nats hope and pray injury isn't serious

The Nationals know this feeling all too well, the anxious wait for test results to determine the severity of an injury to a star player. The latest, with All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos, includes an MRI set for Tuesday morning.

Ramos suffered a right knee injury on Monday night against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the top of the sixth inning, the same knee in which he tore his ACL and MCL back in May of 2012. Ironically, Nationals manager Dusty Baker was also there for that one, in Cincinnati as the skipper of the Reds.

The Nats will hope and pray that this time it's not as serious.

"He doesn’t look too good tonight," Baker said. "You could tell he was in pain. We have to wait till tomorrow to come up with something definitive.”

Ramos buckled to the ground and pointed to his knee after a relay throw to home by Ryan Zimmerman sailed high over Ramos' head and required him to jump to catch it. The Nationals were playing on a wet field following a 20-minute rain delay and they believe the injury could be related.

“That probably had something to do with it. Yeah. Last time he hurt his leg it wasn’t an impact play either," Baker said. "We just got to pray for Wilson and hopefully he’s OK.”

The Nationals have already seen Stephen Strasburg go down with a right flexor mass strain, an injury that has put his postseason availability in question. Bryce Harper is currently out with a jammed left thumb. And Daniel Murphy has been out of the starting lineup for seven straight games with a strained left buttock.

Harper received good news on Monday that his X-ray was negative, but that's four of the team's five 2016 All-Stars who are banged up with just six games and 10 days left to go until the playoffs begin.

That's an unusual string of bad luck at a bad time to have it.

"My dad told me, ‘Don’t say what else can go wrong because something else can go wrong.’ I’m thinking what else can go right? I don’t think like that. I don’t allow myself to think like that," Baker said. 

"Those thoughts come into everybody’s head, but you’ve got to dispel them and try to figure out a way to get out of this mess. Bryce’s X-rays came out negative, so that’s a positive note in itself. It just seems like down this stretch you lose a guy, gain a guy. Like Stephen Drew. I’m glad we got Stephen Drew back. And who knows? Somebody else might step up and be the hero, the least likely of people. That’s how I think.”

Ramos earned his All-Star nod with a breakout season at the plate. He's batting .307 with 22 homers, 80 RBI and an .850 OPS. He has the lowest catcher's ERA in baseball and has emerged as one of the best backstops in the game, right before he's set to hit free agency this winter for the first time in his career.

Losing Ramos would be devastating for the Nationals at this point in the year.

"He’s a leader of this team. It’s a tough break, really is," Drew said. "It didn’t look too good. My thoughts and all these guys on this team hope for the best for him and we’ll be thinking about him.”

Everyone in the Nationals' clubhouse is pulling for Ramos, but Baker knows the Nats will have to keep going if his injury is serious. Backup catchers Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino will have to step up in his absence, however long it is.

"I feel badly because you know how we all feel about Wilson, but it’s part of the game," Baker said. "You hate (for) it to happen this late, right before the playoffs, but our next step is try to figure out a way to play without Wilson. I’ve been mixing and matching this year and most of my life. Therefore it’s another obstacle and I just got to try to go back to the drawing board and figure out something."

[RELATED: Nationals on playing the Dodgers in NL Division Series round]

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