Gio, Nats move one step closer

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Gio, Nats move one step closer

NEW YORK -- It was by no means his best performance of the season, but it didn't need to be. Thanks to some early support from what has suddenly becomes baseball's most power-laden lineup, Gio Gonzalez needed only navigate his way through six quality innings Monday night to emerge as baseball's first 19-game winner of 2012.

And the Nationals, despite failing to record a hit after the fourth inning, still managed to pull off a thoroughly convincing, 5-1 victory over the Mets that moved them yet another step closer to October baseball.

Combined with the Braves' loss in Milwaukee, the Nationals saw their lead in the NL East grow to 6 12 games with 21 to play, their magic number drop to 15. The number to secure their first-ever postseason berth dropped to single digits: 9.

"Great win," manager Davey Johnson said. "And I think we eliminated the Mets from the pennant race, didn't we?"

Indeed, they did. Two days after knocking the Marlins officially out of contention for the division title, they did the same to New York.

"That made me a little happy," said Johnson, who 26 years ago led that franchise to its last World Series crown. "That's why I was throwing everything but the kitchen sink out there."

Johnson didn't mess around in the first game of this series at Citi Field. Despite a late four-run lead, he used top setup men Ryan Mattheus and Drew Storen and then closer Tyler Clippard and even sent in a defensive replacement for Michael Morse in left field.

Not that there was ever much doubt about the outcome of this game. That's in part because Gonzalez was so good at overcoming his frequent bouts of wildness, pitching around five walks to hold New York to one run over six innings.

"He scared me," the manager said. "He had more balls, I think, in the fourth and fifth innings ... than strikes. He had great stuff, but just wasn't really consistent. Wasn't one of his better ones, but he did have great stuff and he did battle and give me six innings, so I was real pleased with that."

Gonzalez couldn't really pinpoint why his command was so off.

"I don't know. Couldn't find the strike zone, drank a little too much coffee," he said. "Don't know what it is. I mean, a bunch of different answers to that one."

When he needed to settle down and throw strikes, Gonzalez was eased by words of confidence from catcher Kurt Suzuki and shortstop Ian Desmond, who helped the left-hander navigate his way through a ragged night.

"The thing I'm talking about with Gio is learning how to pitch -- especially when you don't have your best command or your best stuff out there -- and getting the job done," Suzuki said. "That's the sign of becoming a pitcher."

It helps to pitch with a lead, which Gonzalez was afforded thanks to three early home runs from Suzuki, Zimmerman and Desmond. That gave the Nationals 33 homers over their last 13 games, a sudden surge of power for a lineup that is just now realizing its full potential.

"We've got a lot of guys that are very strong," Johnson said. "They're growing to be good hitters. Zim's already a great hitter. I think he's fully over that shoulder injury. That ball tonight was crushed, one of the hardest hit balls I've seen. Look up and down our lineup, there's a lot of guys that have a bunch of homers."

Included in that bunch is Desmond, whose two-run shot in the fourth was his 22nd of the year. That's more than any middle infielder in Washington baseball history has ever hit, and it duplicates the total number of homers the shortstop hit through the first two-plus years of his big-league career.

"I mean, I'm a better hitter period this year than I have been in the past," Desmond said. "I think I figured some things out with the help of Davey and just kind of trying to move forward, take steps in the right direction and become the player I think I can be."

Desmond's not alone. Gonzalez this year is becoming the pitcher many thought he could be, now on the verge of his 20th win of the season. And the Nationals as a whole are becoming the team many hoped they could be but couldn't have imagined they'd become so soon.

With each passing day, they move closer to making it all official.

"It's great," Suzuki said. "Our main focus is to just win ballgames. We don't worry about other stuff. We just have to focus on our task and still win ballgames, and at the end of the season, hopefully it'll get us in a good place."

Harvey struggling, Murphy thriving as Nats-Mets rivalry heats up

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Harvey struggling, Murphy thriving as Nats-Mets rivalry heats up

The NL East division will not be decided in the month of May, but the contrast in fortunes for the Nats and Mets was dramatic on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.

Yes, the Nats only lead the Mets by 1 1/2 games in the division after homering them to death in a 7-4 series-tying victory. But they beat them once again with a huge contribution from ex-Met Daniel Murphy and once again at the expense of beleaguered super hero Matt Harvey.

From the moment Murphy left the Mets to sign a three-year deal with the Nationals, it became part of the fabric of one of baseball's best contemporary rivalries. And the way he's played not just overall this season, but in head-to-head matchups with the Mets, has only stoked that fire.

Murphy went 2-for-4 with his seventh homer of the year on Tuesday night and now has two homers in four at-bats against Harvey. He has two RBI in each of his last three games against his former team and has quickly become a pest for the organization he spent 10 distinguished years with.

Harvey, on the other hand, has allowed 11 earned runs combined in his last two starts, both against the Nationals. He is in the midst of a shocking downfall and the Nats are playing a hands-on role.

Only four times did a Nationals hitter swing and miss at a pitch Harvey threw on Tuesday. That matched a season-low. The three homers he surrendered matched a career-high. This is all just one start after the Nats scored nine runs (6 ER) on Harvey, which set a new career mark.

“His velocity started out good," manager Dusty Baker said. "He was 95, 96 miles per hour, then his velocity dropped to 92, 93. His slider wasn’t as sharp as it usually is. You gotta get them when they’re down.”

Murphy, on the other hand, is carrying over the power surge the Mets themselves witnessed last fall. After hitting seven homers in 14 postseason games, Murphy has seven in 45 outings this season. That puts him on pace for 25 homers, nearly double his career-best of 14 set just last year.

Having spent five years around Harvey in New York, Murphy has a unique perspective of his former teammate now facing him from the other side.

"It's tough to tell," Murphy said. "I have all the confidence in the world that he's gonna throw the ball well... I hope it's not against us, or me personally. But we know how good he is, we saw it all year last year. And again, as a pitcher or a hitter, we're never as far away as we think."

Murphy isn't the only player on the Nats who wishes Harvey well, despite his presence in the NL East.

"I know he’s still going to be their go-to guy coming down the stretch and coming down the stretch these guys are going to be right there," center fielder Ben Revere said. 

"Fastball seems the same. He’s throwing strikes. It’s baseball. We’ve been getting the key knocks. Nothing we can do about it. Just goes to show that every pitcher in the big leagues is going to have some rough stretches."

"His stuff is electric. To me he's still the same pitcher that comes after you," third baseman Anthony Rendon said. "Like anybody else, you go through a rough patch, and I'm pretty sure he'll find his way out like every other good pitcher does."

Murphy's two hits on Tuesday - the second against reliever Antonio Bastardo - gave him his 23rd multi-hit game of the season. That means more than half of his games this year have featured multiple hits. He's now batting an MLB-best .392. Only one batter (Yoenis Cespedes) on the Mets is hitting better than .283 at this point in the season.

“I've seen some pretty good hitters, George Brett, Tony Gwynn, Paul Molitor," Baker said. "[Murphy] hasn’t had a down time the entire year. He’s concentrating. He’s at a very high concentration level. When he’s getting his pitch he’s not missing many. Murph’s been the acquisition of the year in baseball. I’m just glad that we have him.”

Harvey's matchups with the Nats over his last two starts have put his career at a momentary crossroads. After his last outing, Tuesday's start was in question. The Mets ultimately decided to keep him in the rotation, but what about his next start? Will he take the mound?

His previous outing was so bad it convinced Mets fans - who booed him at home five days ago - to organize a social media campaign to bus droves of New Yorkers down to D.C. for Tuesday's game. About a hundred of them gathered in right field and were heard loudly before the game and through the first several innings with chants in support of Harvey.

By the fifth inning there were chants of 'Harrrr-veyyy' coming from the crowd, but not from Mets fans. Nationals fans turned the tables and made for yet another embarrassing moment for the Dark Knight of Gotham.

Harvey, for what it's worth, declined to speak to reporters after his latest disaster. Not facing the New York media who are ready to pounce all over you? That may feel good for a night, but it won't go over well in the coming days. Might be wise to avoid the tabloids, Matt.

Strasburg notches another win as Nats rough up Harvey again

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USA TODAY Sports

Strasburg notches another win as Nats rough up Harvey again

Postgame analysis of the Nationals' 7-4 victory over the Mets on Tuesday night: 

How it happened: With both Stephen Strasburg and Matt Harvey looking sharp through the game's first three innings, this looked every bit like the pitchers duel we were expecting to see last week when the two aces faced off in New York. 

But like last Thursday's game, the Nats eventually pounced on Harvey and ended his night earlier than he would have liked. Their home run barrage started in the fourth inning, when Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon delivered back-to-back solo shots to give Washington a 2-1 lead. The next inning, after Bryce Harper hit a sac fly to make it 3-1, Daniel Murphy (who else?) delivered the big blow with a a two-run shot to give the Nats a 5-1 cushion and essentially yank Harvey from the game. 

After the Mets gone a run back in the seventh, Ben Revere hit his first home run as a member of the Nats to extend the lead to 6-2. The long ball parade continued in the eighth as Wilson Ramos got into the act with a solo shot. 

What it means: The Nats were able to bounce back after Monday night's blowout loss. At 28-18, they're 1 1/2 games up on the Mets for first place in the NL East. While it's clear that these are the two best teams in the division, there's plenty of season left before it can be determined which club is truly superior.  

Strasburg extends winning streak: It's pretty simple at this point: if Strasburg takes the mound, the Nats win. That's been the case now for 14 consecutive starts — extending a franchise record. Once again, Strasburg was solid against the Mets, allowing two earned runs on four hits over 6 2/3 innings. His 11 strikeouts on the night marked the fifth time this season that he has registered double digit punch outs in a start. Strasburg is now 8-0 on the year with a 2.79 ERA and 86 strikeouts. Not too shabby. 

Nats rough up Harvey again: For the second time in less than a week, Washington's offense put up a few crooked numbers on the scoreboard to chase Harvey early in the game. Including Tuesday's outing, the Mets struggling ace has allowed 14 runs on 16 hits over 7 2/3 innings against the Nats in two starts. Ouch. If Harvey winds up temporarily removed from New York's rotation, Mets fans can thank their division rivals from D.C. 

Murphy keeps hurting his old club: With yet another solid performance, the Nats second baseman might be making the Mets wish they would have kept him around a little while longer. In five games against his former team, Murphy is hitting 8-for-21 (.380) with two home runs — both coming off Harvey — and 6 RBI. 

Up next: The rubber match in this series will be a matinee tilt on Wednesday at 1:05 p.m. The Nats will send Tanner Roark (3-3, 2.89 ERA) to oppose Mets rookie Steven Matz (6-1, 2.81 ERA).

Dusty Baker says Nats have to 'ride the wave' of Strasburg's win streak

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Dusty Baker says Nats have to 'ride the wave' of Strasburg's win streak

The formula has been a simple one for the Nationals of late: if Stephen Strasburg takes the mound, Washington will emerge victorious. It's been the case in the 27-year-old right hander's last 13 outings, a streak that sets a new franchise record for wins during a pitcher's starts. 

Whether or not Strasburg's remarkable run is sustainable, Dusty Baker is willing to enjoy it for however long it lasts. 

"Whatever Stras is doing," the Nats manager said, "you just ride it. It's like surfing. You ride the wave to the beach and jump off and just catch another wave."

Strasburg is 7-0 on the year with a 2.80 ERA — a very good mark, but still not up there with the National League's elite arms such as Jake Arrieta (1.29) and Clayton Kershaw (1.48). Baker said that one of the reasons the Nats have flourished with Strasburg on the mound is that he continues to be the beneficiary of good run support. Take his last outing, for instance, where the offense jumped on Mets starter Matt Harvey in the third inning to create a 9-1 cushion to pitch through the rest of the way. 

But Baker was quick to point out that, run support aside, Strasburg is displaying an important trait that many aces around the game show when they're on a roll. 

"I don't care what it is, he's still 7-0," Baker said. "I'm sure everybody would trade to do that.....part of the reason he's 7-0 is because he's been out there without his best stuff and still managed to keep us in the ballgame until our offense came through."

If Strasburg is to extend the streak to 14 wins in a row, he'll need to do so against a Mets lineup that will get a second look at him in less than a week. That scenario didn't work out so well for rotation mate Gio Gonzalez, who was throttled Monday night for seven earned runs after faring well against New York's offense just a week ago.

But, sticking with the wave analogy, Baker says Strasburg and the Nats should adopt the surfer's mentality of not worrying about impending disaster. 

"If you think about falling off, you gonna fall," Baker said. "So don't think about falling, don't think about when it's going to end."