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Instant analysis: Nats 8, Braves 4

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Instant analysis: Nats 8, Braves 4

Game in a nutshell: On the day they learned they'll be sending at least three (and maybe four) players to Kansas City for the All-Star Game, the Nationals turned to one of their former All-Stars for some more offensive support. Ryan Zimmerman continued his torrid week at the plate with a double, a homer and three RBI that helped stake his team to a 4-0 lead in the top of the first. Staked to that lead, Gio Gonzalez battled his way through another scorching afternoon -- the temperature at first pitch was 101 degrees, and it reached 104 degrees by the fifth inning -- but wilted in the sixth when he served up a three-run homer to Freddie Freeman. No problem, because the Nats tacked on two late runs and then turned things over to their lights-out bullpen. Craig Stammen, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard combined for four scoreless innings to wrap up a series victory over the Braves.

Hitting highlight: You can only wonder what might have been had Zimmerman received his magic cortisone shot earlier in the season. It's too late to do anything about that now, but the Nationals are plenty happy with the results they've seen in the week since Zimmerman received that shot. With a two-run double, a towering, solo homer and an RBI single during today's game, Zimmerman now has 14 hits (seven of them for extra bases) and 13 RBI over his last eight games. The home run was particularly impressive because it was Zimmerman's most prodigious display of power perhaps all season.

Pitching highlightlowlight: The task of pitching on a 101-degree afternoon is by no means easy, but Gonzalez didn't exactly help his cause today. He struggled to find the strike zone from the beginning, and even though he'd only given up one run, his pitch count already stood at 74 through three innings. He completed the fifth at 98 pitches, his team leading 6-1, and there might have been some thought to having Gonzalez call it a day right there. Davey Johnson, though, let the All-Star lefty take the mound again for the bottom of the sixth, and that proved to be a mistake. Gonzalez immediately walked both Chipper Jones and Dan Uggla, then served up a three-run homer to Freeman that turned what had been a rout into a tense ballgame.

Key stat: When Ian Desmond scored on Rick Ankiel's first-inning single (with some help from Michael Bourn, who booted the ball in center field), the Nationals scored their 5,000th run since arriving in Washington in 2005.

Up next: Having concluded their 10-game, three-city road trip, the Nationals will take Monday off before returning to South Capitol Street to open a big series against the red-hot Giants. Note the special 6:35 p.m. starting time for Tuesday's game featuring Jordan Zimmermann and Tim Lincecum.

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Strasburg plays catch, Nats say injury not in area of Tommy John surgery

Strasburg plays catch, Nats say injury not in area of Tommy John surgery

Just three days after Stephen Strasburg was placed on the disabled list with a sore right elbow, the Nats pitcher walked out to the right field at Nationals Park and played catch with a team trainer. He started close, then backed up to play long-toss.

That was a big step for Strasburg, who is on the DL for the second time this season. And, as it turns out, it was the second time already that he's played catch since the injury.

"It's coming out pretty easy. I asked him how he felt afterwards and he said he felt good, the ball was coming out pretty good," manager Dusty Baker said.

The Nationals remain confident that Strasburg's elbow is structurally sound. They now say his soreness isn't even in the same spot where his Tommy John surgery was performed in 2010.

“He knows how he feels. Doctors have poked and prodded and given them every test almost that there is. It’s not in the same area," Baker said.

Strasburg is making progress, but the Nationals still don't know when he will take the next step in his rehab, presumably when he will get on a mound to throw a bullpen session. It's encouraging that he's been throwing, but his timeline to return is still very much in limbo.

“How much time do you give him? You give him enough time for him to feel right. If he’s not right then we got to go with another option," Baker said.

[RELATED: Olympian Katie Ledecky visits Nats Park, players enthralled with medals]

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Nats' Joe Ross making quick progress, may start rehab assignment soon

Nats' Joe Ross making quick progress, may start rehab assignment soon

On Monday in Baltimore, the Nationals had what seemed at the time like bleak news to share about Joe Ross, that time was running out for him to do a minor league rehab assignment, that he may have to instead return out of their bullpen to build his innings up. He hadn't thrown a bullpen session yet and the minor league regular season schedule was running out.

Then, on Tuesday, he threw a bullpen session, finally for the first time since he was pulled from his original minor league rehab stint on Aug. 5. Then, on Thursday he threw another, this time under the watchful eye of manager Dusty Baker, who now believes Ross may, in fact, be ready to go join one of their affiliates very soon.

How about that for a turn of events? Ross and the Nats have done nearly a complete 180, but it has him now heading in the right direction and the team will certainly take it.

"He threw quite a while. I could just tell by the expression on his face that he was feeling pretty good," Baker said. "He's been working tirelessly. Boy, we've missed him when he's been out."

When and where Ross pitches next will be determined by how he feels on Friday, how his right shoulder responds to the second bullpen session. He has been out since July 3 with shoulder inflammation.

He pitched twice in the minors - once for Hagerstown and once for Syracuse - but couldn't shake the discomfort in his shoulder. His velocity remained lower than it should be and Ross could tell something was wrong.

Ross said he felt great after Tuesday's bullpen and feels that this time is different. Baker himself is encouraged by the young right-hander's progress.

"It's coming out pretty easy. I asked him how he felt afterwards and he said he felt good, the ball was coming out pretty good," he said.

Baker is ready to get Ross back as soon as possible, knowing how much his rotation has been hurt by his absence.

"When he was in, we had one of the best rotations in baseball one through five. Then, in Joe's absence, we've tried a number of guys there with some success and some not so successful. It's put some pressure on the bullpen and it'd be nice to get Joe back," he said.

[RELATED: Olympian Katie Ledecky visits Nats Park, players enthralled with medals]

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Baker thrilled to have Rzepczynksi, who takes Lopez' spot on Nats' roster

Baker thrilled to have Rzepczynksi, who takes Lopez' spot on Nats' roster

New Nats reliever Marc Rzepczynksi arrived at Dulles Airport on Thursday afternoon, and beat the traffic to Nationals Park just in time for the series finale against the Baltimore Orioles. The Nationals cleared a spot on their roster to activate him by optioning pitcher Reynaldo Lopez to Triple-A Syracuse. More on Lopez in a bit.

In Rzepczynksi, the Nats get an immediate boost to their bullpen, a lefty reliever with eight years of MLB experience. With Sammy Solis on the disabled list and Oliver Perez nursing a stiff back, Rzepczynksi zooms up the depth chart as a quick fix for their lefty woes.

"I think it was a necessary move because we only had one left-hander. Especially, with Solis down, we were hoping we could get some reinforcements on the left side. His stats and his track record looks very good and I think he can help us," manager Dusty Baker said.

One thing Baker is especially excited about is Rzepczynksi's ability to induce groundballs. Among MLB relievers with at least 30 innings pitched, he's second to only Orioles closer Zach Britton in groundball percentage. 

"It's always a plus when you can induce groundballs because you get a chance to turn double plays, you get a chance to get out of trouble," Baker explained. "Now I've got one that's one of the best at inducing groundballs in [Blake] Treinen and now I've got one on the left side. You can always use those guys. It's a welcome sight and a welcome addition. Once we get Solis back, then we'll have three of them."

For Lopez, he heads back to the minors after getting shelled for six runs - four earned - in just 2 2/3 innings against the Orioles on Monday. He was set to pitch again on Sunday against the Rockies, but has now left an opening in the starting rotation. That would appear to be a good sign for Lucas Giolito, who is also lined up to pitch this weekend at Syracuse.

[RELATED: Trea Turner ties franchise mark with hits in consecutive plate appearances]

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