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Nats' 1 2 = lots of strike 3s

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Nats' 1 2 = lots of strike 3s

The mostly uninspiring history of the Nationals is littered with pitchers whose mission was simple: Keep the ball down in the zone, induce groundballs and pray their defense could finish the job.

It was called "pitching to contact," and while the theory behind it was sound, it was in some ways an indictment of the "stuff" these guys were taking to the mound with them. Hey, if your fastball barely cracks the 90-mph mark, you're probably not going to be producing many swings and misses.

Now consider this year's staff, loaded with power arms. Suddenly, the idea of pitching to contact seems passe. Sure, groundballs are nice. But strikeouts are even nicer.

Especially when you can boast the top two strikeout pitchers in the National League.

Yep, take a look at the current NL pitching leaderboard. Topping the list: Gio Gonzalez with 60 strikeouts. Right behind him: Stephen Strasburg with 59.

"What it is, is just we continue to go out there and try and pound the strike zone," Gonzalez said after whiffing 10 Pirates in seven innings last night. "As a starting rotation, we want to strive to continue to get better, and hopefully we see some changes keep coming. Staying healthy is our main concern. Other than that ... hey, it's good in other ways, but all I cared about was getting the win today."

Gonzalez's primary goal might have been securing his fifth win of the season (which he did) but the byproduct of that was his continued ascension into the upper echelon of big-league pitchers.

The left-hander briefly led the majors in strikeouts until Seattle's Felix Hernandez recorded three more during his start last night against Cleveland. But Gonzalez still leads the majors with 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings, just ahead of Strasburg at 10.5.

"When you miss bats, it keeps the pressure off your defense," manager Davey Johnson said. "If you miss a lot of bats, that tells me that there's a lot of other ones that aren't centering on it. All five of them. They've been great."

Indeed, it's not only Gonzalez and Strasburg recording all these Ks. Every member of the Nationals' rotation is striking out at least 6.2 batters per nine innings. Over their seven-year history, the Nats have only seen five starting pitchers produce a strikeout rate that high: John Patterson (8.39 in 2005), Esteban Loaiza (7.18 in 2005), Jordan Zimmermann (6.92 in 2011), Odalis Perez (6.71 in 2008) and Jason Bergmann (6.71 in 2007).

From that group, only Patterson finished his season ranked in the top 10 in strikeouts in the National League. Seven years later, the Nats have the No. 1 and No. 2 strikeout artists in the league.

All the guys behind those pitchers can do is sit back and enjoy the show.

"It's fun to watch them go out and execute the gameplan that I hear them setting up prior to the game," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We have five aces, in my opinion. And it's fun to watch aces work."

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What will Joe Ross' role be for Nationals in playoffs vs. Dodgers?

What will Joe Ross' role be for Nationals in playoffs vs. Dodgers?

It was just a few weeks ago that Joe Ross' postseason availability was in question, and if he could return in time, whether he would pitch out of the Nationals' bullpen and or as a starter wasn't clear. Manager Dusty Baker wondered aloud if he would get his young right-hander back, even as Stephen Strasburg dealt with elbow injuries.

The progress Ross has made in a short period of time since is remarkable and after his 90-pitch outing on Thursday afternoon against the Diamondbacks, the 23-year-old looks and feels ready for the playoffs, and not just to pitch in relief, either.

"I'm hoping I get the opportunity to start, but that's up to them," Ross said. "But I'll take any opportunity I get to pitch and go out there and compete. I just want to help the team in any way I can."

Ross wasn't great on Thursday in his third start back from the disabled list. He only made it four innings, as his pitch count soared early. But in giving up just one run, he's now pitched 9 2/3 innings in three games back. During that stretch he's allowed three runs and struck out 14.

[RELATED: Wilson Ramos hopes to be back with Nationals]

It has been a process of baby steps for the Nats starter, a slow progression back from right shoulder inflammation, an injury rehab that featured a setback in late July. Now, though, he is essentially back to normal, just in time for the NL Division Series which begins next week.

"I feel good. I felt really good today. I felt really good last start. I guess it's just a point of executing pitches," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind really on whether I can go out and compete."

Baker mentioned that Ross could pitch in releif early in the NLDS against the Dodgers. That could keep him available for a start later on, if it's kept short like a normal bullpen session.

But one has to wonder if Ross has improved his case enough to pitch Game 3 of that series, given Gio Gonzalez' recent struggles. The lefty has allowed 19 earned runs in his last 23 innings going back five starts.

Regardless, Ross has certainly come a long way in just three MLB outings.

"He looks ready," second baseman Wilmer Difo said through an interpreter.

With all the negative injury news the Nationals have received in recent days, between Wilson Ramos' season-ending injury and Strasburg essentially ruled out for the NLDS, having Ross fully back in the mix is a nice change of fortune for the NL East champs.

[RELATED: Matt Belisle sounds like safe bet for Nats playoff roster]

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Wilson Ramos knows his knee injury could mean the end of Nationals' tenure

Wilson Ramos knows his knee injury could mean the end of Nationals' tenure

Wilson Ramos won't be on the field for the Washington Nationals when the team takes on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the N.L. Divisional Series next week.

The 2016 N.L. All-Star catcher will undergo surgery to repair the ACL he tore in his right knee on Monday night against the Diamondbacks

Ramos has been arguably the Nationals' most constant offensive threat this season, and had positioned himself as the team's backstop for the foreseeable future.

But the injury changed everything.

Not just because the surgery and rehab will stretch well into Spring Training, but because the 29-year-old Ramos will become a free agent at the end of the season. On top of that, a second ACL injury (He tore it in 2012 as well) means that taking the field everyday as a catcher may not be a viable option for him much longer.

"Unfortunately, this injury happened so close to the end and it may affect whether I’m able to stay with a National League team or not," Ramos told reporters prior to the Nationals' 5-3 win over the Diamondbacks on Thursday afternoon.

"But if it’s up to me, I definitely would like to keep playing for the Nationals and play as long as I can."

Ramos is a solid defensive catcher, but his biggest strength is at the plate. Being able to be a part of a lineup everyday is where he is most valuable, and that may mean playing in the American League, where he can serve as the designated hitter and fill in as catcher.

But this doesn't mean Ramos is done as a member of the Nationals, just that he's aware his time could be coming to an end.