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Red-hot Nats in rare company

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Red-hot Nats in rare company

PHOENIX -- The 70-win plateau shouldn't mean anything for a ballclub, but in the mostly unremarkable, 78-year history of Washington baseball, that figure has been reached only 37 times.

And only twice before had a D.C. baseball team gotten to the 70-win mark in 113 games or fewer: 1925 and 1933. The common thread between those two Senators clubs? They're the last two Washington teams to reach the World Series.

So the fact the Nationals joined that rare group Friday night with a 9-1 dismantling of the Diamondbacks speaks volumes about the quality of baseball being played by this team in 2012. Even if those inside the clubhouse insist they're still not getting caught up in the hysteria.

"That number's not important to me," manager Davey Johnson said. "What's important to me is how we play every day, and we're playing like I know we're capable of playing. We're not doing anything more, anything special. We're just playing within ourselves."

And when the Nationals do play within themselves, they rarely lose. They've opened the longest road trip of their season with five consecutive wins. Add two victories to close out their last homestand, and the Nats have now won seven straight.

At 70-43, they're nine games up in the wild-card race, four games up in the NL East, three games ahead of everyone else in the sport.

They're playing .644 ball on the road and have won 11 of their last 12 away from South Capitol Street.

Here's the real reality check: If they go 25-24 the rest of the way, the Nationals will still finish with 95 wins. If they merely go 20-29 from now through Oct. 3, they'll still win 90 games.

"I think we've got our blinders on right now, just playing," outfielder Michael Morse said. "A lot of us, including myself, we don't know what tomorrow is going to bring. This is uncharted waters for a lot of guys in here. We like what we're doing. We want to keep doing what we're doing."

So they emerged from the dugout at Chase Field Friday night and did just that, cruising to a blowout victory over a Diamondbacks club that is trying to keep itself in the NL pennant race.

This victory included six innings of one-hit ball from Stephen Strasburg, a start that probably sounds more dominant than it truly was because the right-hander battled some command issues and matched his season high with four walks while racking up 104 pitches.

Strasburg actually had a no-hitter in its infant stages with two outs in the bottom of the fourth when a foul tip caught Dale Scott square in the jaw, knocked off his mask and forced the veteran umpire out of the game. The ensuing nine-minute delay before C.B. Bucknor (who had been manning third base) was able to strap on his gear might have thrown a wrench into Strasburg's slim shot at a history-making start.

"It really affected him, and it's my fault," Johnson said. "I feel bad, because I should've known it was probably going to take 10 minutes, and I let him stand there. ... When I saw him go down, I should have said: 'Boys, come on off. This is going to take a while.'"

Strasburg tried to stay loose by throwing some warm-up pitches to Kurt Suzuki, but when play finally resumed with Bucknor now calling balls and strikes, Strasburg suffered his only hiccup of the evening. He walked Miguel Montero, then surrendered an RBI single to Chris Johnson.

"I've never experienced anything like that," Strasburg said. "I hope he's OK and everything. Unfortunately, it happens sometimes. I wish I went out there and threw strikes, but it just didn't work out. Just glad I was just able to give up one that inning."

Strasburg (13-5) not only didn't give up another run after that point, he didn't put another man on base. He retired seven in a row to complete a strong evening of work, battling through a stiff back that acted up when he tried to cover first base on a grounder to the right side.

By that point, the Nationals had given their starter a 4-1 lead thanks to home runs from Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse (the latter of which traveled 446 feet to right-center field, the longest opposite-field homer in the majors this season, according to ESPN's Hit Tracker).

Nine of Morse's 11 homers this season have been hit to either center or right fields.

"It's pretty impressive what he does," Zimmerman said. "The stuff he does is stuff that normal people don't usually do."

After a series of nailbiters in Houston that might have taken a few years off Johnson's life, the Nationals decided to make this one easy on their manager. They tacked on five late runs after Strasburg departed, including four in the top of the ninth that turned this game into a rout.

Thus this ballclub won for the 70th time in 113 games. There are still 49 games left to play, and much can happen during those seven remaining weeks.

But there are fewer and fewer opportunities for complete catastrophe to happen now. If they merely stay the course, the Nationals have positioned themselves to do something special in 2012.

"We're just getting to the fun time," Johnson said. "The only thing I think about numbers is when you get to a certain point where you can play .500 ball and still win 95 games. Then you're in pretty good shape."

Guess what, Davey? One more win and you're there.

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NL East: Braves trade for 2-time All-Star OF Matt Kemp

NL East: Braves trade for 2-time All-Star OF Matt Kemp

ATLANTA (AP) -- The Braves acquired pricey slugger Matt Kemp and $10.5 million from San Diego for troubled outfielder Hector Olivera.

Atlanta had tried for several months to deal Olivera following his April 13 arrest on domestic violence charges. He is eligible to play again in the major leagues on Tuesday following his 82-game domestic violence suspension. The Padres plan to designate Olivera for assignment when he comes off the restricted list Tuesday, a person with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision has not been announced.

Despite arthritis in both hips, Kemp could boost the weakest offense in the major leagues. Atlanta has baseball's worst record and ranks last in runs scored and homers.

The Braves have just one marquee everyday player, first baseman Freddie Freeman, and need more star appeal as they move a few miles north into a new suburban ballpark next year.

Kemp has a $21.5 million salary this year and is owed the same amount in each of the next three seasons.

San Diego is sending Atlanta $3 million this year as part of the trade: half on Aug. 15 and the rest on Sept. 15. From 2017-19, the Padres will pay the Braves $2.5 million annually, half each May 15 and July 15.

Olivera agreed in early 2015 to a $62.5 million, six-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, then was traded to the Braves last July. He has a $4 million salary this year, but lost $1,792,350 because of his suspension. He is owed $6 million next season, $6.5 million in 2018, $7.5 million in 2019 and $8.5 million in 2020.

San Diego acquired Kemp, a two-time All-Star outfielder with the Dodgers, from Los Angeles in December 2014. It took several days to consummate the trade because Kemp had to be cleared medically.

In 254 games with the Padres, Kemp is hitting .264 -- 28 points lower than his nine-year batting average with the Dodgers -- with 46 homers, 169 RBIs and 247 strikeouts.

Atlanta acquired Olivera from the Dodgers last July 30 in a three-team, 13-player swap that sent Alex Wood and Jose Peraza to Los Angeles.

This trade made financial sense with both teams trying to shed expensive contracts of players no longer fitting long-term plans.

Olivera is on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Gwinnett but was removed from the lineup before Saturday night's game.

He was arrested April 13 at a hotel near Washington, D.C., and Major League Baseball announced May 27 that he had agreed to the suspension, which was retroactive to April 30.

Olivera, who was moved from third base to left field before the start of spring training, hit .245, two homers and 13 RBIs in 30 games with Atlanta. He has a pending court date in Alexandria, Virginia.

In rebuilding the Braves, president of baseball operations John Hart and general manager John Coppolella have traded Craig Kimbrel, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Melvin Upton Jr. and Andrelton Simmons for prospects.

Atlanta also has taken on bad contracts for declining players such as Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Bronson Arroyo. Dan Uggla was released in July 2014 despite the Braves still owing him $18 million.

[RELATED: Nats may have gotten a steal with Melancon]

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NL East: Marlins pitcher hurts elbow day after getting traded from Padres

NL East: Marlins pitcher hurts elbow day after getting traded from Padres

MIAMI (AP) -- Right-hander Colin Rea injured his right elbow and left in the fourth inning of his first start with the Miami Marlins on Saturday after being acquired a day earlier from the San Diego Padres.

Rea struck out Jedd Gyorko to lead off the fourth inning, then immediately waved to the trainer. He has right elbow soreness and is considered day-to-day.

Rea pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing one hit and striking out four.

David Phelps relieved Rea with the Marlins leading the Cardinal s4-0.

Rea, right-hander Andrew Cashner and prospect Tayron Guerrero were acquired for right-handers Jarred Cosart and Carter Capps and two minor leaguers, pitcher Luis Castillo and first baseman Josh Naylor.

[RELATED: After Melancon trade, what do Nats do with Papelbon?]

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New Nats CL Melancon to call Papelbon: 'It says a lot about his character'

New Nats CL Melancon to call Papelbon: 'It says a lot about his character'

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- When Mike Rizzo and Dusty Baker called Mark Melancon on Saturday from the visiting clubhouse at AT&T Park, one thing that impressed them right away about their new All-Star closer is that he planned to immediately check in with Jonathan Papelbon.

"It says a lot about his character and makeup, and that was a big reason why he was such an attractive target to us," said Rizzo, Washington's general manager. "His performance level is great but his makeup and character are a lot of the reason that we went out and got him. That tells me he's team-first and Mark Melancon second."

Washington sent reliever Felipe Rivero and pitching prospect Taylor Hearn to the Pirates to acquire Melancon, who supplants the struggling Papelbon as Washington's closer. Rizzo and Baker also spoke to Papelbon, who made it clear he "wants to win," Baker said.

Melancon is expected to join the Nationals on Sunday for their series finale at San Francisco.

Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington tried to tell Melancon he had been traded. And tried. And tried.

"I felt bad because I missed his call three times because my phone was on silent, so I woke up to that," the reliever said after he awakened from his nap and learned of the deal.

A 31-year-old right-hander, Melancon has converted 30 of 33 saves with a 1.51 ERA this season and joins his fifth organization in eight years. He is making $9.65 million and is eligible for free agency after the World Series; as part of the swap, the Pirates will pay Washington $500,000 on Sept. 1.

Once considered a possible successor to Mariano Rivera when he broke into the majors with the New York Yankees in 2009, Melancon said during the All-Star break he knew a trade was possible, given his contract status.

The move comes as the Pirates find themselves on the fringe of the wild-card race. While general manager Neal Huntington stressed the team remains committed to reaching the playoffs for a fourth straight season, the opportunity to deal Melancon -- who led the majors with 51 saves in 2015 and had 33 in '14 -- for two young arms with friendly long-term contracts was too good to pass up.

Baker's bullpen is taxed.

"We're getting some reinforcements," he said of Melancon.

Rivero is under team control through 2021 and hit 100 mph on the radar gun regularly during an extended relief appearance against the Pirates this month. If Melancon left as a free agent, Pittsburgh would have received a high draft pick as compensation.

"We knew full well that holding Mark Melancon would have been a good return, but at the end of the day we felt this was a better return for us," Huntington said.

This was the well-traveled Melancon's fourth season in Pittsburgh after he also pitched for Houston, Boston and the Yankees.

He will move his family once more -- his wife and three kids.

"This has been a blast. Pittsburgh has a special place in heart. My family has been treated so well," Melancon said. "The experiences we've had, just running through my mind all the wild-card games, just big games that we've been in. From where we started, to where we are now, it is an honor. It is an honor to be a Pirate. We got to go through those experiences together. My teammates are my best friends."

Papelbon is 2-4 with a 4.41 ERA and has allowed eight runs and seven hits in his past three outing. Manager Dusty Baker wouldn't say earlier Saturday whether Papelbon still was his closer. Baker pulled Papelbon from a game Thursday in the ninth inning.

Rivero, a 25-year-old lefty, is 0-3 with a 4.53 ERA this season. Hearn is a 21-year-old lefty who was the Nationals' fifth-round pick in the 2015 amateur draft.

Pittsburgh will plug the 25-year-old Rivero into a seventh-inning role, with Neftali Feliz working the eighth and Tony Watson in the ninth. Watson was an All-Star in 2014 in a set-up role and will take over a position where Pittsburgh has enjoyed plenty of success during its rise from mediocrity. Each of its previous three closers: Melanon, Jason Grilli and Joel Hanrahan, made the All-Star team wearing black and gold.

Manager Clint Hurdle will miss Melancon but is confident in his bullpen options.

"I love the guy, love the family. Happy we had him. He helped us, I believe we helped him," Hurdle said. "We are not giving up anything, we aren't lowering the bar. We are not settling. Our organization made a baseball trade, with confidence that our bullpen is going to be in a good place. We are going to be able to compete this year, we are going to be able to add to our competition level in the years to come."

Huntington hinted the team may try to take the money it will save by not paying the remaining portion of Melancon's contract and use it before Monday's trade deadline. The Pirates need help in the starting rotation, which has been forced to turn to rookies Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow quickly as established players Jeff Locke, John Niese and Juan Nicasio faltered.

[RELATED: Nats may have gotten a steal with Melancon]

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