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Strasburg at top of his game

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Strasburg at top of his game

NEW YORK -- As much as Davey Johnson and Steve McCatty have been pounding the idea into Stephen Strasburg's head to use his fastball more and not fiddle around with his devastating offspeed stuff, it's not always as easy as it sounds.

"Once you've got, I guess, the lights are on and you're facing another team, you want to go out there and really make your stuff really dirty," Strasburg said. "It's something that I think when I take a step back and relax and let it happen, instead of force the issue, it helps out a lot."

If that's true, Strasburg might have been so relaxed this afternoon he mistakenly thought he was lounging on a Caribbean beach instead of standing on the mound at Citi Field before a crowd of 35,517.

Utilizing his fastball more than ever and attacking the Mets lineup with an aggressive approach the Nationals haven't always seen out of him, Strasburg steamrolled his way through seven innings and pitched his club to a 5-2 victory, a series sweep and a new high-water mark for the season.

Yes, the Nationals could do no wrong in Queens this week. With three straight victories over the Mets, they improved to 58-39, moving 19 games over .500 for the first time since July 5, 2005 (the best record the club has ever owned since arriving in the District).

Pending the outcome of the Yankees' game in Seattle, the Nationals could arrive in Milwaukee later this evening owning the best record in baseball. And no one inside their clubhouse seems the least bit surprised by it.

"We know we're good," outfielder Michael Morse said. "That's what it come down to. Our pitching's really good. Hitters are doing their job. So why not have confidence? Why not have a little swagger?"

It's not hard to have swagger when you can send a pitcher like Strasburg to the mound in search of a sweep. Even though he hasn't been his absolute sharpest lately, the 24-year-old All-Star did enter this game with a 2.85 ERA and a major-league-leading 140 strikeouts.

And when he mowed down the top of New York's lineup in the top of the first on nine pitches (eight strikes), it quickly became obvious Strasburg would be in top form for this one.

"That is the Strasburg I've know for a long time," Johnson said. "That's him. That's what he does. He was very pitch-efficient from the get-go. He went right after guys."

And unlike Friday night's outing in which he helped strike the match to the Nationals' blown 9-0 lead against the Braves, he never let up.

Strasburg (11-4) retired the side in four of his seven innings. He never faced more than four batters in any frame. The only Mets to reach second base against him were Ike Davis (who homered to lead off the second) and Josh Thole (who doubled with two outs in the fifth).

Strasburg struck out 11, the fourth time he's reached double digits this season. He didn't walk a batter. And most impressively, he did all this while relying on his fastball more than usual.

Entering this start, Strasburg threw his fastball 62.4 percent of the time. Today, he threw it 71.3 percent of the time (67 of 94 total pitches).

"He's got such good stuff. He gets such great publicity," Johnson said. "But he's still a work in progress. The way he pitched today, he didn't use a lot of his breaking stuff, just sparingly. He located his fastball good. When he does that, he's capable of going nine innings. There was a lot left in the tank there today, I'll tell you that."

Indeed, Strasburg easily could have taken the mound for the bottom of the eighth (and perhaps even the bottom of the ninth) had his manager let him.

"Absolutely," the right-hander said. "I want to be a horse in the rotation that can ease up on the bullpen. I want to be the guy that they can trust me to go out there and get the job done late in the game."

The Nationals, of course, won't let Strasburg do that, not this season with a cap on his innings fast approaching. Perhaps in 2013 and beyond.

"No doubt about it, he had plenty left," Johnson said. "But this is kind of a strange year. I'm going to protect him as much as I can. He'll never go as far as he can."

On this day, seven innings of Strasburg's very best were enough.

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MLB Trade Rumors: Nats reportedly willing to trade Giolito for Miller, but Yankees aren't

MLB Trade Rumors: Nats reportedly willing to trade Giolito for Miller, but Yankees aren't

The Nationals are very interested in acquiring a closer before the trade deadline on Monday.

The hang up has been — as it was with a potential deal for Aroldis Chapman — with the number of pieces they would have to give up in the process.

While keeping all of their top prospects would be ideal, a source close to the MLB's Jon Morosi believes the Nationals would be willing to trade 22-year-old RHP Lucas Giolito to the Yankees for 31-year-old closer Andrew Miller.

RELATED: WHO ARE THE NATS' TOP TRADE DEADLINE TARGETS?

The Yankees had previously insisted that they would be keeping Miller, but with the team looking to stockpile young talent for the future, a one-for-one trade would do them well. But having just dealt Chapman, the Yankees may want more in return, which the Nationals have balked at in recent talks.

But Miller would be an upgrade from the Nationals' current situation.

Jonathan Papelbon has been shaky and inconsistent as of late, and while Shawn Kelley has been capable of spot closing duties, it is clear that the team is deficient in that department. Miller only has nine saves this season, but has played second fiddle to Chapman and his blistering pitch speed. Miller has a 1.39 ERA and has struck out 77 batters this season.

Miller is a good closer, but is he worth giving up a bona fide top prospect in Lucas Giolito?

According to fellow MLB Network reporter Jon Heyman, the Yankees reportedly think it's the other way around.

One thing is for sure, the answer will become clear by the end of the weekend.

RELATED: NATS' INTERESTED IN PIRATES' ALL-STAR CLOSER

 

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Report: Nats talking to Pirates about All-Star closer Melancon

Report: Nats talking to Pirates about All-Star closer Melancon

With Aroldis Chapman now in Chicago, the Nationals have moved on to other options in their search for bullpen help.

They have been linked to Andrew Miller of the Yankees and Wade Davis of the Royals.

On Friday, another veteran name emerged on the rumor mill. That would be All-Star closer Mark Melancon of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

RELATED: NATS' TOP TRADE DEADLINE TARGETS

See this tweet from FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal:

Melancon, like Chapman, would be a rental, as his contract expires after this season. He is a three-time All-Star who finished eighth in NL Cy Young voting in 2015.

Melancon has been brilliant for Pittsburgh this year with a 1.51 ERA and 30 saves in 33 chances. He led the majors last season with 51 saves in 53 tries.

What stands out about this rumor, though, is that the Pirates would even be willing to part with Melancon. They are currently just two games out of an NL wild card spot. Teams in their position do not usually become sellers.

Because of that, one would have to imagine the price would be high for Melancon, as Pittsburgh has no urgency to move him. One could argue they have no reason to in the first place.

Regardless, it's good news for the Nats if the Pirates will listen to offers. Melancon would be a rare commodity on the trade market as a closer with experience and a long track record of proven results.

[RELATED: Papelbon's job as Nats closer now a real question]

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NL East: Marlins trade for two starters, load up for pennant race

NL East: Marlins trade for two starters, load up for pennant race

No one in the NL East has been as aggressive at this year's trade deadline than the Miami Marlins.

Five games back from the Nats in second place, the Marlins already acquired closer Fernando Rodney from the Padres late last month. Now they have pulled off an even bigger deal with San Diego to bring in starters Andrew Cashner and Colin Rea.

The Marlins also received reliever Tayron Guerrero in what amounts to a seven-player deal. Off to the Padres are starter Jarred Cosart, first baseman prospect Josh Naylor, minor league pitcher Luis Castillo, as well as injured reliever Carter Capps, who is currently recovering from Tommy John surgery.

In landing Cashner and Rea, the Marlins get two right-handers who could ultimately upgrade their rotation, but both have been ineffective so far this season. Cashner, 29, is 4-7 with a 4.76 ERA and a 2.23 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the worst of his career. Rea, 26, is 5-5 with a 4.98 ERA and a 1.73 SO/BB rate.

Cashner presents the biggest upside as a guy who just two years ago held a 2.55 ERA across 19 starts. The year before that, in 2013, he posted a 3.09 ERA in 31 outings across 175 innings pitched.

Both pitchers will have to be better than they have been to make this trade a win for the Marlins, but they now have some much-needed depth behind Jose Fernandez in their rotation. They addressed their biggest need in hopes of separating themselves from the Mets and catching up to the Nationals.

ESPN first reported the trade on Friday morning.

[RELATED: Papelbon's job as Nats closer now a real question]

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