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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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Ivan Rodriguez becomes first former Nationals player to be voted into Hall of Fame

Ivan Rodriguez becomes first former Nationals player to be voted into Hall of Fame

Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez became the first former Nationals player (2005-present) to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday. He was inducted in his first year of eligibility, marking the 52nd first-ballot hall of famer in history. 

Rodriguez, who was the first free agent signed by current Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, played the final two seasons of his career with Washington in 2010-11. During his time in D.C. he hit .254 six homers and 68 RBI. Pudge's greatest contribution to the Nationals came from his leadership and work ethic. He guided Stephen Strasburg through his rookie season and also helped develop Wilson Ramos so he could pass the torch to him. 

During his 21-year career, Pudge made 14 all-star teams, won 13 gold gloves, won seven silver slugger awards, led his league in caught-steeling percentage nine times, and was named American League MVP in 1999 with the Texas Rangers. He became a World Series champion in 2003 with the Florida Marlins. Pudge's 13 gold gloves are the most ever by a catcher, and his 2,844 career hits are the most ever by a player who appeared in 50 percent or more of their career games as a catcher.  

In addition to Rodriguez, former Montreal Expos great Tim Raines was inducted to the Hall of Fame. Raines is the franchise leader (Expos/Nationals) in walks (793), runs (947), stolen bases (635) and triples (82). Raines was an all-star seven times and he won a silver slugger in 1986 with the Expos. He is the only player in MLB history with at least 100 triples, 150 homers and 600 RBI in a career, and the only player to steal at least 70 bases in six consecutive seasons. 

Related: Bryce Harper wants Nationals to spend money on players, not team store

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Bryce Harper wants Nationals to invest in Matt Wieters, Greg Holland more than facilities

Bryce Harper wants Nationals to invest in Matt Wieters, Greg Holland more than facilities

Bryce Harper isn't one to keep his opinions to himself. The Nationals slugger is outspoken about what he wants, whether that's to "Make Baseball Fun Again" or to make at least $400 million on his next contract

On Wednesday, he gave his take on how the Nats should be investing their money this summer. Here's Harper responding to a tweet from ESPN's Jim Bowden.

Harper's message: Players over everything else. Sorry, gift shop. 

It's plain to see where the 2015 NL MVP is going with this. Obviously, he wants as much talent around him as possible for a chance to win the World Series. 

Matt Wieters, a four-time All-Star catcher, and Greg Holland, a two-time All-Star closer, could be significant additions to Washington's roster. 

Harper is set to become a free agent in 2018, at which point an organization like the New York Yankees will be prepared to offer him both a massive salary and a massive investment in the players around him.

The slugger probably hopes his current team will try to surround him with winning pieces in an effort to keep him. But if a report about the Nationals' reaction to his contract demands proves accurate, they may have another agenda. 

There's Harper drama around the Nationals? Just a regular Wednesday here in Washington.

MORE NATIONALS: Nationals avoid arbitration with Harper, three others