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Strasburg winning while he learns

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Strasburg winning while he learns

MIAMI -- It's easy to watch Stephen Strasburg mow through opposing lineups and forget how young and inexperienced he still is.

Sunday's start in Miami was only the 35th of Strasburg's big-league career, the equivalent of one full season. He's been through so much and has so much talent, you tend to think he's as polished as they get.

But there is still much for Strasburg to learn, another level for him to reach.

"What is he, 23 years old?," Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "He's got six weeks in the minor leagues. This is an awful tough level to learn at. He's got tremendous ability, and he's still putting up some pretty good numbers. But he's going to have his moments and his games where we might see things that he doesn't necessarily see. That's why I always say it's a learning process. He's got to see it himself."

During the course of Sunday's 4-0 victory over the Marlins, McCatty and Nationals manager Davey Johnson believe they saw Strasburg take a step forward, learning a key lesson they've been pounding in his head for months: Don't be afraid to trust your fastball above all other pitches.

Strasburg, who possesses perhaps the most devastating offspeed pitches of his generation, also is blessed with a fastball that approaches triple digits. And when he uses it and locates it the way he did Sunday while tossing six scoreless innings, the end result leaves everybody pleased.

"I have to say, that was one of the more impressive games that Stras has pitched," Johnson said. "I thought he used his fastball better. I thought his location was a little better. He spiked a few changeups. He got in some jams that he had to work out of. That's the kind of Strasburg that I know and love."

Right down to the part where the young hurler drove in another key run at the plate.

Perhaps Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen was too busy trying to mess with Bryce Harper's head to remember that Strasburg has developed into the best-hitting pitcher in the majors. Whatever the reason, Guillen inexplicably decided to intentionally walk rookie backup catcher Jhonatan Solano with two outs in the fifth, bringing Strasburg to the plate with a man in scoring position.

And as has been case on several previous occasions, Strasburg delivered, sending a sharp single to right field to bring home the Nationals' first run of the day. He's now hitting .385 (10-for-26) with a .448 on-base percentage and .654 slugging percentage.

"I mean, there's no expectations, so that's the easy part," said Strasburg, who also drew a walk in his first plate appearance. "You just have to go up there and make him work, and if he makes a mistake, just do your best to put the fat part of the bat on the ball."

The Marlins didn't put the fat part of the bat on Strasburg's pitches very often during this game. Though they compiled six hits off the right-hander, all but one were singles, and few were well-struck.

He did face several jams because of it, but he rose to the occasion each time to keep the runner from scoring. He struck out John Buck with two on in the second. He struck out Logan Morrison with the bases loaded and one out in the third, then got some help from Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche on Hanley Ramirez's sharp grounder to third moments later. And he struck out Ramirez with runners on second and third and two outs in the fifth, ultimately keeping Miami to one hit in 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position.

"I went into the game and I wanted to really get back to the things that make me successful," he said. "We played great defense today and they got a couple hits, but I was able to make pitches when they counted."

The key for Strasburg was a return to his roots, his fastball, which he threw 70 times on Sunday as opposed to only 18 changeups and 17 curveballs.

"The thing about Stephen is, his offspeed is so good that it's easy to fall back on that," McCatty said. "But his fastball still is an outstanding pitch, so we just talked about it. We've been talking about it and talking about it and talking about it. Get back to using it."

By day's end, Strasburg had lowered his ERA to 2.66 while improving his record to 10-4. In 35 career starts, he's now 16-8 with a 2.60 ERA and 251 strikeouts to only 49 walks in 197 innings.

He's now an All-Star, the ace of the best pitching staff in baseball. Yet the Nationals don't believe he's realized his full potential yet.

"He's still learning at this level," McCatty said. "He's got a long way to go. It's not a finished product by any means. But it's still an awful good one."

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Gonzalez on earning career win No. 100 : 'I’m just happy it came'

Gonzalez on earning career win No. 100 : 'I’m just happy it came'

Gio Gonzalez isn’t the type to harp on his accomplishments. After quality outings, he typically deflects praise to his Nationals teammates in postgame interviews when asked to describe his personal performance.

But as much as he tends to downplay, earning his career 100th win in Friday's victory over the Colorado Rockies clearly meant something to him. 

“I’m just happy it came,” Gonzalez said. “I finally showed up and I’m happy I did it here with this organization. Oakland gave me an opportunity and Washington helped me continue that opportunity and I couldn’t be happier to do it with these colors and represent the Washington Nationals.”

The feat came after two no-decisions in his previous two starts, so the third time proved to be the charm. After the game, he had a gathering of family and friends waiting outside the Nats’ clubhouse to congratulate him, some holding gold “100” balloons and others wearing hats featuring the oft-used Twitter emoji of the same number.

“I'm sure it was [on his mind],” manager Dusty Baker said. “…He didn’t want to come out of this game. He was going to get it eventually and we needed it.”

The 30-year-old left hander accomplished the milestone thanks to six innings of two-run ball on just 85 pitches against the hard-hitting Rockies lineup. Gonzalez displayed a lot of what his skipper wanted to see from him: a low pitch count, avoiding the big inning and, as he did later in the game, deliver shutdown frames immediately after the Nats offense scores.

“He threw great tonight," added Bryce Harper. Kept a very good Rockies lineup off balance and did what he needed to do. Stuck with his approach and threw like Gio knows how. Huge for him, that hundredth win. Couldn't be happier for him and his family.”

Historic achievement aside, Gonzalez has quietly turned his season around after a rough patch. In his last nine outings, he’s 5-1 with a 3.20 ERA over 50 2/3 innings. His resurgence couldn’t have come at a better time, as he’s charged with stabilizing the back-end of a rotation that’s in flux due to injuries to Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross.

“That's the key to his success,” Baker said. “Not getting runners on base or not walking people and he had a very good game tonight, excellent game. His last couple games, few games have been good. I'm just glad we were able to get him his 100th victory.”

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Nats ride Gonzalez, bats to 8-5 victory over the Rockies

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USA TODAY Sports

Nats ride Gonzalez, bats to 8-5 victory over the Rockies

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 8-5 win over the Colorado Rockies on Friday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: The Nationals have quickly gotten the sour taste of their recent four-game skid out of their mouths.

Thanks to a resurgent offense and a quality start by Gio Gonzalez, Washington got back on track with Friday’s 8-2 win over the Rockies, the Nats’ second win in as many days.

True to form, the power-laden lineup didn’t take long to strike. Jayson Werth launched a solo home run, his second in as many days and his 18th of the season, to put Washington up 1-0 in the first inning, and scored again in the third on an RBI groundout by Daniel Murphy.

With the game tied 2-2 in the fourth inning, the Nats wouldn’t create breathing room until the middle innings. The Nats took a lead they wouldn’t surrender when they scored two runs on a Jose Lobaton fielder’s choice in the fourth inning, followed by a Murphy solo home run in the fifth to make it 4-2.

From there, the game was blown open in the seventh inning thanks to a four-spot that was highlighted by an RBI double by Werth and a two-run triple by Bryce Harper that nearly left the ballpark.

The Rockies closed the gap to 8-5 on a Nick Hundley three-run home run in the ninth off Shawn Kelley, so Dusty Baker turned to Mark Melancon to notch the final out and secure the victory.  

What it means: The Nats have won back to back games and have raised their record to 75-53. Pending the result of the Miami Marlins game, Washington could be up nine games in the NL East by the end of the night.

Gonzalez notches win No. 100: The lefty starter wasn’t dominant by any means, but he did what Baker wanted him to do: keep his pitch count down and avoid the big inning. Gonzalez allowed two earned runs on four hits over six innings and 85 pitches, and limited the damage every time the Rockies were threatening. He could have easily gone deeper in the game, but Baker opted to pinch hit for him when the Nats had two on and two out in the bottom of the sixth. Regardless, the performance was good enough to earn Gonzalez the 100th victory of his career. 

Murphy’s milestone: With his 25th home run of the season, a fifth-inning solo shot, Murphy notched his 500th career RBI. It’s a remarkable achievement considering that he currently has 98 RBI on the season, which means roughly a fifth of the runs he’s driven in have come in 2016.

Bryce back? Don’t look now, but Harper is looking very much like the reigning NL MVP these days. He added two more extra-base hits Friday night, including his first triple of the season, and is now hitting an even .400 since his return from a neck injury. His season average has suddenly risen to .254, and with the way he’s going, could get to .260 by the end of the weekend.

Up next: The middle game of this three-game set will take place Saturday afternoon at 1:05 p.m. as the Nats send A.J. Cole (0-1, 5.14 ERA) to oppose Jorge De La Rosa (8-7, 5.07 ERA).

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Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Friday night wasn't the first time the Nationals paid tribute to Senators slugger Frank Howard. After all, it’s his likeness that is featured in one of the few statues outside of Nats Park. 

But it wasn't until a recent change in the team’s Ring of Honor criteria — which now allows for any pre-Nats/Expos D.C. great to be inducted — that Howard became eligible for recognition by the franchise.  

 “It’s a real thrill for me, it really is,” said Howard, 80, before Friday’s game against the Colorado Rockies. “It’s nice when somebody says ‘Welcome to the Ring of Honor.’”

For many longtime D.C. sports fans, Howard is one of the few vestiges of the city’s last baseball team before a 34-year gap without the game. He had his best years as a member of the Senators from 1965 to 1971, hitting 237 home runs — the most any player representing D.C. has ever hit.

On Friday, Howard didn’t delve too much into his past, instead praising the current state of D.C.’s baseball team.

“They’re not a young organization anymore,” Howard said of the Nats. “They wanted to create their own image and they should. They’ve done a beautiful job, from top to bottom.”

Howard’s impact on the game went beyond the nation’s capital. Nats manager Dusty Baker said that when he was growing up, his brother would emulate Howard, who began his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“As a kid, his name was big Frank Howard, or ‘Hondo.’,” Baker recalled. “We’re playing games in the back yard and my brother was Frank Howard, and I was Tommy Davis.”

Baker would get to meet and interact with Howard over the years, calling him “the most gentle giant of a man I know.” Howard returned the favor with a few compliments of his own.  

“Dusty Baker is a quality big league player, quality big league manager,” he said. "Knows the game from A to Z and back to Z to A. He’s been very successful.”

And of course, talking to any D.C. baseball great means getting their opinion on the reigning NL MVP, Bryce Harper.

“He haven’t even begun to scratch the surface,” Howard said of the 23-year-old right fielder. “His next 10 years should be dynamite years.”

As great as Howard was for the Senators, the teams he played for in D.C. were rarely considered World Series contenders. This Nats club, on the other hand, represents a perennial threat to win it all, something Howard hopes the team will make good on someday. 

“I think it’d be great for the area,” he said. “We’ve got great fans here, and to give them a world championship ball club would be a real thrill.”