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As always, Strasburg all business

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As always, Strasburg all business

Perhaps one of these days -- when he throws a no-hitter or throws the final pitch of a pennant-clinching victory for the Nationals -- Stephen Strasburg will offer up the kind of display of emotion few have ever seen from him.

For now, there's very little that can happen on the field to break through the stone-faced visage of a 23-year-old right-hander who expects the very best from himself and isn't about to publicly celebrate his accomplishments.

Strike out seven of 10 batters over a four-inning stretch? Nothing. Club the first home run of your career and be summoned by an overflow crowd of 41,918 for a curtain call? Just give a quick tip of the cap. Find out your manager revealed you were were dealing with some kind of arm trouble? The exterior expression still doesn't change.

"I just think that's his thing," teammate Danny Espinosa said. "He doesn't show emotion, and that's good. If things are going good or bad, there's no emotion shown, which to me is an even-keeled guy."

There were other important developments during the Nats' 9-3 victory over the Orioles Sunday afternoon in the finale of this series. Bryce Harper overcame an early error to deliver the two-run triple that ignited a sleeping lineup. Jesus Flores mashed only his second big-league homer in three years. Espinosa produced two of his biggest hits in weeks.

At the end of the day, though, the spotlight once again shined brightest on the pitcher who has been under the brightest spotlight since the day the Nationals drafted him three summers ago. For plenty of reasons, some positive, some potentially negative.

Through it all, Strasburg stayed calm and determined. He wasn't fazed by a shaky couple of innings to begin his afternoon, when the Orioles scored three runs (two unearned) and jumped out to an early lead that left many wondering whether Strasburg was about to endure through another outing too similar to his previous laborious appearance five days earlier against the Padres.

He simply retired 10 straight batters, striking out seven to silence the Orioles' potent lineup.

"It was almost like deja vu, especially after what happened the previous game," he said. "I wanted to go out there and do a better job of not letting that affect how I attack hitters. It was nice to be able to go out there and adjust from it and keep the team in the ballgame long enough for us to put some runs on the board."

Unlike that game against San Diego, the Nationals stormed back and got Strasburg off the hook. Though he was just as influential in making that happen as anyone in the lineup.

It was Strasburg's leadoff single in the third that set in motion a three-run rally. And then one inning later, he pulled off his most extraordinary feat yet.

Behind in the count 0-2 to Baltimore left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, Strasburg decided to sit on a curveball. He got one, and the force of his swing sent shockwaves throughout the park.

The ball sailed toward left field, sending Xavier Avery back to the fence. Eventually, the Orioles outfielder ran out of real estate and could only watch as the ball landed in the visitors bullpen, then as Strasburg strolled around the bases on a 26-second victory lap following the first home run of his career.

"Shocking," Strasburg admitted. "That's for sure."

He, of course, was being modest. Those who watch Strasburg hit on a regular basis knew this might happen some day.

"Oh, we watch him all the time; it's a display," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "I think Ryan Zimmerman was joking: He needs to start in the All-Star Game and hit in the Home Run Derby. It's pretty impressive."

Throughout his stroll around the bases, Strasburg never showed any out-of-the-ordinary emotion. He didn't pump his fist. He didn't even appear to smile until he finally returned to the dugout and a few teammates began to rib him.

"I think Strasburg just expects to hit," Espinosa said. "He's a good hitter. He's a good athlete. I don't know, I don't think too much really affects him."

Perhaps not even some arm soreness that may or may not have been significant. Manager Davey Johnson surprisingly volunteered that Strasburg told him following the fifth inning that his right biceps muscle was tight. His pitch count already at 90, Johnson just decided to shut him down for the day.

"His tightness was in his bicep, and he said it was bothering him," the manager said. "Early on, he thought he could get it loose and keep going, but it seemed to get tighter on him. And as soon as I heard that, I said that was it."

Strasburg insisted he had no such issue in his biceps, only the typical kind of fatigue he feels after pitching.

"I wouldn't say it was just my arm," he said. "I think it was just my body."

Strasburg attributed the issue to his having overworked himself in the days since his last start. Perhaps wanting too much to bounce back from a four-inning loss, he did more extensive weight-lifting and throwing in the days since and paid the price for it Sunday when he took the mound.

"Nothing different than any other outing," he reiterated. "It's something that it's going to be like this for probably the rest of the year. It's just part of coming back from Tommy John surgery, building up the innings, getting the stamina and everything. It's something I've just got to be smart about."

Red flags might be waving across town now, but both Johnson and Strasburg insisted he'll make his next start -- currently scheduled for Saturday in Atlanta -- and that there is nothing to be concerned about moving forward. Given Strasburg's history and the manner in which the Nationals have taken extreme precautions with their former No. 1 pick, few would be surprised if the plan changes.

If this is actually something serious, Strasburg certainly wasn't letting on Sunday. He remained his usual self in the postgame clubhouse, chatting with teammates, watching highlights of his performance on MLB Network and eventually showering and dressing for the team's short bus ride to Philadelphia.

For now, he was concerned only with the job he did to help his team snap a three-game losing streak and avoid a sweep at the hands of the Orioles.

That's Strasburg's job, and he's very serious about it.

"To be completely honest, I'm the type of person I want to take ownership," he said. "I want to take charge. I want to be that guy they can rely on to get the job done. At times, I feel like I have to do more to go out there and get the team back on track. And a lot of it's out of my control. I have to go out there and try to do my job. And if everybody does their job, we're going to be OK."

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Updated MLB Postseason 2017 Bracket Projection

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USA Today Sports Images

Updated MLB Postseason 2017 Bracket Projection

Postseason teams are continuing to win, except for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and some incredible runs put on by teams just outside of the playoffs are being pushed to the side.

Although most of the divisions have been wrapped up, the battle for first place in each league and the overall top seed for home-field throughout the playoffs are getting heated. Of course the Dodgers losing three straight to Philadelphia Phillies, with the potential for the sweep tonight, is a huge factor.

RELATED: IN-DEPTH LOOK AT THE WILD CARD RACE

Still at 96 wins they hold the best record in baseball but everyone is charging fast. Cleveland is now a game behind for home-field throughout the playoffs and Houston is 2.5 back. The Indians have won 26 of their last 27 and the Astros have claimed six straight.

The Washington Nationals (NL East Division Winner) have all but clinched the No. 2 seed in the National League and are slowly catching up to the Dodgers for No. 1.

After getting swept by the Boston Red Sox at home, the Baltimore Orioles postseason hopes are all but gone. With the possibility of losing Zach Britton it may be time to see the white flag.

Since the last bracket update on September 18, only the Boston Red Sox have clinched a postseason spot.

NATIONAL LEAGUE:

Things are not looking good in Los Angeles as the Phillies are in control of the Dodgers. Clayton Kershaw gave up a grand slam in the sixth of his lone start and the bullpen has not been much better in the last two games. With the potential of the sweep tonight, the Dodgers are not trending in the right direction with the playoffs around the corner.

As a result, the Nationals are back into the fold for first place after winning two straight against the Atlanta Braves (the series finale is tonight). Only back 3.5 games for the top seed in the National League, the Nationals are in a golden opportunity. On top of making this run with a six-man rotation to get playoff starters rest, the team is going against opponents with a .432 winning percentage the rest of the way.

MORE NATS: SCHERZER'S HSITORIC NIGHT

While the Dodgers have struggled, their NL West rival, the Arizona Diamondbacks have not done much better. Arizona lost two of three to the Padres, only gaining one game on the Dodgers division lead. Los Angeles’ magic number is two with ten games remaining.

The National League Central Division has crunched up slightly from Monday. Chicago still leads but it is now down to 3.5 edge over the Milwaukee Brewers. Right behind the Brewers are the St. Louis Cardinals five games back of the Cubs. It is now gut-check time for the Cubs who have won seven of their last ten. Today they head to Milwaukee for a four game series that will likely decide the division and then head to St. Louis who are still in the thick of things.

Despite the bumps, Arizona is still well in control of their playoff fate. Colorado is behind them by 5.5 games for the first Wild Card, but the Brewers (-1.0 game) and Cardinals (-2.5 games) are now within striking range.

If the season were to end today, here is how the National League bracket would look:

Wild Card Round (Winner-take-all):

No. 5 Colorado Rockies (82-70) at No. 4 Arizona Diamondbacks (88-65)

National League Divisional Series (Best-of-5):

No. 1 Los Angeles Dodgers (96-56) vs. Wild Card Round Winner
No. 2 Washington Nationals (92-59) vs. No. 3 Chicago Cubs (84-67)

Wild Card Race:

Arizona Diamondbacks:  +5.5
Colorado Rockies:             ---
Milwaukee Brewers:         -1.0
St. Louis Cardinals:          -2.5
Miami Marlins:                -10.0

AMERICAN LEAGUE:

Both the Indians (AL Central Division Winner) and the Astros (AL West Division Winner) continue to win so there is not much change among the top teams in the American League. The lead for Cleveland for the top seed is 1.5 games. This upcoming weekend, Houston does face their division rivals, the Los Angeles Angels who are battling for one of the two Wild Card spots. Likely it is the chance for Cleveland to pull away.

The New York Yankees completed a dominant sweep of the Minnesota Twins in a battle of potential Wild Card teams. However, the Boston Red Sox also swept the Orioles preventing the Yankees from gaining any ground in the AL East race. Still back three games, New York still has the advantage of playing lesser opponents (combined .478 winning percentage) at home. Surprisingly there will not be an end-of-season series between the two to decide the division.

Boston’s sweep earned them a post-season berth but their magic number for the division is eight games.

With the Twins getting swept, ten teams remain in contention for the final Wild Card spot. Again, New York/ Boston has all but locked up the top Wild Card. The Texas Rangers (2.5 games back) have taken two straight in Seattle, vaulting the Rangers into contention but dropping the Mariners (4.0 games back). Facing the Indians, the Los Angeles Angels have barely moved (1.5 games back). Creeping in after being after-thoughts are the Kansas City Royals (3.5 games back) and Tampa Bay Rays (4.0 games back).

MORE ORIOLES: TIM BECKHAM WAS A MLB TRADE DEADLINE STEAL

Fortunately for the Twins, they get the chance for a rebound series against the Detroit Tigers this weekend.  Los Angeles travels to Houston for three games, New York heads to Toronto, Texas continues their West Coast road trip with the Athletics, while the Royals host the lowly White Sox.

If the season were to end today, here is how the American League bracket would look:

Wild Card Round (Winner-take-all):

No. 5 Minnesota Twins (78-74) at No. 4 New York Yankees (85-67)

American League Divisional Series (Best-of-5):

No. 1 Cleveland Indians (95-57) vs. Wild Card Round Winner
No. 2 Houston Astros (93-58) vs. No. 3 Boston Red Sox (88-64)

Wild Card Race:

New York Yankees:     +7.0
Minnesota Twins:           ---
Los Angeles Angels:     -1.5
Texas Rangers:             -2.5
Kansas City Royals:      -3.5
Seattle Mariners:           -4.0
Tampa Bay Rays:          -4.0
Baltimore Orioles:          -5.5
Toronto Blue Jays:        -7.0
Oakland Athletics:         -9.0

All records and standings are as of Thursday morning at 9:00 am, check back next Monday and Thursday for MLB bracket updates.

MORE MLB NEWS: WHEN WILL BRYCE HARPER RETURN TO THE NATS?

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Nationals vs. Braves Preview: Gonzalez looks to rebound

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USA TODAY Sports

Nationals vs. Braves Preview: Gonzalez looks to rebound

ATLANTA -- One of the questions the Atlanta Braves brass must answer during the offseason is whether right-handed pitching prospect Lucas Sims belongs in the rotation or the bullpen.

Sims (2-5, 5.52 ERA) will make another start Wednesday against the Washington Nationals, who send veteran left-hander Gio Gonzalez (14-7, 2.68) to oppose him in the second contest of a three-game series at SunTrust Park.

The Nationals won the series opener 4-2 on Tuesday to take a 9-8 lead in the season series. The loss guaranteed Atlanta (67-82) would have a losing record for the fourth consecutive season.

RELATED: WHEN WILL BRYCE HARPER RETURN?

Gonzalez, like teammate Max Scherzer, is a candidate for the National League Cy Young Award. The southpaw is coming off a poor showing against Atlanta on Sept. 12, when he allowed five runs in five innings despite eight strikeouts.

"You get the strikeouts and then all of a sudden, the hits came in," Gonzalez said. "It was just one of those games. You take it for what it was, sweep it up the rug and get ready for tomorrow. It was one of those games you can't really understand what happened, just pick up where you can and go from there."

The Braves have fared well against Gonzalez. In 20 career starts against Atlanta, he is 4-11 with a 5.27 ERA. This season, Gonzalez is 0-2 with a 6.48 ERA in three starts vs. the Braves.

Sims, a rookie who was the team's first-round draft choice in 2012, has made 11 appearances (seven starts). He has made it clear that he prefers to be a starting pitcher.

The Braves moved Sims to the bullpen after his Sept. 2 start against the Chicago Cubs, when he allowed seven runs in three innings. Because he was stretched out, Sims had the ability to throw multiple innings out of the 'pen, which he did in two of his subsequent four relief appearances.

However, on Sunday, the Braves announced Sims as the starter for the Wednesday game and moved left-hander Max Fried to the bullpen. Fried is another rookie who will be under consideration to join the rotation in 2018.

"The kid never quits," Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Sims. "He keeps pitching. He competes."

In seven starts, Sims has averaged 5 1/3 innings per outing. In 44 innings overall, he has recorded 31 strikeouts and 15 walks.

Sims has made only one appearance against Washington, that a perfect one-inning stint on Sept. 13.

Atlanta has had trouble scoring runs of late. Over the past five games, the Braves managed only 11 runs.

The Braves likely will be without catalyst Ender Inciarte on Wednesday. The center fielder left the game early Tuesday with right thumb soreness. Snitker said there was no structural damage and that Inciarte needs a day of rest.

"We just have to back off," Snitker said. "It's just sore."

Inciarte doesn't like to take a day off under normal circumstances, must less when he is chasing 200 hits. He was 0-for-2 on Tuesday, leaving him with 190 hits. He is trying to become the first Atlanta player to reach the milestone since Marquis Grissom in 1996.

Washington is close to getting its injured players back.

Outfielder Bryce Harper (hyperextended left knee) and infielder Stephen Drew (left abdominal strain) ran before the Tuesday game. Both are eligible to come off the disabled list whenever they are deemed healthy.

RELATED: MLB POSTSEASON 2017 BRACKET PROJECTION