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Gio, Nats move one step closer

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Gio, Nats move one step closer

NEW YORK -- It was by no means his best performance of the season, but it didn't need to be. Thanks to some early support from what has suddenly becomes baseball's most power-laden lineup, Gio Gonzalez needed only navigate his way through six quality innings Monday night to emerge as baseball's first 19-game winner of 2012.

And the Nationals, despite failing to record a hit after the fourth inning, still managed to pull off a thoroughly convincing, 5-1 victory over the Mets that moved them yet another step closer to October baseball.

Combined with the Braves' loss in Milwaukee, the Nationals saw their lead in the NL East grow to 6 12 games with 21 to play, their magic number drop to 15. The number to secure their first-ever postseason berth dropped to single digits: 9.

"Great win," manager Davey Johnson said. "And I think we eliminated the Mets from the pennant race, didn't we?"

Indeed, they did. Two days after knocking the Marlins officially out of contention for the division title, they did the same to New York.

"That made me a little happy," said Johnson, who 26 years ago led that franchise to its last World Series crown. "That's why I was throwing everything but the kitchen sink out there."

Johnson didn't mess around in the first game of this series at Citi Field. Despite a late four-run lead, he used top setup men Ryan Mattheus and Drew Storen and then closer Tyler Clippard and even sent in a defensive replacement for Michael Morse in left field.

Not that there was ever much doubt about the outcome of this game. That's in part because Gonzalez was so good at overcoming his frequent bouts of wildness, pitching around five walks to hold New York to one run over six innings.

"He scared me," the manager said. "He had more balls, I think, in the fourth and fifth innings ... than strikes. He had great stuff, but just wasn't really consistent. Wasn't one of his better ones, but he did have great stuff and he did battle and give me six innings, so I was real pleased with that."

Gonzalez couldn't really pinpoint why his command was so off.

"I don't know. Couldn't find the strike zone, drank a little too much coffee," he said. "Don't know what it is. I mean, a bunch of different answers to that one."

When he needed to settle down and throw strikes, Gonzalez was eased by words of confidence from catcher Kurt Suzuki and shortstop Ian Desmond, who helped the left-hander navigate his way through a ragged night.

"The thing I'm talking about with Gio is learning how to pitch -- especially when you don't have your best command or your best stuff out there -- and getting the job done," Suzuki said. "That's the sign of becoming a pitcher."

It helps to pitch with a lead, which Gonzalez was afforded thanks to three early home runs from Suzuki, Zimmerman and Desmond. That gave the Nationals 33 homers over their last 13 games, a sudden surge of power for a lineup that is just now realizing its full potential.

"We've got a lot of guys that are very strong," Johnson said. "They're growing to be good hitters. Zim's already a great hitter. I think he's fully over that shoulder injury. That ball tonight was crushed, one of the hardest hit balls I've seen. Look up and down our lineup, there's a lot of guys that have a bunch of homers."

Included in that bunch is Desmond, whose two-run shot in the fourth was his 22nd of the year. That's more than any middle infielder in Washington baseball history has ever hit, and it duplicates the total number of homers the shortstop hit through the first two-plus years of his big-league career.

"I mean, I'm a better hitter period this year than I have been in the past," Desmond said. "I think I figured some things out with the help of Davey and just kind of trying to move forward, take steps in the right direction and become the player I think I can be."

Desmond's not alone. Gonzalez this year is becoming the pitcher many thought he could be, now on the verge of his 20th win of the season. And the Nationals as a whole are becoming the team many hoped they could be but couldn't have imagined they'd become so soon.

With each passing day, they move closer to making it all official.

"It's great," Suzuki said. "Our main focus is to just win ballgames. We don't worry about other stuff. We just have to focus on our task and still win ballgames, and at the end of the season, hopefully it'll get us in a good place."

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Bryce Harper launches mammoth home run into third deck at National Park

Bryce Harper launches mammoth home run into third deck at National Park

Bryce Harper had been in a little bit of a slump heading into Friday's game against the Padres, but in the seventh inning, he got back to what he does best. 

With a full count and a runner aboard, Harper launched an absolute bomb that landed in the third deck down the right field line at Nationals Park. That means a new seat will be painted red where the ball landed. 

Check out the blast for yourself: 

It was the 15th homer of the year for Harper, which leads the National League. 

More Nationals: Scherzer dominates Padres with 13-strikeout game

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Max Scherzer absolutely dominates Padres, piles up 13 strikeouts

Max Scherzer absolutely dominates Padres, piles up 13 strikeouts

WASHINGTON -- Max Scherzer allowed three hits over 8 2/3 innings, Bryce Harper and Michael A. Taylor hit two-run homers and the Washington Nationals defeated the San Diego Padres 5-1 on Friday night.

Trea Turner added a solo homer and a double for Washington.

Scherzer (5-3) struck out a season-high 13. He allowed a single to Austin Hodges in the second, Ryan Schimpf's solo homer in the fourth and Allen Cordoba's single in the ninth, throwing 108 pitches, 81 for strikes

Scherzer, who tossed a season-low five innings in a loss to Atlanta last time out, retired 14 straight before Cordoba's single. After a walk to Yangervis Solarte, acting manager Chris Speier visited the mound, but he momentarily left Scherzer in.

However, after a strikeout and a hit batter, Speier called on Koda Glover who struck out pinch-hitter Hunter Renfroe to pick up his fourth save.

With Washington leading 3-1 in the seventh, Harper hit a towering shot into the third deck off reliever Kirby Yates, his 15th of the season.

After Schimpf's homer had tied it 1-1, Taylor quickly regained the lead for Washington when he homered with Matt Wieters aboard in the bottom of the inning.

Since taking over for injured center fielder Adam Lind on April 29, Taylor is hitting .307 (27 for 88) with five doubles, three triples, three homers and 10 RBIs.

San Diego starter Luis Perdomo (0-2) allowed three runs and six hits over six innings. He struck out six and walked two.

In the bottom of the first, Turner sent a 2-1 pitch over the wall in center field the Nationals' first leadoff homer of the season. It was the third of Turner's career.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Padres: OF Manuel Margot, who left Wednesday's game with right calf soreness, was in a walking boot. Manager Andy Green said the boot is a precaution for now. "Becoming increasingly likely that it's a DL stint, but he's active tonight," Green said. . RHP Carter Capps (Tommy John surgery) threw on the side Friday. "There's talk of facing hitters again on Monday or Tuesday," Green said.

Nationals: An MRI on OF Chris Heisey confirmed he has a ruptured right biceps tendon. However, he will attempt to rehab the injury without surgery and could return in a relatively short time. Heisey was on the field during batting practice, shagging fly balls in the outfield.

INSPEIERED LEADERSHIP

With manager Dusty Baker away this weekend to attend his son Darren's high school graduation in California, bench coach Speier is the acting manager. Asked before the game about Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy being out the lineup, Speier deadpanned: "Actually, Zimmerman had a whiffle ball accident with his daughter, sprained his right wrist and Murph's back is blown out." He quickly added: "Just a day off."

UP NEXT

Padres: LHP Clayton Richards (3-5, 4.31) is 1-3 in 10 career appearances, six starts, against the Nationals with a 3.56 ERA

Nationals: RHP Stephen Strasburg (5-1, 3.28) faces his hometown team for the seventh time in his career. He is 5-1 with a 3.50 ERA against San Diego.