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LaRoche, bench deliver for Nationals

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LaRoche, bench deliver for Nationals

The NL East title clinched at last, Davey Johnson felt it was more important Tuesday night to rest most of his regulars than field his very best lineup against the Phillies in an attempt to lock up the league's best record on the season's penultimate day.

So it was that Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Michael Morse, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Kurt Suzuki all watched the game from the dugout, their bodies and minds still recovering from the previous night's raucous celebration at Nationals Park.

There was, however, one key veteran who found his way into his familiar spot in the heart of the Nationals lineup. Adam LaRoche, sitting on 99 RBI, wanted to take a crack at reaching the century mark for only the second time in his career.

"I was going to get one of these next two days a little breather," he said. "We had a bunch of guys sitting today. I told them I'd go in there and try it out. I'm glad they talked me into it."

As are the Nationals, who benefited from LaRoche's leadoff homer in the sixth, the go-ahead blast that sent them on their way to a 4-2 victory over the Phillies and left them on a precipice of baseball's best record heading into Game 162.

At 97-64, the Nationals remain tied with the Reds (who beat the Cardinals, 3-1) entering Wednesday's finales. Because they own the head-to-head tiebreaker against Cincinnati, one more victory would make them the NL's top seed in the postseason and leave them to open the NLDS on Sunday at the winner of Friday's Wild Card game.

Thing is, the clubhouse still isn't sure whether that's the best-case scenario or not, with a Saturday-opening NLDS in San Francisco the other option.

"I don't know," LaRoche said. "We've been talking about that. I think we're 50-50 on it. I don't know necessarily the advantage. We're going to play to win tomorrow, and either way we're not in a bad spot. So I'd say we're fine, whatever happens."

They certainly were fine Tuesday, in spite of their lineup of backups and the parade of relievers who combined to churn out nine innings so Game 1 starter Gio Gonzalez could get the night off.

Tom Gorzelanny, typically a long man, was given the ball to make his first start since July 23, 2011, and responded with 3 23 solid innings. Christian Garcia, Zach Duke, Ryan Mattheus, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen then finished it off, combining to allow one run on five hits over the final 5 13 innings.

"We did a great job today," Gorzelanny said. "Guys came in did a great job. Guys have been pitching a lot lately and still are able to come in there and produce."

The real stars of this game might well have been the bench players who took this rare opportunity to start and made the most of it.

Steve Lombardozzi drove in two runs. Roger Bernadina drove in a run and scored another by tagging up on a shallow fly ball to center field. Sandy Leon reached base three times.

And Mark DeRosa singled, doubled, scored a run and started at shortstop for the first time since 2006, turning a nifty 1-6-3 double play to end the second inning.

"Awesome," the 37-year-old utilityman said. "Little older, little heavier on my legs, no doubt. But it's a position I played my whole life, coming up through the minors. ... So I appreciate Davey giving me that. That was, kind of come full circle, finish it off nice."

The biggest blast of them all came via LaRoche, who led off the sixth by belting a home run into the right-field bullpen. That gave him 33 homers on the season (a new career-high) and gave him 100 RBI (matching his career-high).

"It feels pretty good," he said. "That's something that for anybody in the middle of the lineup, it's kind of a milestone to reach 100. If I had finished on 99, it would have been a tough pill to swallow."

LaRoche's homer earned him a curtain call from the crowd of 33,546. Those same fans were back on their feet as Storen recorded the game's final out, securing the Nationals' 97th win and leaving them one win shy of baseball's best record in 2012.

Whether they actually want that designation remains unclear.

"I prefer not to fly out to San Francisco for just two days, just for travel purposes," DeRosa said. "But in 2010 with the Giants that's exactly what we did and it was fine. It really doesn't matter once those games start. It's who's going to execute and who's going to enjoy the moment instead of letting it get too big for them."

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Stephen Strasburg has career-high 15 strikeouts in Nationals win over Padres

Stephen Strasburg has career-high 15 strikeouts in Nationals win over Padres

WASHINGTON -- Stephen Strasburg dominated San Diego with a career-high 15 strikeouts while allowing three hits over seven innings as the Washington Nationals beat the Padres 3-0 on Saturday.

Strasburg (6-1) singled and scored Washington's first run on Bryce Harper's RBI grounder in the third inning. Michael A. Taylor hit a two-run homer for the second consecutive game.

San Diego's lineup offered little resistance against Strasburg the day after Max Scherzer dominated the Padres with 13 strikeouts in Washington's 5-1 win.

Strasburg struck out the side in the third and sixth and had at least two in the first six innings.

The right-hander previously struck out 14 batters twice including his Major League debut on June 8, 2010. He set a personal best by setting down Franchy Cordero in the seventh.

Matt Albers pitched the eighth and Koda Glover the ninth for his fifth save.

Clayton Richard (3-6) followed up his complete-game victory over the Diamondbacks on May 21 by allowing three runs and 10 hits over six innings.

One out after Anthony Rendon's leadoff single in the sixth, Taylor drove a pitch over the wall in center field for his fourth homer of the season.

Washington has won two straight and five of six.

San Diego is 5-13 since May 9.

Strasburg registered his third win in as many starts. The San Diego native is 6-1 with a 2.93 ERA for his career against his hometown team.

He also matched the Padres' hit total thru five innings. After moving to third base following his leadoff single in third, Strasburg beat a throw home from first baseman Yangervis Solarte for a 1-0 lead.

San Diego loaded the bases with one out in the first following a single, a throwing error by first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and Cory Spangenberg's four-pitch walk. Strasburg ended the threat by striking out Austin Hedges on three pitches.

The Padres had two singles in the sixth, but Strasburg recorded strikeouts for the final two outs. Washington pitchers finished with 17 strikeouts.

MORE NATIONALS: Nationals players visit local little league baseball teams

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Nationals players visit local little league baseball teams

Nationals players visit local little league baseball teams

The Nationals visited several Washington D.C.-area little league baseball teams on Saturday before their afternoon game against the Padres.

The Nats’ Youth Baseball Uniform Program enables the team to get involved in their community. In addition to visiting local youth teams, the Nationals give all each player a jersey, a hat and the opportunity to come to a game at Nats Park.

RELATED: BRYCE HARPER LAUNCHES MAMMOTH HOME RUN INTO THIRD DECK AT NATIONAL PARK

The goal of the program is to “breakdown and minimize financial barriers that can prevent kids from playing baseball.”

Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Max Scherzer were among the 10 Nats who went on the community visits.

Harper at one point encouraged kids not to settle for losing, saying “as much as they might tell you it’s okay you lost - no.”

Giving back to the community has always been important for the Washington Nationals, and all the players - from little leaguers to major leaguers - seem to enjoy it. 

More Nationals: 'YOU CAN'T NICKEL AND DIME A BULLPEN'