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The Nats' stopper does it again

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The Nats' stopper does it again

He's all of 23 years old, with only 31 big-league starts to his name. The Nationals don't care. They've anointed Stephen Strasburg their ace, and there's no one they'd rather have on the mound when they really need to win a ballgame.

"He's a true No. 1," manager Davey Johnson said. "And he's still learning. I think the best is yet to come with him."

A scary thought, indeed, because even at this relatively novice stage of his career, Strasburg is already establishing himself as one of the true stoppers in the sport.

Take Wednesday night's 3-2 victory over the Rays. The Nationals entered this one on a four-game losing streak, perhaps starting to question their ability to beat the elite competition they're currently facing from the AL East.

There may be no better pitcher in such a situation, though, than Strasburg. Four times this season he's started with the Nationals mired in a losing streak of at least three games. And all four times he's earned a win.

"With him on the mound, you have a lot of confidence in winning that game that day," rookie outfielder Bryce Harper said. "Stras is unbelievable on the bump. He's a specimen out there."

And more and more, he's resembling the man who currently holds the title of "Baseball's Best Pitcher." Yes, Strasburg is beginning to compare favorably to Justin Verlander.

Begin with the pure numbers. Through 14 starts this season, Strasburg is now 9-1 with a 2.46 ERA, leading the majors with 110 strikeouts in only 84 innings. Verlander's stats through the first 14 starts of his MVP 2011 campaign with the Tigers: 7-3, 2.89 ERA, 93 strikeouts in 102 23 innings.

Lest anyone get carried away, this isn't to suggest Strasburg's 2012 numbers are going to surpass Verlander's 2011 numbers by season's end. Verlander did, after all, go 17-2 with a 2.06 ERA over his final 20 starts. Strasburg, meanwhile, is expected to be shut down once he reaches 160 or so innings and won't be making any appearances during the late-September stretch drive.

Point is, Strasburg is dominating as thoroughly as any pitcher could given the strict limitations the Nationals have placed on him.

"He's very good," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "I had never seen it in person. ... He is very, very exciting."

Perhaps the most favorable comparison between Strasburg and Verlander is each pitcher's ability to get stronger the more he throws, peaking not on his first pitch but on his last.

Strasburg certainly put that trait on display Wednesday night during his dominant seventh inning. With his pitch count already in triple digits, he struck out the final two batters he faced: Will Rhymes on an 89 mph changeup, then Desmond Jennings on back-to-back 98 mph fastballs (the hardest pitches he'd thrown since the first inning).

"They kind of say when you see the finish line, you get a little bit more adrenaline going," Strasburg said. "So I'd say maybe that's a little bit what happens. But I don't think I'm going out there with a mindset I'm just going to let everything go."

Each pitch Strasburg threw during his final innings carried plenty of added pressure, because with the Nationals clinging to a one-run lead, one mistake could have made all the difference in the world.

Not that he didn't get a little bit of help behind him, most notably from Steve Lombardozzi in the top of the sixth. With two outs and the potential tying run on second, the Nationals' rookie left fielder came charging in to make a diving catch of Jose Molina's sinking liner, quash the rally and bring the crowd of 27,485 to its feet.

Lombardozzi, a career second baseman who never played the outfield until this season, actually broke backward upon seeing Molina strike the ball but quickly recovered.

"At first I took a step back and I realized it was going to be short," he said. "So I just was hauling my butt in and I was able to make the catch."

Each defensive play late loomed large because a Nationals lineup that pounced on Rays right-hander Chris Archer in his big-league debut for three first-inning runs went silent the rest of the night. Lombardozzi's double, Harper's RBI single and Ian Desmond's RBI single proved to be their club's only hits of the game.

"I'm glad we did it in the first," Johnson said as he opened his postgame news conference.

The manager also was glad to be able to hand the ball to his ace, the 23-year-old who seems to get better as each start progresses, with a limitless future in front of him.

"He does like to use a lot of his pitches early in the game to get the feel for it," Johnson said. "And then as he gets into the game, where he has confidence in all of his pitches, he gets the feeling he can locate all the pitches where he wants them and he can step it up a notch if he needs it.

"That's basically his gameplan. Pretty good one."

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Max Scherzer's bid for third no-hitter ends in heartbreak

Max Scherzer's bid for third no-hitter ends in heartbreak

Max Scherzer's bid for the third no-hitter of his big league career ended with one out in the eighth inning, and he then gave up two unearned runs as the Miami Marlins rallied to beat the Washington Nationals 2-1 Wednesday.

After backup catcher A.J. Ellis reached on an infield single for Miami's first hit, an error by first baseman Adam Lind and a hit batter loaded the bases with two outs. Scherzer threw a wild pitch that scored the tying run, and Giancarlo Stanton lined an RBI single -- the Marlins' only other hit -- to put them ahead.

Scherzer (8-5) threw no-hitters against the Pirates and Mets in 2015, and he seemed on his way to another when he began the eighth inning with a 1-0 lead.

He retired 18 in a row before Ellis hit a chopper that bounced in front of the plate and glanced off the tip of Scherzer's glove as he reached overhead for it. The ball rolled to shortstop Trea Turner, who failed in his attempt to make a barehanded pickup and rush a throw.

MORE NATS: 12-3 win over Marlins Tuesday

Official scorer Ron Jernick immediately ruled the play a hit, and Scherzer knew it. He picked up the ball and angrily flung it to the dugout -- not as a souvenir.

Washington totaled five hits against Dan Straily and three relievers. Kyle Barraclough (3-1) pitched the eighth, and A.J. Ramos worked around a two-out single in the ninth for his 10th save.

Scherzer threw a season-high 121 pitches and had 11 strikeouts, reaching double figures for the sixth game in a row, the team's longest such streak such the franchise moved to Washington for the 2005 season.

He lowered his ERA to 2.08, best in the NL. He also leads the league with 145 strikeouts.

The other no-hitter in the majors this year was achieved on the same mound by Miami's Edinson Volquez against Arizona on June 3.

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The crowd of 22,659 for the 12:10 p.m. start included thousands of youngsters on camp day, and they gave the game a scream-filled soundtrack.

The score was 0-0 until Washington's Ryan Raburn hit his first homer of the year in the fifth. Raburn was a late replacement for outfielder Michael A. Taylor, who was scratched because he wasn't feeling well.

That was the only run allowed by Straily, who went six innings.

Scherzer walked Christian Yelich with two out in the first and hit Derek Dietrich with a pitch with one out in the second. That was Miami's last baserunner until the eighth.

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The Nats got hot Tuesday in Miami with 12-3 win over Marlins

The Nats got hot Tuesday in Miami with 12-3 win over Marlins

Gio Gonzalez had some worrisome moments on the mound Tuesday night, including when a friend sitting in the first row behind the Washington Nationals' dugout was hit in the head by a flying bat.

"Next time in the front row everyone will be wearing a helmet," Gonzalez said.

The friend later said he was fine, and Gonzalez felt good too after pitching seven innings to beat the Miami Marlins 12-3.

Gonzalez (7-1) allowed three runs, including two on Marcell Ozuna's 19th homer , but struck out eight and won his fourth consecutive decision.

"Exactly what we needed," manager Dusty Baker said. "Gio's throwing the ball great."

He had plenty of support even before a five-run ninth. Bryce Harper started the scoring with a two-run single that extended his hitting streak to 13 games, and Daniel Murphy had two RBIs and hit his 12th homer . Stephen Drew had three hits and three RBIs, while Ryan Zimmerman drove in three runs with a double and a single.

Gonzalez, who grew up in nearby Hialeah, improved to 7-3 in 13 starts against his hometown team with an ERA of 2.19. He had a cluster of friends and relatives in attendance, and that's where Justin Bour's bat went when it slipped from his hands on a swing in the fifth inning.

"It's good to have friends here, but put them somewhere safe," Gonzalez said.

He said his pal who was hit received a souvenir later as compensation for being clubbed.

"Bour gave him a bat, which is pretty cool on his part, because we want the fans to come back," Gonzalez said.

The left-hander said it was too early to talk about the possibility of pitching in the All-Star game, which will be played in his hometown next month. His teammates are rooting for it.

"Gio has been great," Harper said. "I'm hoping he pitches like this the rest of the first half and gets the start here. It would be incredible to see."

The NL East leaders went 7 for 14 with runners in scoring position, but it was still 0-0 when Edinson Volquez (3-8) walked Michael A. Taylor and Trea Turner in the third inning, and they advanced on a double steal.

With two outs, Harper tried to bunt on the first pitch -- a curious move by the slugger -- and pushed it foul. He golfed the next pitch into center for the Nationals' first hit to put them up 2-0.

"I don't hit Volquez very well," Harper said. "If I can lay a bunt down with a guy at third and get a knock and score a run ... but it worked out."

Pitching to Harper backfired for Miami, so the next time he came to bat, when the Nationals again had a runner in scoring position, Marlins manager Don Mattingly opted for an intentional walk. Zimmerman foiled the strategy with a two-run double.

"They've got a good lineup," Mattingly said. "They put you in a box in a number of ways."

Volquez allowed a season-high six runs in 4 2/3 innings.

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