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Red-hot Nats in rare company

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Red-hot Nats in rare company

PHOENIX -- The 70-win plateau shouldn't mean anything for a ballclub, but in the mostly unremarkable, 78-year history of Washington baseball, that figure has been reached only 37 times.

And only twice before had a D.C. baseball team gotten to the 70-win mark in 113 games or fewer: 1925 and 1933. The common thread between those two Senators clubs? They're the last two Washington teams to reach the World Series.

So the fact the Nationals joined that rare group Friday night with a 9-1 dismantling of the Diamondbacks speaks volumes about the quality of baseball being played by this team in 2012. Even if those inside the clubhouse insist they're still not getting caught up in the hysteria.

"That number's not important to me," manager Davey Johnson said. "What's important to me is how we play every day, and we're playing like I know we're capable of playing. We're not doing anything more, anything special. We're just playing within ourselves."

And when the Nationals do play within themselves, they rarely lose. They've opened the longest road trip of their season with five consecutive wins. Add two victories to close out their last homestand, and the Nats have now won seven straight.

At 70-43, they're nine games up in the wild-card race, four games up in the NL East, three games ahead of everyone else in the sport.

They're playing .644 ball on the road and have won 11 of their last 12 away from South Capitol Street.

Here's the real reality check: If they go 25-24 the rest of the way, the Nationals will still finish with 95 wins. If they merely go 20-29 from now through Oct. 3, they'll still win 90 games.

"I think we've got our blinders on right now, just playing," outfielder Michael Morse said. "A lot of us, including myself, we don't know what tomorrow is going to bring. This is uncharted waters for a lot of guys in here. We like what we're doing. We want to keep doing what we're doing."

So they emerged from the dugout at Chase Field Friday night and did just that, cruising to a blowout victory over a Diamondbacks club that is trying to keep itself in the NL pennant race.

This victory included six innings of one-hit ball from Stephen Strasburg, a start that probably sounds more dominant than it truly was because the right-hander battled some command issues and matched his season high with four walks while racking up 104 pitches.

Strasburg actually had a no-hitter in its infant stages with two outs in the bottom of the fourth when a foul tip caught Dale Scott square in the jaw, knocked off his mask and forced the veteran umpire out of the game. The ensuing nine-minute delay before C.B. Bucknor (who had been manning third base) was able to strap on his gear might have thrown a wrench into Strasburg's slim shot at a history-making start.

"It really affected him, and it's my fault," Johnson said. "I feel bad, because I should've known it was probably going to take 10 minutes, and I let him stand there. ... When I saw him go down, I should have said: 'Boys, come on off. This is going to take a while.'"

Strasburg tried to stay loose by throwing some warm-up pitches to Kurt Suzuki, but when play finally resumed with Bucknor now calling balls and strikes, Strasburg suffered his only hiccup of the evening. He walked Miguel Montero, then surrendered an RBI single to Chris Johnson.

"I've never experienced anything like that," Strasburg said. "I hope he's OK and everything. Unfortunately, it happens sometimes. I wish I went out there and threw strikes, but it just didn't work out. Just glad I was just able to give up one that inning."

Strasburg (13-5) not only didn't give up another run after that point, he didn't put another man on base. He retired seven in a row to complete a strong evening of work, battling through a stiff back that acted up when he tried to cover first base on a grounder to the right side.

By that point, the Nationals had given their starter a 4-1 lead thanks to home runs from Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse (the latter of which traveled 446 feet to right-center field, the longest opposite-field homer in the majors this season, according to ESPN's Hit Tracker).

Nine of Morse's 11 homers this season have been hit to either center or right fields.

"It's pretty impressive what he does," Zimmerman said. "The stuff he does is stuff that normal people don't usually do."

After a series of nailbiters in Houston that might have taken a few years off Johnson's life, the Nationals decided to make this one easy on their manager. They tacked on five late runs after Strasburg departed, including four in the top of the ninth that turned this game into a rout.

Thus this ballclub won for the 70th time in 113 games. There are still 49 games left to play, and much can happen during those seven remaining weeks.

But there are fewer and fewer opportunities for complete catastrophe to happen now. If they merely stay the course, the Nationals have positioned themselves to do something special in 2012.

"We're just getting to the fun time," Johnson said. "The only thing I think about numbers is when you get to a certain point where you can play .500 ball and still win 95 games. Then you're in pretty good shape."

Guess what, Davey? One more win and you're there.

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Nationals win 6-2 after Stephen Strasburg leaves in second inning

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USA TODAY Sports

Nationals win 6-2 after Stephen Strasburg leaves in second inning

PHOENIX -- Stephen Strasburg left after struggling with his control in the second inning, and the Washington Nationals wrapped up a successful nine-game trip with a 6-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday.

There was no word from the Nationals during the game explaining the standout right-hander's departure.

Strasburg, 10-3 with a 3.31 ERA entering the game, uncharacteristically walked the No. 8 and No. 9 batters in the second inning before departing with a 5-0 lead. He threw 51 pitches, 29 strikes.

Brian Goodwin's leadoff homer ignited a four-run first inning off Robbie Ray (9-5), who lasted five innings, allowing five runs.

Bryce Harper singled in the first to extend his hitting streak to 16 games.

Wilmer Difo hit his second home run of the season off reliever T.J. McFarland in the seventh.

Joe Blanton (1-2) got two outs and earned the win.

The NL East-leading Nationals took two of three in Arizona to go 7-2 on the trip.

Nine players batted for Washington in the opening inning. Goodwin started it with a booming shot high above the home run line across the batter's eye in straightaway center.

Difo and Harper singled and Ryan Zimmerman's sacrifice fly made it 2-0. Daniel Murphy walked and Anthony Rendon singled in a run. Jose Lobaton capped the scoring with a two-out RBI single before Strasburg bounced into a fielder's choice to end Ray's 39-pitch inning.

Arizona broke through with two runs in the fifth.

Chris Iannetta had a pinch-hit single with one out and David Descalso walked before Ketel Marte and David Peralta each singled in a run. With runners at first and third and one out, Blanton came on to strike out Paul Goldschmidt and got Chris Owings to ground into a fielder's choice.

The Diamondbacks had runners at second and third with one out in the sixth but Enny Romero struck out A.J. Pollock and Descalso bounced out to second. Romero left the game in the seventh with an apparent injury.

Arizona, 3-6 since the All-Star break, stranded 11 runners.

Washington's Andrew Stevenson, called up from Triple-A Syracuse, was 0 for 2 in his major league debut.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: Washington placed OF Chris Heisey on the 10-day DL. Heisey strained his left groin in Saturday night's 4-3 victory. Additionally, OF Ryan Raburn was placed on the bereavement list.

Diamondbacks: J.D. Martinez appeared in his first game in Arizona as a Diamondback after missing three games with a bruised wrist, the result of being hit by a pitch in his Diamondbacks debut. He walked as a pinch hitter in the seventh.

UP NEXT

Nationals: Washington has Monday off and hosts Milwaukee on Tuesday. RH Edwin Jackson makes his second start for the Nationals.

Diamondbacks: Arizona begins a three-game home series against Atlanta on Monday night. Zack Greinke (11-4, 2.93 ERA), 9-0 with a 2.41 ERA in 11 home starts, goes for the Diamondbacks. R.A. Dickey (6-6, 4.14) counters for the Braves.

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Bryce Harper powers Nationals past Diamondbacks

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Bryce Harper powers Nationals past Diamondbacks

PHOENIX -- The newest additions to the Washington bullpen came through when called upon to help deliver a victory to their new team.

Sean Doolittle stranded the potential tying run by escaping a jam for his second save for Washington, and Ryan Madson tossed a scoreless eighth inning as the Nationals held off the Arizona Diamondbacks 4-3 on Saturday night.

"The game can really speed up on you once you start getting guys on base," said Doolittle, who with Madson arrived in a trade with Oakland earlier in the week. "The crowd and the energy of the stadium can kind of take over and ... you have to be mindful enough to step off the mound, slow the game down a bit, kind of press reset."

Bryce Harper homered and drove in two runs, and starting pitcher Tanner Roark struck out a season-high 11. Roark (8-6) gave up two runs and three hits in seven innings for the NL East-leading Nationals.

"Curveball felt good. Just keep the hitter guessing," Roark said.

Harper hit his 25th home run on a full-count offspeed pitch from Anthony Banda (0-1), who lost in his major league debut.

Chris Iannetta hit a two-out RBI double in the bottom half, but the Nationals opened a 4-1 lead with a three-run sixth.

Harper hit a run-scoring double and scored on Ryan Zimmerman's double, and Anthony Rendon beat out an RBI single that sent Zimmerman home.

"They had a young guy out there that throws the ball really hard, has good command. He's going to be really good in the next couple of years for sure," Harper said of Banda. "Just got him this time and got a few runs up there."

A.J. Pollock tripled in the bottom half and scored on Jake Lamb's groundout, and Arizona reliever Jorge De La Rosa got out of bases-loaded trouble in the seventh when he struck out Harper and Zimmerman.

Doolittle, acquired from Oakland last weekend, walked Lamb leading off the ninth. Iannetta hit a broken-bat grounder to third, and Rendon's throw to second went into right field for an error that put runners on the corners.

Paul Goldschmidt hit a sacrifice fly, Chris Owings flied out and Doolittle struck out Ketel Marte for his second save with the Nationals.

"Madson's been great for us. Doolittle ... he never panics. It was great to see. It's a lot of fun to have a back end like that," Harper said.

Banda allowed four runs and seven hits in 5 2/3 innings, struck out five and walked none. He was optioned back to Triple-A Reno after the game.

"I felt confident. I threw the ball in the zone and kept attacking hitters," Banda said. "I made a couple of mistakes, Harper and the middle of the lineup."