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Red-hot Nats in rare company


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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Bryce Harper named National League Player of the Week

Bryce Harper named National League Player of the Week

If you've understandably been caught up with the Capitals and Wizards in their respective playoff series, you might not be aware of just how hot Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper is right now. Fresh off a three-game sweep of the rival Mets in New York, Harper was named National League Player of the Week. 

For the whole week, Harper hit .550 (11-for-20) with four doubles, three home runs, seven RBI, seven walks and 10 runs scored. 

He is now leading all of baseball in batting average (.400), he's tied for second in homers (7), and he's alone in second in RBI (20). He's also amassed a blistering 1.340 OPS through the team's first 18 games. 

Harper's biggest game of the past week came in Atlanta when he went yard twice, with his second homer being a grand slam. He finished the game 4-for-4 with two homers, one double, five RBI, one walk and four runs scored. 

With Harper's injuries from last season behind him (even though he won't completely admit to being hurt), the Nationals' right fielder is back to, or even better than, his 2015 form that ended with his first career MVP award. During that season Harper took home player of the week honors three times. 

The Nationals as a team have the best record in baseball at 13-5, and already have a three-game lead in the NL East. 

Related: MLB Power Rankings

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Charlie Blackmon hits 2-run homer, Rockies beat Nationals 8-4


Charlie Blackmon hits 2-run homer, Rockies beat Nationals 8-4

DENVER (AP) -- Charlie Blackmon hit a two-run homer in the seventh, Colorado's lights-out bullpen threw three-plus scoreless innings and the Colorado Rockies beat Washington 8-4 on Monday night, ending the Nationals' seven-game winning streak.

Trailing 4-3, Blackmon lined a hanging slider from lefty Enny Romero (1-1) into the right-field stands. It was Blackmon's sixth homer of the season and followed a pinch-hit double from Pat Valaika -- his first hit of the season.

The Rockies' relievers came through once again after starter Tyler Anderson wore down. Carlos Estevez (2-0) got four outs and Adam Ottavino threw an effective eighth. Greg Holland pitched the ninth in a non-save situation after the Rockies added three insurance runs in the eighth. He got pinch-hitter Bryce Harper to ground out to end the game.

The Rockies' bullpen is now 6-0 with a 2.62 ERA, which is tops in the NL.