Johnson on Strasburg, Duke and Rodriguez after 7-2 loss

VIERA, Fla. - Outside of a Carlos Rivero RBI groundout and a Tyler Moore solo home run in the ninth inning, the Nationals were shut down today by a group of Braves hurlers led by Paul Maholm.

Maholm held the Nats scoreless over five strong innings, striking out five, and the Nats fell to Atlanta 7-2.

Had Stephen Strasburg been pulled after five innings, he would have finished with a dynamite stats line with a big zero in the run column. Because his pitch count was so low to that point, however, Strasburg was left in to work the sixth. He ended up allowing four runs in that inning, two of which came around after he left the game with just one out.

Strasburg struck out five, allowed four hits and two walks, and threw 76 pitches (53 for strikes) in his best outing of spring.

"I thought he threw the ball great," manager Davey Johnson said. "Threw about 80 pitches, which stretches him out. That was great. I thought he pitched very well. He'll have another one where he throws about that many pitches and then he'll be about right. So, good outing.

"He was sharp. He didn't really use his change-up that much, just fastball/curve, basically. Moved it around. That's what he does. Awful good at that."

Strasburg faced just one batter over the minimum through five innings, and in the sixth, he retired the first batter he saw before allowing the next four to reach. The righty indicated that needing to work out of the stretch threw him off a bit in that sixth inning. That's been an area Strasburg has focused on this spring after struggling to hold runners last season.

"Well, he didn't have to do too much of that today, and then I hooked him when there was an opportunity to do it, but he's been great all spring," Johnson said of Strasburg's work in the stretch. "Varying his times (to the plate). But I thought it was a good outing for him."

Zach Duke didn't help Strasburg out too much in the sixth, allowing the two runners he inherited from the Nats ace to score. Duke then surrendered two runs of his own, serving up three hits in 2/3 of an inning of work.

"Today wasn't a real good day for Zach," Johnson said. "He's had about six days off. Pretty strong, didn't have much sink."

Duke had been impressive this spring until today, going six innings without allowing an earned run in three prior outings.

Making his second Grapefruit League appearance this spring, Henry Rodriguez retired the first two hitters he saw in the eighth inning before giving up a single to center and hitting a batter. Johnson then hooked Rodriguez after he'd thrown 11 pitches, six for strikes.

"It's the second time out and (pitching coach Steve McCatty) just wanted to keep him on a low pitch count. He's fine," Johnson said. "After today, he'll go back to working on a more regular (schedule). He had two days off (coming into today) after his long layoff. He'll be coming back, going every other day, probably, after today. Today was just, they wanted to be real careful with him."

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