Strasburg is Nats' new all-time strikeout king (Nats win 3-1)

ATLANTA - Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann will forever be linked as the Nationals' two young aces who helped transform their rotation into one of baseball's best, and the right-handers in some ways had a friendly competition between them for the last six years.

Well, with Zimmermann now wearing the old English D on his cap in Detroit, the competition is no more. Which leaves Strasburg free to pursue as many of Zimmermann's club records as he can reach before becoming a free agent himself at season's end.

Stephen Strasburg gray sunset.jpgStrasburg overtook his old pal in one high-profile category tonight. With his third strikeout of the game against the Braves, he became the Nationals' new record-holder for most career strikeouts with 904.

Strasburg got Freddie Freeman swinging at a changeup to end the bottom of the first, then got A.J. Pierzynski on a fastball with two on in the bottom of the second. And when he blew away opposing pitcher Bud Norris to open the bottom of the third, the club record was all his.

Strasburg has amassed those 904 strikeouts in 779 2/3 career innings, a rate of 10.44 strikeouts per nine innings that is best among all major league pitchers who have thrown at least that many innings since he debuted in 2010.

Though he has had to pitch out of trouble in each of his three innings so far tonight, Strasburg has kept the Braves off the scoreboard. His pitch count of 50 is a tad high, though, and might portend an earlier-than-hoped exit this evening.

The Nationals haven't been able to do much against Norris either so far, with only Danny Espinosa's third-inning double to show in three innings against the Braves right-hander.

Update: The Braves finally got to Strasburg in the bottom of the fourth, scoring the night's first run. They might have scored a couple more if not for a pair of fantastic plays by Michael A. Taylor in center field. Taylor tracked down Adonis Garcia's leadoff hit to left-center and then rifled a throw to second to nail Garcia trying to stretch it into a double. After back-to-back walks issued by Strasburg, Pierzynski then roped a base hit to a similar spot in left-center. Nick Markakis came around to score, but Taylor was able to throw out Pierzynski trying to stretch that hit into a double.

Add in Wilson Ramos' perfect throw to second to nab Ender Inciarte trying to steal in the bottom of the fifth, and the Nats defense has accounted for three of Strasburg's last six outs.

The Braves are flashing some leather as well, though. Inciarte made a ridiculously good catch of Ryan Zimmerman's fourth-inning drive to the gap in right-center. Bryce Harper (who had singled in front of Zimmerman) assumed like pretty much everyone else here that the ball would never be caught, so he was past second base when he suddenly had to slam on the brakes and hustle back to first. He couldn't get there in time, doubled up by Inciarte.

Five innings in the books, and the Nationals have been shut out by Bud Norris on three hits and a walk. Can't say I saw that one coming. It's 1-0 Atlanta heading to the sixth.

Update II: Asked this afternoon when Matt den Dekker would arrive at Turner Field, Dusty Baker replied: "Maybe he might be here in the eighth or ninth to win it." Baker was wrong; den Dekker got here in time to potentially win the game for the Nats in the seventh.

Summoned to pinch-hit for Strasburg with two on and two out in the top of the seventh, den Dekker drilled a liner off the wall in right-center, bringing home both runners and giving the Nationals a 3-1 lead. What a moment for the just-promoted outfielder.

den Dekker's clutch hit came moments after the Nats tied the game via another example of aggressive (some might call it foolhardy) baserunning. Zimmerman scored all the way from second on Ramos' grounder to short, taking advantage of Erick Aybar's wide throw to first and then Pierzynski's inability to handle Freeman's throw to the plate.

With Strasburg out of the game, Baker turned to Shawn Kelley to pitch the bottom of the seventh. The skipper said earlier he wanted to get Kelley right back out there after his disastrous four-pitch, bases-loaded walk on Monday. Well, this time Kelley needed only one pitch to record a flyout to center. Next up out of the bullpen was Felipe Rivero, who proceeded to retire both batters he faced, freezing Gordon Beckham with a fastball to end the seventh with the Nats on top 3-1.

Update III: That's your ballgame, and your Nationals are heading home 2-0 after another late rally to beat the Braves. That three-run seventh was all the offense they needed tonight, riding Strasburg's six strong innings and then three strong innings of relief from Kelley, Felipe Rivero and Jonathan Papelbon to close it out.

Rivero wound up recording a five-out, 23-pitch hold, entrusted both to finish the seventh and then pitch the entire eighth.

Papelbon then notched his second save of the young season despite bringing the tying run to the plate in the ninth.

And so the Nationals swept this abbreviated series over the Braves, getting some timely hitting and forcing some bad defense with aggressive baserunning to win both games. Strasburg (1-0) ends up earning the win tonight, with den Dekker earning everyone's praise for his two-run, pinch-hit double only hours after arriving from Syracuse.

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