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'He's our horse': Strasburg pitches into 8th for 1st time this season, Nats edge Dodgers 3-2

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WASHINGTON - By the time Stephen Strasburg reached back and threw a 96 mph fastball for a strikeout to end the top of the seventh with his 106th pitch, his usual first-inning struggles seemed long ago — and his day seemed over.

When the next inning rolled around Wednesday, though, Nationals manager Matt Williams sent Strasburg to the mound to face the top of the Dodgers' order in what would become a 3-2 victory for Washington, the first time this season the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft pitched into the eighth.

"He's our horse," Williams said, indicating he'd like to keep his ace in deep into games more often.

"We don't want to do that every time," Williams added. "But in a game like today, he's got the lead and (you) want to show confidence in him that we're willing to send him back out there to protect that lead."

Said Strasburg, who improved to 3-2 with a 3.42 ERA: "That's the position I want to be in."

After waiting through a rain delay of more than 1 1/2 hours to throw his first pitch, the righty did what he's done all season: laboured to get the first three outs, then been fairly dominant. This time, he gave up four consecutive singles, including run-scoring hits by Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig, during a 28-pitch first as Los Angeles went ahead 2-0.

"I've been trying not to go out there and give up a crooked number early," Strasburg said. "But you can give up one or two early and just keep it close and give your guys a chance to get back into the ballgame or get the lead."

He's allowed eight earned runs in his eight first innings in 2014, a 9.00 ERA.

From the second inning on, it's 2.29.

"He's as good as anybody on any given day. We've also seen that anybody can get beat on any given day," Williams said. "We want to get him to that point where he can finish that eighth inning, too. That's important for him."

In all, Strasburg allowed two runs and seven hits — all singles — in 7 1-3 innings. He faced the minimum three batters in each of the second through fifth innings, and threw a total of 114 pitches.

In the sixth, he put two men on, but got Andre Ethier on a grounder for the third out. In the eighth, Strasburg also put two on, then was replaced by lefty Jerry Blevins, who got Gonzalez to pop out in foul territory.

Righty Tyler Clippard then came in to retire Puig, who missed the two previous games after crashing into an outfield fence. Rafael Soriano threw a 1-2-3 ninth for his seventh save in seven chances.

Adam LaRoche's two-run single off the top of the wall in right off Dan Haren (4-1), who was with the Nationals in 2013, tied the game in the bottom of the first. Washington edged ahead on a bases-loaded sacrifice fly in the fifth from Wilson Ramos, playing his first game since opening day.

Ramos earlier had a double on the first pitch he'd faced in the majors since March 31, when he broke a bone in his left wrist against the Mets. He sat out 32 games.

"Didn't take him long, did it? He pounded that ball," said LaRoche, who is hampered running the bases and on defence at first base by a left quad muscle problem.

Ramos' return is a boost for the Nationals. They're also eager to have right-hander Doug Fister come off the disabled list Friday to face the Oakland Athletics in his first start of the season.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, have lost four of their past six games.

"We're definitely," Haren said, "not playing to our potential."

NOTES: Washington optioned 1B-OF Tyler Moore to Triple-A Syracuse to make room on the roster for Fister. ... After a day off, the Nationals open a three-game series at Oakland on Friday, with Fister on a pitch limit of about 100 while facing LHP Tommy Milone (0-3, 5.86). ... Los Angeles returns home to open a four-game series against San Francisco on Thursday, with Dodgers RHP Josh Beckett (0-1, 3.14) facing Giants RHP Ryan Vogelsong (1-1, 4.60).

___

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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