The Washington Nationals took an even stronger grip on a playoff position on Tuesday by beating their closest rival the Atlanta Braves 4-1, yet the performance of ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg only heightened the growing debate about his future this season.
Strasburg (15-5) struck out 10 batters and only allowed one run in six innings to guide Washington to a win that moved the team seven games clear of the Braves in the National League East division.
He would loom as the Nationals ace in their seemingly certain playoff campaign, but the team has set a strict limit on how many innings he will pitch this year, believed to be somewhere between 160 and 180 innings. Tuesday’s game took him up to 145-1/3 innings.
All the talk around the game is whether the Nationals stick to the limit — designed to protect Strasburg from injury — or whether they abandon it as they chase an unexpected shot at the World Series.
Atlanta has lost four straight and this sequence of losses to Washington means a wildcard berth is probably the best they can achieve this season.
In the National League West, the race for top spot is much closer, with San Francisco edging its lead over Los Angeles out to 1-1/2 games by beating the Dodgers 4-1. Giants ace Tim Lincecum (7-13) has had a disappointing season, but performed strongly in Tuesday’s key game, allowing only one run over 5-2/3 innings.
The Cincinnati Reds increased their lead in the Central to 7-1/2 games by edging the Philadelphia Phillies 5-4, with Zack Cozart hitting a tiebreaking homer on the first pitch of the ninth inning.
Their closest pursuers, the Pittsburgh Pirates, slipped back with a 7-5 loss to the San Diego Padres. Chase Headley hit a two-run homer for San Diego in the bottom of the tenth inning for the walkoff winner.
The Arizona Diamondbacks suffered a similar setback to their playoff hopes as they too lost in extra innings, going down 6-5 at home against the Miami Marlins. Miami had trailed by five runs early, but fought back for a gritty win, with Giancarlo Stanton hitting the winning single with two outs in the 10th.
The St Louis Cardinals won 7-0 over the hapless Houston Astros and moved within half a game of Pittsburgh. Adam Wainwright (12-10) pitched a shutout for the second time this season.
In other National League games, the Colorado Rockies beat the New York Mets 6-2 and the Milwaukee Brewers beat the Chicago Cubs 5-2.
In the American League, the New York Yankees were defeated by a familiar foe as Kevin Youkilis hit a grand slam to give the Chicago White Sox a 7-3 win in a clash of divisional leaders.
An old adversary when he was with the Boston Red Sox, Youkilis hurt the Yankees in his new colors, while Paul Konerko homered and Dewayne Wise had four hits.
The West Division-leading Texas Rangers were beaten 5-3 by the Baltimore Orioles. Nate McClouth hit a two-run homer in Baltimore’s four-run fifth inning.
The Orioles gained ground on the two teams above them in the AL East; five games behind the division-leading Yankees and one behind second-placed Tampa Bay. The Rays were beaten 1-0 at home by the Kansas City Royals, with the only run coming in the 10th inning thanks to Eric Hosmer’s two-out single. It was a classic pitchers’ duel, with both Tampa Bay’s David Price and the Royals’ Luke Hochevar tossing eight scoreless innings.