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Stephen Strasburg gets the Nats dancing with a three-run homer in a 13-4 blitzing of the Braves

Stephen Strasburg had to do it. There was really no way out. He prefers to dominate from the mound, duck into the tunnel between innings, then retreat to the clubhouse, far out of sight, once his outings are through.

But after smacking a three-run homer in the decisive rally Thursday night, Strasburg was required to dance. Yes, dance. Dance at the center of the Washington Nationals’ dugout, at the center of clapping teammates, at the dead center of a commanding 13-4 win over the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park. Dance in celebration, hopping from his right foot to his left, wagging his arms, red-faced and smiling like a shy middle schooler dragged onto the gym floor by friends.

“When I got to the top step,” Strasburg said, red-faced and smiling again after the game, of when he realized he had to break it down a bit. “And to be honest, it was pretty nerve-racking. I didn’t really have anything. I’m not a big dancer to begin with.”

“Did he say when the last time he danced was?” Ryan Zimmerman asked with a straight face. “Stras isn’t much of a dancer. His wedding might have been the last time he danced.”

Strasburg — the pitcher, the hitter, the shameless dancer — had his fingerprints all over Washington’s most important victory of the season to date, pulling it within 5½ games of the Braves atop the National League East. He started an eight-run third inning with a single, scored from first on an Adam Eaton triple, then cleared the bases with that three-run shot off Touki Toussaint — all in the same frame. He added a two-run single in the fifth and finished 3 for 3 with a career-high five RBI and his first home run since 2017. And in his usual role, Strasburg allowed three runs and struck out seven in 5⅓ innings for his NL-leading 12th win.

For as well as the Nationals have played in the past eight weeks — and, at 32-13, they have been the best team in baseball since May 24 — they had gained little ground on the Braves. They were 8½ games back a month ago, floating in third behind the Braves and Philadelphia Phillies, fighting to be relevant again. But Washington entered this series still 6½ back, having inched only into second place, because Atlanta has been nearly as hot.

The Nationals’ surge has revived their season, put them atop the NL wild-card standings and made the division title a reasonable target after it once seemed entirely out of range. The Braves’ surge, timed to the exact same beat, has kept them in control of what could be a two-team race down the stretch. This was the first of 14 second-half meetings between these clubs. The Nationals can finally take direct aim at the team they have been chasing only from afar.

And they took advantage quickly Thursday. Strasburg made sure of that.

“Stephen wasn’t as sharp as he could be, but, man, he swung the bat really well,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “Might be a pinch hitter coming up here the rest of these games.”

Strasburg’s night started on the mound, naturally, and he gave up a first-inning run on a Freddie Freeman RBI single. But he escaped a first-and-third jam in that inning and had five strikeouts by the end of the second. Then came the explosion in the third, starting with Strasburg’s lined single, ending when he launched a 420-foot blast over Washington’s bullpen in left.

In between, the Nationals bullied 23-year-old Kyle Wright until he was pulled after 64 pitches. Strasburg led off with his first hit, Eaton tripled him in one out later, then Anthony Rendon nudged the Nationals ahead with an RBI double. Next Wright’s command slipped, leading to three walks in four at-bats, and Victor Robles ended his start with a two-run ground-rule double to left.

That led Braves Manager Brian Snitker to call on Toussaint for long relief. His first pitch was a fastball high and tight, forcing Strasburg to jerk his hands away from danger. His second caught a little too much of the plate, right on the inside edge, and Strasburg feasted. The 30-year-old earned a Silver Slugger award in 2012 when he finished with one home run, seven RBI and a .277 batting average. He hit two more homers in 2017 to up his career total to three — but he had never had an inning or game like this at the plate.

“Obviously my focus is going out there and trying to keep the other team at bay,” Strasburg said. “But sometimes you just run into the ball. I’ve always been told that a swinging bat’s a dangerous one. So I was just able to connect on one.”

Once the home run cleared the fence, leading the crowd into one big groan, Strasburg became the first pitcher in franchise history to collect two hits in an inning. With his single in the fifth, he became the first pitcher since 2014 to have five RBI in a game. He could only shake his head, a slight grin on his face, once he settled in at first base. Then he got through 5⅓ innings, allowing eight hits and wilting at the end, before the bullpen covered the final 11 outs while allowing one run. The Nationals added three more in a pull-away eighth.

But the lasting moment will be Strasburg bubbling with joy in the false privacy of Washington’s dugout. It has become tradition for the Nationals to punctuate each home run with a small dance party. So Gerardo Parra, wearing pink-tinted glasses, clapped to give Strasburg a rhythm to follow. And Aníbal Sánchez, wearing orange-tinted glasses, jumped and yelled at the ceiling.

And nothing could be wrong then because Stephen Strasburg — serious, stoic, stone-faced Stephen Strasburg — had forgotten who he was. Or he simply didn’t care. He gave himself no other choice.

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