The Washington Times - May 11, 2012, 09:46AM

PITTSBURGH — Stephen Strasburg played stopper Thursday night. He struck out 13 in the Nationals’ 4-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, salvaged one win in the series, ended a three-game losing streak and brought his career numbers against the Pirates to this: 48 batters faced, 27 strikeouts.

So the Nationals were feeling pretty good about themselves as they packed up Thursday night and headed for Cincinnati. The gap between them and the rest of the NL East has closed. And while the Phillies remain in last, 5.5 games back, the Braves and Mets are just waiting for the Nationals next slip up to take over first place. 

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Here are a few thoughts, observations and leftovers before the Nationals descend on the Queen City…

It’s been said several times already, but he seems to continue to make it worth repeating: Where would the Nationals be this season without Adam LaRoche? LaRoche smacked his sixth homer of the season Thursday night, a two-run shot that, ultimately, served as the game-winning blow and left Pittsburgh having added two to his homer totals and kept his other numbers climbing. Through 31 games, LaRoche is hitting .327 with a .421 on-base percentage and .582 slugging percentage. 

At this rate, it’s not inconceivable that LaRoche is earning himself an All-Star nod. In the National League, with the departures of Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols to the American League, his competition for the spot has lessened and his performance certainly qualifies. Right now, there are only two first baseman playing as well as LaRoche in the NL: Chicago’s Brian Lahair and Cincinnati’s Joey Votto. 

It’s also not inconceivable to think the Nationals may have to now consider picking up their end of the $10 million mutual option on LaRoche’s contract for 2013. After the way LaRoche’s first season with the Nationals went, where he struggled through a torn labrum to post numbers well below his career norms for the first two months, it appeared more than likely that the Nationals and LaRoche would most likely part ways after this season. LaRoche’s option is $10 million with a $1 million buyout. And that may still be the route one or both sides chooses to go.

But LaRoche has been the Nationals single most important offensive player thus far this season so it’s not a stretch to say that, if his play keeps up, the Nationals will be forced to at least consider exercising their end of the option and trying to keep LaRoche around for one more year.

– One other somewhat humorous note about LaRoche: Boy do they hate him in Pittsburgh. It’s funny, LaRoche may be one of the most likable players I’ve ever encountered and I wouldn’t be alone in saying that. His teammates love him and everywhere the Nationals go LaRoche has friends on the other side as well as media who ask how he’s doing and lament the fact that he’s no longer around on the team they cover.

But in Pittsburgh, where LaRoche played for 2 1/2 seasons after being traded from the Atlanta Braves and before being traded to the Boston Red Sox and, ultimately, back to the Atlanta Braves, they boo him relentlessly. 

Asked about the boos on Thursday night, LaRoche smiled wryly and just shook his head.

“I’ve got them here every since I left. I’m kind of used to it here,” he said. “I don’t know what it is. I think it’s just them welcoming me back.”

Didn’t hurt, then, that LaRoche hit two home runs in the three games here including one game winner and another that would have been a game winner had the Nationals held on in the ninth.

“That’s the least I can do,” LaRoche said.

– The Nationals hit three home runs on Thursday night, just their second three-homer game of the season. While LaRoche’s homer won the game and Rick Ankiel’s gave Henry Rodriguez some cushion to work with, it was Roger Bernadina’s that started them off. Bernadina’s homer was also important in another way: it reminded him he could hit them.

If there’s one player who figures to benefit most from the playing time opened when Jayson Werth went down with a broken wrist, it’s Bernadina. But neither he nor the Nationals will actually benefit unless Bernadina seizes that opportunity and begins to play at a level he has shown only in patches thus far. Davey Johnson said he spoke with Bernadina before Thursday’s game and the outfielder admitted he was “trying a little bit too much.”

“It definitely felt good,” Bernadina said of the home run, which was hit 426 feet into the Pirates’ bullpen. “I kind of forgot how that feels.”

– Some readers have asked, since Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is Mormon, if the 19-year-old would have to go on a mission (and I assume their concern in that matter is whether or not he’d have to leave the Nationals to do so). Because of his baseball career, Harper gets an extension of sorts and will be allowed to go on his mission later in life.

If Harper were your normal, average teenager, he’d be finishing up his freshman year of college and would most likely be preparing to go on a mission. Many of his friends are preparing for their own at various overseas outposts like Thailand, where they’ll be for two years. Other major leaguers like Rockies pitcher (and former Oriole) Jeremy Guthrie went on his mission during his time in college. Guthrie spent two years in Spain on his mission before he transferred from BYU to Stanford. But Harper is a different case, I was assured. 

So, fear not, Nationals fans, Harper isn’t going anywhere.