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Nats’ All-Stars not looking too far ahead after NL’s win

Strasburg, Gonzalez, Harper enjoy experience, know season is far from decided

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — They were playing with teammates, some of whom they'd never met. Sitting in places they rarely frequented.

Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez found themselves in the bullpen in the second inning of a game — a place neither has ventured in years. Bryce Harper, always a starter, delighted in being on the bench and talking baseball with Chipper Jones.

The Washington Nationals' three All-Stars all played small parts in the National League's 8-0 victory over the American League in the 2012 All-Star Game at Kauffman Stadium. Gonzalez and Strasburg combined for two scoreless innings when the lead was already large. Harper walked, struck out and lost a fly ball in the sky.

But thanks to a huge cushion and the star-studded talent around them, they helped secure a victory more intriguing than ever to fans across the D.C., Maryland and Virginia region.

The Nationals, the NL's best team at the All-Star break with a 49-34 record, might not allow themselves to think of the World Series just yet. But if they did, they'd do so now knowing that Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 would all be at Nationals Park.

"That's huge for any team that's in there," Harper said. "Hopefully it's us, but we're a long ways away. We're in first place right now but we've got a long season ahead of us. We're excited to get going in the second half. Hopefully we can keep it going in the second half, in the playoffs, and deep into October and November."

Gonzalez could only laugh when asked about the potential impact home field advantage could have for the Nationals. He offered a sheepish grin and looked down at his feet before offering a "no comment on that," adding, "I'm just going to smile about it and wave."

They took to the third base line just before 7:18 p.m. local time, the trio the last three of the NL reserves to be announced. Harper was cheered, his gold cleats made special by Under Armour glistening even amongst a host of brightly-colored competition from his teammates. Strasburg and Gonzalez received polite ovations from the Kansas City crowd.

As the national anthem began, all three knew then they were a part of a special moment.

"We all were just soaking in everything," Strasburg said.

"Your heart races," Gonzalez added. "It's at the top of your throat and you're just enjoying it. You just take a deep breath and enjoy the moment.

"That's when it started sinking in a little bit," Harper said.

Then it was game time. The NL shocked almost everyone by jumping on Tigers ace Justin Verlander — who hit 101 on the radar gun — for five runs in the first inning. Ryan Braun (RBI double) and Pablo Sandoval (three-run triple) did the majority of the damage.

They tacked on three more off Rangers' left-hander Matt Harrison when Melky Cabrera followed Matt Holliday's RBI single with a two-run homer to left field. Cabrera, who earned the game's Most Valuable Player honors, was 2-for-3 and the only player to join Braun with a multi-hit night.

By the time Gonzalez entered, the first pitcher to relieve starter Matt Cain, the game was already out of reach. That didn't stop him from impressing in a perfect inning: 11 pitches, seven strikes, eight fastballs, three curveballs, a strikeout, a flyout and a ground out.

Strasburg followed him to the mound, his lead increased to eight runs, with a fearsome lineup of Robinson Cano, Josh Hamilton, Jose Bautista and Prince Fielder awaiting his 17-pitch, scoreless inning. He allowed a hit to Cano and walked Bautista — unwilling to throw the Blue Jays' slugger any changeups after he'd taken Strasburg deep when the Nationals were in Toronto in June — but escaped unscathed with a double play and a fly out to left field.

As he walked into the dugout, Gonzalez greeted him.

"When he got the third out, I told him, 'Your day's over, you can go on [vacation] now,'" Gonzalez said. "When you get something like that, he's so young and enjoying the moment, that's exactly the way you want to do it. He's a great player. I'm glad he went out like that."

Harper's night was a bit less condensed. The rookie pinch hit for Carlos Beltran in the top of the fifth inning, worked a walk off of Jered Weaver, tagged to second on a routine fly to left field and then got thrown out between second and third when David Wright laced one right back to Weaver. Admittedly not the best performer in All-Star games, his night wouldn't improve much from there.

In the bottom of the fifth, Harper lost a ball off the bat of Mike Napoli in the night sky, watching helplessly as it fell behind him for a base hit. He did ensure the mishap didn't hurt the box score, though, snagging a long fly ball from Ian Kinsler to end a scoreless inning for Clayton Kershaw. Harper then struck out on three pitches against the A's Ryan Cook in the seventh.

"Well, it didn't hit me in the head," Harper said of the ball he said he lost in the twilight. "So I think I'm doing OK."

Ultimately all three walked away feeling better for having been here, having played with the game's elite. Harper spoke effusively over getting to spend time with Jones in the dugout, to be on his team, as well as to be managed by Tony La Russa and to meet Mark McGwire and George Brett. Strasburg relished getting to know Giants catcher Buster Posey and the challenge of facing some of the AL's best hitters. Gonzalez loved watching his teammates, "two superstars from the Washington Nationals," as he put it, "go out there and do it."

They'll get two days off now before they rejoin the rest of their teammates in Miami. They have a larger goal in mind than being named All-Stars but helping the NL team do what it did might go a long way toward helping them reach it.

"It's great," Strasburg said of the potential for home field advantage in the World Series. "But we've got the second half here. The job is not done yet. We've got to keep playing for it."

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