With Stephen Strasburg (13-0) dealing, Nationals sitting pretty atop NL East

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals picked up right where they left off, and so did Stephen Strasburg.

After beating the New York Mets in each of the final three games before the All-Star break, the Nats kicked off the second half of the season Friday night by downing the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-1 in the District. They did so thanks largely to Strasburg, who looked plenty rested after surprisingly forgoing the All-Star Game -- and a chance to potentially start the Midsummer Classic in his hometown of San Diego.

“He got some grief for not pitching in the All-Star Game,” manager Dusty Baker said of Strasburg, who went 12-0 with a 2.62 ERA during the first half of the season and would’ve surely been on NL skipper Terry Collins’ short list to get the starting nod Tuesday at Petco Park. But late last week, Strasburg, who missed two starts earlier this summer after going on the disabled list with an upper back strain, decided that he wouldn’t pitch in the All-Star Game. Said Baker: “He was doing what he thought was best for us and him.”

If early returns are any indication, Strasburg’s decision was a good one. In the series opener against Pittsburgh, he allowed just one run on three hits over eight innings. As if that weren’t enough, he picked up the go-ahead RBI on a seventh-inning sacrifice bunt that ended with him reaching base on a bang-bang play at first that was ruled an error.

“I messed the signs up the previous at-bat and didn’t get the bunt down,” said Strasburg, who fanned in the fifth after unsuccessfully trying to lay one down with two strikes. “So I was pretty upset with myself.”

Odds are, the way Strasburg has been throwing, the only member of the Nationals who's even the slightest bit upset with him was him. Since returning from the DL on July 3, the 27-year-old righty has allowed a total of just five hits in 21 2/3 innings. With his latest gem on Friday, he upped his record to 13-0, becoming the first NL pitcher in the divisional era (since 1969) to start the season by winning his first 13 decisions. He’s also the first NL starter to rip off at least 13 straight W’s out of the gate since Rube Marquard went 18-0 over a century ago (1912).

While all that historical stuff is fine and good, after Strasburg’s latest gem, Baker seemed more concerned with the here and now -- like shutting down a hot Pittsburgh team that finished the first half by winning nine of its last 12. Said the Nats' skipper: “Boy, that sets the tone for the rest of the series.”

And then some. Besides setting the tone for rest of the weekend, Strasburg’s dominant 105-pitch effort made a strong statement about the rest of the season. Namely, that with a healthy Strasburg to go along with ace Max Scherzer (he of the 0.96 WHIP and MLB-high 164 strikeouts) atop the rotation, the Nationals -- who came out of the break with a six-game cushion -- have the look of a team that could run away with the NL East.

Not that anyone in the Washington clubhouse would admit it.

“The Mets and the Marlins aren’t going to go away,” said first baseman Clint Robinson, who had two of his team’s seven hits. “They aren’t going to make it easy. For us to show up tonight after the break and get a good win, it’s a good momentum-builder.”