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The Strike Zone

Gonzalez, Harper appropriately star on night Nationals extend Rizzo

Bryce Harper's eighth homer of the season helped lead the Nats to a win over the Reds. (Alex Brandon/AP) Bryce Harper's eighth homer of the season helped lead the Nats to a win over the Reds. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The Nationals woke up Thursday morning with a losing record for the first time since the end of the 2011 season, when winning a division and being a World Series favorite were matters of faith, not fruition.

Despite any early-season slump, in the long view, Washington has gone from fodder to favorites in a few short years, and the man most responsible for assembling this juggernaut, general manager Mike Rizzo, had the formality of his 2014 contract option exercised Thursday, the Washington Post reported, with discussions about a longer-term extension ongoing.

Two of his biggest additions -- one a no-brainer draft pick, the other a gutsy trade acquisition -- paced the Nationals to an 8-1 win over the Reds on Thursday night, evening their record at 11-11.

Bryce Harper crushed his eighth home run of the season and, though he was the obvious No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, Rizzo deserves some credit for having the confidence to select him and negotiate his record deal, the richest for a position player, with Scott Boras. Not only does Harper currently lead all left-handed hitters in homers, but he also extended his own record for April homers by a 20-year-old. The record for most homers by a 20-year-old in any month is 11, jointly shared by Mel Ott in June 1929 and Frank Robinson in August 1956. (Both, obviously, are Hall of Famers.)

[mlbvideo id="26584843" width="600" height="336" /]

Gio Gonzalez, meanwhile, allowed just one hit and one run (on a Joey Votto solo shot) in eight innings, the 14th time in 37 starts with Washington that he’s allowed no more than one run. Rizzo traded four prospects to the A’s before last season to land Gonzalez, whom he immediately signed to an extension. Not every GM has the stomach to trade a bounty of prospects, especially for a player like Gonzalez who had only been a big leaguer for two seasons. All Gonzalez has done in the interim is be named an All-Star last year and finish third in the NL Cy Young voting.

It’s fitting that Harper and Gonzalez, who were two big reasons for the Nationals’ breakout 2012 season, would help key Thursday’s victory, as the team quickly returns to .500 and commemorates another year with the architect, Rizzo, at the helm.

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