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Nationals-Diamondbacks Preview

AP - Sports

It's been an up-and-down second half of the season for Washington's Stephen Strasburg, but the hard-throwing right-hander believes he's figuring out what it takes to excel in the majors.

Strasburg tries to build on a strong outing and help the NL East-leading Nationals win seven straight games for the first time in more than a year in Friday night's series opener with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Washington (69-43) arrives in Phoenix after defeating Houston 5-0 on Thursday to complete a four-game sweep and push its division lead over second-place Atlanta to 4 1/2 games. The Nationals are in the midst of their third six-game winning streak of the season, and have won 16 of 20.

To make it seven in a row for the first time since an eight-game run last June, they'll turn to their staff ace in Strasburg (12-5, 2.97 ERA), though he has alternated solid and subpar performances in his five starts since the All-Star break.

He has a 0.47 ERA in winning three of those outings, striking out 24 while walking two in 19 innings, but has a 9.64 ERA in the other two - both Washington defeats - yielding four walks and 16 hits in 9 1-3 innings.

Strasburg was sharp Sunday against Miami, permitting three hits in six shutout innings during a 4-1 win, and feels that he can carry over that success to this game.

"I'm still learning how to pitch and call a game and really pick up on little things that happen in the game that you can use to your advantage," said Strasburg, who is tied for third in the majors with 160 strikeouts in 127 1-3 innings. "(Sunday) was a big step forward for me in that process."

In his only previous outing against the Diamondbacks on Aug. 15, 2010, Strasburg gave up three runs - one earned - while striking out seven in five innings of Washington's 5-3 home victory.

Arizona (57-55) returns home four games out of first place in the NL West after beating Pittsburgh 6-3 on Thursday to cap a 6-4 trip.

"It started great and ended on a good note," outfielder Jason Kubel told the Diamondbacks' official website. "We're moving in the right direction."

Kubel busted out of his 5-for-40 slump with a pair of homers, giving him 25 - third-most in the NL.

Washington's Michael Morse also homered twice Thursday. Unlike Kubel, however, he's been locked in for a while, batting .329 with five home runs and 14 RBIs during a career-best 18-game hitting streak - the longest active run in the majors.

He's helping to make up for rookie Bryce Harper's slump. Harper is batting .143 with one RBI and 18 strikeouts in his last 14 games and was given the night off Thursday, but manager Davey Johnson said he'll be back in the lineup Friday.

"He's an intense competitor and sometimes, just like all young players, their emotions kind of get in the way of their ability sometimes," Johnson said. "He just needed to sit back and relax and take it easy and he'll be fine."

Harper will be getting his second crack at Trevor Cahill (9-9, 3.76) after going 0 for 3 against him in his third major league game May 1. Cahill yielded a run and six hits in 7 1-3 innings of a 5-1 victory that day.

The right-hander, whose 2.88 road ERA is far superior to his 4.87 home mark, allowed three runs and six hits in seven innings Sunday at Philadelphia before Arizona's bullpen faltered in a 5-4 loss.

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