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Leader Watch: Nats, D-backs racking up Ks

MLB.com

One side is the established power; the other the rising upstart. Together, the Washington and Arizona rotations are striking out batters at a rapid rate -- and giving opposing lineups nightmares.

Even casual baseball fans are likely aware of the two stars at the top of the Nationals' rotation, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. With help from Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, Washington's starters have combined for 780 strikeouts -- including the seven racked up by Strasburg over six shutout innings against the potent Astros lineup Thursday night.

One side is the established power; the other the rising upstart. Together, the Washington and Arizona rotations are striking out batters at a rapid rate -- and giving opposing lineups nightmares.

Even casual baseball fans are likely aware of the two stars at the top of the Nationals' rotation, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. With help from Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, Washington's starters have combined for 780 strikeouts -- including the seven racked up by Strasburg over six shutout innings against the potent Astros lineup Thursday night.

Those 780 strikeouts would have been enough for the Nats' rotation to pace the National League, had it not been for Robbie Ray's stellar return from the disabled list just hours before in Queens. In his first start since he was hit on the head by a 108-mph liner on July 28, the left-hander punched out nine Mets hitters over just five innings to give the D-backs' rotation a league-best 783 strikeouts on the year.

Video: ARI@NYM: Ray fans Cespedes to strike out the side

With the Dodgers' starters back in a distant third with 719 strikeouts, the Senior Circuit will likely see a two-horse race between the Nats and D-backs. At stake for the Nationals is a little history: After pacing the NL with 921 strikeouts in 2015 and a Major League-best 987 a year ago, Washington's rotation could become the first club to lead either league in punchouts for three consecutive years since the Cubs did it from 2003-05.

That was a memorable rotation on the North Side which included Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in full health, plus Carlos Zambrano and even Greg Maddux in the later stages of his career. That group led the Majors in strikeouts in each of those three seasons, but the Nationals will need to piggyback a resurgent rotation in the desert to join that Chicago group in the history books.

It all starts with ace Zack Greinke, who signed with the D-backs for six years and $206.5 million in December 2015. After a tough first season, Greinke is back in the NL Cy Young Award discussion while getting hitters to chase 32.6 percent of his pitches out of the strike zone, per Statcast™, and benefiting from an improvement in his slider. Zack Godley, who began the season as a reliever in Triple-A, ranks two spots behind Greinke with the league's eighth-highest chase rate (32.3 percent) among starters. Then there's Ray, who's putting his electric stuff together this year to rank among the 10 best starters in swinging-strike rate on three pitches: four-seam fastballs, sliders and curve balls.

Video: HOU@ARI: Greinke fans nine across 6 2/3 scoreless

"That was an old familiar feeling he was giving us," manager Torey Lovullo said of Ray's stellar return. "We really love everything he did."

The Nationals have equal firepower in their rotation, setting up a juicy potential matchup should these two teams meet in October. There's Scherzer, of course, who's leading all MLB starters with a 17.1 percent overall swinging-strike rate en route to what could be consecutive NL Cy Young Award-winning campaigns. Strasburg has recorded the highest rate of whiffs against his changeup of any starter while racking up plenty more strikeouts on his excellent fastball and breaking ball. Gonzalez's curve ball has been effective amid what might be a career year.

Video: WSH@STL: Gonzalez strikes out nine in strong outing

With Scherzer leading the way, Washington's rotation was effective last year, too. Arizona was a different story, posting an NL-worst 5.19 ERA. Now, the much-improved D-backs are racking up the K's, and they remain the only club standing in the way of a dominant Nationals run.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.

Washington Nationals, Arizona Diamondbacks, Zack Godley, Gio Gonzalez, Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, Tanner Roark, Max Scherzer