When Stephen Strasburg was selected with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, there wasn't much deliberation necessary for the Washington Nationals to peg him as the draft's top talent.
This season, the gap between Strasburg and fellow 2009 top-10 pick Mike Leake has disappeared. The two will face off Monday night as the Cincinnati Reds open a three-game series at Nationals Park.
While the Reds (19-23) have lost each of Leake's last five starts, it's been little fault of his own. The right-hander has allowed five runs in his last three games and is averaging over seven innings though eight outings.
The last was his best as Leake (2-3, 3.09 ERA) surrendered a run and two hits in eight innings and didn't factor into the decision of Tuesday's 2-1 loss to San Diego.
"We're going to want to win every game that he throws when he gives us seven or eight quality innings like he has," manager Bryan Price told the team's official website. "If he can maintain this type of consistency, you'll look at a spectacular season of well over 200 innings, but giving us a chance to win on a regular basis is what makes me happy. The tide will turn."
He hasn't been nearly as strong against the Nationals (23-20) in six starts since 2011, going 1-3 with a 7.42 ERA. Jayson Werth is 7 for 17 against him while Wilson Ramos is 4 for 12 with two home runs.
With Gio Gonzalez now on the disabled list, the Nationals could use a strong effort from Strasburg (3-3, 3.48), who has overcome a slow start to go 2-1 with a 1.89 ERA in his last five outings. The loss came in Tuesday's 3-1 defeat in Arizona as the right-hander gave up three runs and eight hits in seven innings.
He is 1-1 with a 7.36 ERA in two starts against the Reds.
It's unlikely Strasburg will have to deal with Joey Votto, who remains out with a strained left quadriceps. Price wasn't sure if his first baseman would be joining the team in Washington, and a disabled-list stint remains a possibility.
Without him for the third straight game Sunday, the Reds lost 8-3 in Philadelphia. Catcher Devin Mesoraco went 4 for 4 in his second game back from the disabled list to boost his average to .500, but the Reds lost for the third time in four games.
Cincinnati has totaled eight runs while batting .164 in its last four, and went 1 for 16 with runners in scoring position on Sunday.
"I was very, very optimistic going into today's game that we were going to do some really good things offensively," Price said. "We got some things started but we weren't able to finish."
Cincinnati has dropped seven of eight games on the road, and is 3-8 at Nationals Park since the start of 2011.
Washington's Ian Desmond went 2 for 4 and homered in the second straight game in Sunday's 6-3 win over the New York Mets. The shortstop is hitting .346 with three home runs and eight RBIs in the last seven games, and batting .354 on an 11-game hitting streak against Cincinnati.
Ramos is also showing signs of coming around. In his eighth game back from hand surgery, the catcher went 2 for 3 with four RBIs after entering with a .154 average.
"His heart rate doesn't increase," Washington manager Matt Williams said. "That's key for anybody in the middle of the lineup driving in runs. ... It's no different at-bat just because there are guys out there."
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