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Can Nats make it back to playoffs?

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Can Nats make it back to playoffs?

The mantra was repeated over and over and over by just about everyone in the Nationals organization: This is a ballclub that expects to be good for a long time and expects to make many trips to the postseason.

And that belief was repeated late Friday night in the aftermath of their soul-crushing National League Division Series loss to the Cardinals.

"We've come a long, long way in a fairly short period of time," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "Like I said all along, we like where we're at. We like the core players on this team. And we're going to be excited to ratchet it up in the spring."

The belief this team just entered a long-term window for success was among the guiding principles behind Stephen Strasburg's shutdown, with Rizzo insisting he wanted the right-hander around for future postseason runs. It's among the reasons nearly every roster move he's made has been to acquire players who could not only help this team win now but in the future as well.

And the Nationals should have every reason to believe they'll be back in the postseason again in 2013 and for several years to come. But they also should have every reason to understand there are no guarantees they'll find themselves in this situation again.

There are plenty of recent examples that seem to support the Nationals' chances of a long, sustained run of excellence, maybe none as comparable as the Phillies of the last half-decade.

After winning their first NL East title in 2007, they immediately were swept in the NLDS by a red-hot Rockies team that went on one of the greatest September/October rolls in history. How did the Phillies respond? They won the World Series in 2008, then returned to the Fall Classic in 2009, the NLCS in 2010 and the NLDS in 2011.

Another potential comparison: In 1995, the Yankees reached the postseason for the first time in 14 years, then lost to the Mariners in a Division Series Game 5 finish every bit as dramatic as what the Nationals and Cardinals just experienced. How did New York respond? By winning four World Series titles in the next five years: 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000.

More examples:

-- The Rangers reached the postseason for the first time in a decade in 2010, reached the World Series two straight years and were poised to win another AL West title this fall before a stunning collapse left them in the Wild Card Game.

-- The Rays came out of nowhere to qualify for the postseason in 2008 and went all the way to the World Series. They didn't get to experience October baseball in 2009 but returned to appear in the ALDS in both 2010 and 2011.

None of those franchises is a perfect comparison for the Nationals, but it does underscore the ability of well-constructed franchises to become regular postseason participants.

There are, on the other hand, examples of teams getting knocked out of the playoffs one year, believing they'd return in future years and failing to do so.

The Detroit Tigers, who went 19 years between playoff appearances, reached the World Series in 2006 and appeared to be built for a long and sustained run. They missed the postseason the next four years, not returning until 2011.

Then there's this sobering stat: Eight of the last 11 World Series winners didn't even qualify for the postseason the previous year. The overwhelming majority of franchises in the Wild Card Era have gone from watching baseball on TV one October to winning it all the next fall.

What does any of that mean for the 2013 Nationals? We won't know for some time.

Yes, they are as well-positioned as any franchise in the majors to make it back to the postseason and become October regulars.

But it's one thing to position yourselves well. It's quite another to actually get the job done.

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Bryce Harper's injury untimely, but Nationals' offense is heating up

Bryce Harper's injury untimely, but Nationals' offense is heating up

Notes and observations from the Nats' 10-7 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday afternoon…

Harper's untimely injury: The Nationals have another injury to worry about as they close the regular season and prepare for the playoffs, as Bryce Harper hurt his left thumb on an awkward slide into third base in Sunday's win. Now the reigning MVP heads for X-rays on Monday, hoping he didn't seriously damage the same thumb he tore a ligament in back in 2014.

The Nationals did not seem too worried based on their postgame comments to reporters, but it certainly bears watching with the playoffs set to begin in just about a week-and-a-half. Obviously, they would like to have Harper available for their postseason run, and he just happened to be heating up before he got hurt. Harper injured himself on a triple. He drove in a run earlier in the game on a groundout, had two RBI on Saturday and three hits on Friday. Harper has six hits in his last four games after having just one in his previous nine.

If Harper has to play through thumb pain moving forward, keep in mind how his 2014 problem significantly affected his power. Harper posted a career-low slugging percentage of .423. He's already struggled mightily at times this season and doesn't need anything else making it harder for him to be himself at the plate. It's a tough time for him to get hurt, but they do have over a week to get him right before the NLDS begins.

Nats offense kicking into gear: Harper's recent contributions have been part of an overall offensive surge for the Nats. With 10 runs on Sunday, the Nats have scored 29 total in their last four games. That's after posting just eight in their previous four games before that. Entering their weekend series against the Pirates, the Nats had the fewest runs of any NL team in the month of September. Offense was starting to look like a real issue for the Nationals, right as they neared the finish line of the regular season, but recently that has not been the case.

Cole, Latos, Glover continue to struggle: While the Nationals close out the final week of their regular season schedule, they will be closely evaluating their bench and bullpen in particular as they determine their final group for the playoff roster. Some tough decisions will be made on both accounts, but several Nats relievers may be pitching themselves out of contention for final spots.

A.J. Cole had another so-so outing on Sunday with three earned runs allowed on three walks and a hit in 2 2/3 innings of work. He only lasted 2 2/3 because he was ejected for throwing behind Jung Ho Kang in the third inning. Cole has now allowed 12 earned runs in his last 14 2/3 innings. That's a very discouraging trend for a guy who just a few starts ago looked like a potential playoff bullpen option.

Cole's downturn occurred following an impressive start against the Mets, an eye-opening performance against the Nats' division rival. The same thing happened to Mat Latos, who like Cole was good against the Mets but has since fallen off. Latos was charged with two earned runs on three hits and a walk in Sunday's win. He gave up two runs in his previous appearance against the Marlins on Sept. 19. That's two rough outings in a row with little time left to make an impression.

Rookie Koda Glover gave up the Pirates' final run on a homer by Kang in the bottom of the seventh. It was a two-run bomb, but the other run was charged to Sean Burnett, who was removed after walking Josh Bell with one out. Glover also gave up a run on Friday against the Pirates and has now allowed seven runs in six innings across his last seven outings. It has been a troubling stretch for a guy who had a nice start to this season and until recently looked like a potential playoff option.

Revere's best game in a while: The Nationals had 14 hits on Sunday and three of them came from center fielder Ben Revere. It was his fifth game this season with at least three hits and his first since July 1. Since Trea Turner took over for him in center, playing time has been hard to come by for Revere, but lately he's been making the most of it. Sunday was Revere's fourth start in September and in those games he has six hits and four runs. He also added two steals in Sunday's win, his first multi-steal game since June 27.

[RELATED: Nationals took relatively smooth road to winning 2016 NL East]

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Nationals rally against Rivero, beat Pirates 10-7

Nationals rally against Rivero, beat Pirates 10-7

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The tag was clearly fake. What happened next was all too real for the NL East champion Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper got hurt and needs X-rays.

Harper injured his left thumb making an awkward slide to avoid a pretend tag by Pittsburgh third baseman Jung Ho Kang, and the teams later cleared the benches Sunday in Washington's 10-7 win.

Nationals manager Dusty Baker said Harper was "sore" and would have X-rays on Monday. The reigning NL MVP had surgery to repair a torn ligament in the same thumb in 2014.

Harper led off the third inning with a triple. As he neared third, Kang acted as if a throw was coming and feigned a tag.

Harper went down, was checked by a trainer and stayed in. He scored on Anthony Rendon's double and was replaced in the field in the bottom half by Chris Heisey.

Kang insisted he merely intended to keep Harper from scoring when right fielder Josh Bell's throw was way off line.

"First of all, I meant no harm," Kang said through a translator. "During the relay play, I tried to hold the runner on third base. That's all I tried to do."

The next time Kang came up, Nationals starter A.J. Cole threw a fastball behind him and was immediately ejected by plate umpire Jordan Baker as the benches emptied.

Cole said he was trying to pitch inside to Kang. Baker said the entire situation wasn't ideal for a team that is focusing on a playoff run.

"We don't want guys suspended," Baker said. "But you know, boys will be boys, and you've still got to defend your teammates."

Washington's Jayson Werth was in the middle of the skirmish. Pirates outfielder Sean Rodriguez was ejected.

"I was very surprised I was the only one ejected considering," Rodriguez said. "I got blamed for being the one that instigated, but you can watch the film yourself."

Werth had a pinch-hit, two-run homer and Heisey had a go-ahead single during a five-run burst in the eighth. The Nationals' rally came against former teammate Felipe Rivero (1-5).

Rivero had allowed just four earned runs in his previous 25 innings since being traded from Washington to the Pirates.

Kang hit a two-run homer off Koda Glover to give the Pirates the lead in the seventh.

Shawn Kelley (3-2) wound up with the win. Former Pirates closer Mark Melancon pitched a scoreless ninth for his 43rd save.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Pirates: C Francisco Cervelli did not play after taking a foul ball off his wrist Saturday. ... RHP Neftali Feliz (arm) threw off flat ground but is not yet ready for a return to the mound.

UP NEXT

Nationals: Tanner Roark (15-9 2.70 ERA) had his start pushed back one day after the Nationals clinched the NL East on Saturday night. He'll looking for his career-best 16th win as Washington hosts Arizona for a four-game series.

Pirates: Chad Kuhl (5-3, 3.73 ERA) will start as Pittsburgh begins a four-game series against the NL Central champion Chicago Cubs. Kuhl has allowed seven earned runs in 7 1/3 innings in his two previous starts against Chicago this season.