Ever-changing NL East remains a beast

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Ever-changing NL East remains a beast

The NL East was, for a good portion of the season's first half, the toughest division in baseball. All five franchises stood at least three games over .500 on June 1, and all looked poised to stay competitive through the remainder of the season.

That, of course, didn't happen. Though the champion Nationals and runner-up Braves each got better over the final four months, the Phillies fell apart in midsummer before a late surge got them back to the .500 mark, while the Mets and Marlins simply fell apart and never recovered.

Where, though, does that leave things heading into the offseason? The Nationals obviously will return loaded in 2013 and should be favored to repeat as division champs. But the Braves, too, will have the bulk of their 94-win club returning to the fold and will be determined to jump into first place and avoid the one-game playoff that killed their season.

The Phillies may continue to get older, but their strong finish will give team executives and players alike reason to think they can make another run. The Mets, on the other hand, remain stuck in the mud with a few elite players (R.A. Dickey, David Wright) but no depth whatsoever.

Which leaves the Marlins as the biggest wild card in the East. (Note: That's wild card in lowercase letters, as opposed to a team that wins one of the league's two Wild Card berths.)

What exactly are they doing down in Miami right now? All those good vibes, the star-studded roster and hundreds of millions of dollars spent both on payroll and a space-age new ballpark have officially vanished into thin air. Gone are Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez and Heath Bell. And now gone is Ozzie Guillen, who was fired yesterday after one miserable season as manager and $7.5 million still owed to him.

There's still plenty of talent down there on South Beach -- what team wouldn't jump at the chance to build around Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Reyes? -- but there doesn't appear to be any direction. Is owner Jeffrey Loria going to go out and splurge on free agents once again this winter, or will he gut the roster even further and start over from scratch?

Who will succeed Guillen as manager? And what, if any, positive impact can he have when his owner calls every shot?

Despite their continued dysfunction, the Marlins remain a major thorn in the Nationals' side. Their overall winning percentage over the last five years is a sub-par .485. Their winning percentage against the Nationals over that same span is a staggering .663.

So whether anyone believes the Fish will be a legitimate contender next season, you better believe the Nationals should treat them like they are.

In the end, it's hard to imagine the NL East won't be an even tougher division in 2013. All five teams will have reason to believe they can be better next year than they were this year.

That won't make the Nationals' challenge any easier. But, if nothing else, it should convince their front office they can't simply show up for spring training and expect to repeat as division champs.

Papelbon's blown save snaps Nats' win streak against Royals

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Papelbon's blown save snaps Nats' win streak against Royals

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 7-6 walkoff loss to the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium: 

How it happened: The Nationals were on the brink of their fifth straight win when Jonathan Papelbon took the mound Tuesday night, but waiting for him was the middle of the Royals' order in a lineup that can grind out at-bats and make their own luck as well as any team in baseball. They got to Papelbon and they did it their way: a soft infield single to beat a shift, a stolen base by a pinch-runner and two RBI singles to finish the job. The Royals didn't need a single extrabase hit to erase a two-run deficit and steal a win from the Nationals.

Mike Moustakas tied the game with his RBI single in the bottom of the ninth and Lorenzo Cain ended it on a walkoff line drive to center field, as the Nationals fell to 18-8 on the season. Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth and Chris Heisey homered, Wilson Ramos returned with three hits and Tanner Roark made it 7 1/3 innings. But it wasn't enough with Papelbon's second blown save of the season.

What it means: The Nationals have to still feel great about their road trip so far despite Tuesday's loss, but the Papelbon failure in the ninth has to be concerning. It was his second blown save this season in 11 attempts. That puts him on a troubling pace.

Papelbon's drop-off: Speaking of Papelbon. He now sports a 4.50 ERA on the season after allowing three runs on five hits on Tuesday. It was a tough night for the Nats' closer, who has blown four saves now in 35 outings since getting traded to Washington last July.

Ramos picks up where he left off: Ramos hadn't played since April 24 due to the death of his grandfather, but he had quite the return on Tuesday night. Ramos had three hits including two doubles, the first to score a run in the sixth inning. It was Ramos' sixth multi-hit game this season and his first since April 15. The Buffalo is now batting .344 through 16 games.

Rendon finally gets a homer: One of the biggest surprises this season so far for the Nationals has been the lack of power numbers for Rendon, who two years ago was one of the best players in the NL. He entered Tuesday night slugging just .290 and had yet to hit a home run in in 100 at-bats. Well, that homer finally came in the first inning off Chris Young, a solo blast to left field. It was Rendon's first home run in 191 at-bats dating back to Sept. 14 of last season. Rendon hit 21 homers in 2014 and has the potential for even more. Perhaps that swing can get him going.

Murphy goes yard: Murphy hit his third homer of the season on Tuesday, a solo shot to right field off Young to make it a 3-2 game. Murphy now has three homers in 26 games with the Nats, which puts him on a 19-homer pace over a full 162 game season. That's a notch or two ahead of the 14 homers he hit in 130 regular season games in 2015, which was a 17-homer pace over 162 games.

Harper keeps scuffling: With all the talk this week about who should star in Space Jam 2, Harper has looked in recent days like he's auditioning for a role. Maybe somewhere in the galaxy right now a Nerdluck is blasting homer after homer into the oblivion. Okay, maybe not. But the real life Harper had another rough night Tuesday with zero hits in five at-bats and three strikeouts. Harper has multiple Ks in three straight games and is now batting .256 on the year. 

Up next: The Nats and Royals close out their series in Kansas City with a 2:15 p.m. start. Stephen Strasburg (4-0, 2.25) will look to continue his excellent run to begin the season. Right-hander Kris Medlen (1-2, 4.87) will take the mound for the Royals. After Wednesday, the Nats move on to Chicago for a four-game series at Wrigley against the Cubs.

Nationals minor league affiliate to play rare tripleheader

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Nationals minor league affiliate to play rare tripleheader

Here's something you don't see every day. The Single-A Potomac Nationals, an affilliate of the Washington Nationals, will play three games on Wednesday in a rare tripleheader.

Doubleheaders in baseball are common. The Nationals have one coming up in just over a week on Saturday May 14. Three games in one day, though? That's a lot of baseball.

Here's how it will work. The P-Nats and the Lynchburg Hillcats will play their first game at 3 p.m. in Lynchburg. It's a continuation of Monday's game that was suspended in the fifth inning due to rain. That game will go nine innings. They will then play two seven-inning games to close out their series.

So, barring extras, that means 19 innings of baseball. That's about the same as a doubleheader of two nine-inning games, but this day will have three different game results. 

A tripleheader, by the way, has not been played in the majors since 1920. It has been almost a hundred years and it may never happen again.

For more on the tripleheader, click here.

 

Podcast: 'Baseball in the District' - Projecting Harper's USA super team

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Podcast: 'Baseball in the District' - Projecting Harper's USA super team

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On this week's episode of 'Baseball in the District,' we examined the Nats' resurgence in the Midwest, Bryce Harper's surprising struggles and how the suspension of Dee Gordon could affect the NL East. We also projected what Harper's idea of a U.S.A. super team for the World Baseball Classic would like.

This week's episode also featured a very special guest: D.C. Washington, the national anthem extraordinnaire that has become a fan favorite around town. How did he get his name? How did he get his start singing anthems? Does he still get nervous before them? D.C. answered those questions and more in what turned out to be a very fun interview.

You can listen to the show on ESPN 980's website or download the show on iTunes.