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Nats have come a long way

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Nats have come a long way

It's been six years since the New York Yankees last appeared in Washington, D.C. It feels like 600.

The three starters then-Nationals manager Frank Robinson sent to the mound during that Father's Day weekend in 2006: Shawn Hill, Ramon Ortiz and Mike O'Connor. Alfonso Soriano hit the 24th of his team-record 46 homers during the series opener at RFK Stadium. Daryle Ward scored the go-ahead run on Jose Guillen's eighth-inning triple during the Saturday matinee. Rookie Ryan Zimmerman clubbed his first career walk-off homer (a two-run shot off Chien-Ming Wang) to complete the Sunday finale and leave a sellout crowd in a state of pandemonium.

And at the end of all that, the Nationals remained seven games under .500, en route to another last-place finish in the NL East.

That won't be the case this weekend when the Bronx Bombers return to the nation's capital, this time to face a far different Nationals franchise.

How far have the Nats come? Well, even if they're swept this weekend, they'll still remain in sole possession of first place in the division, having built themselves a 4 12-game cushion thanks to a perfect 6-0 trip to Boston and Toronto over the last week.

How far have the Nats come? Well, even though their ace won't appear in this series, they'll still send three starters to the mound with ERAs below 3.03.

How far have the Nats come? Well, all three games will be televised nationally (Friday and Saturday on MLB Network, Sunday on TBS).

How far have the Nats come? Well, despite the presence of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez in the opposing dugout, the spotlight will shine brightest this weekend on a National: 19-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper.

The times have indeed changed, and changed so quickly and so dramatically it's hard to keep up.

In a season that has already seen the Nationals make major statements against several traditional powerhouses (the Phillies, Braves and Red Sox), this represents the latest opportunity for this rising power to make a statement on the big stage.

The early-May "Take Back the Park" showdown against Philadelphia was perhaps the biggest series in Nationals history. Until the late-May battle for first place in Atlanta. Until last weekend's star-riddled interleague duel at Fenway Park.

Now comes this, a meeting between the team with baseball's second-best record (38-23) and its third-best record (37-25). A marquee matchup between the most accomplished franchise in baseball history and a franchise and a city that has accomplished very little on the diamond over the decades.

Overflow crowds will pack Nationals Park for all three games. Excess media will cover the series. Locals won't know how to react to all this attention.

Better get used to it, folks. Because while this weekend's series represents another significant moment in the Nationals' brief history, this is only the start of a summer and autumn filled with significant moments and games.

By the time October rolls around, this Yankees series may barely even register on the importance scale. We might instead be recalling the Nationals' 13-game stretch against the Marlins, Mets and Braves to open the season's second half in mid-July. Or we might note the significance of a mid-September clash with the Dodgers, perhaps a playoff preview. Or we might be consumed with an Oct. 1-3, regular-season-ending showdown with the Phillies, with the Nationals attempting to clinch their first postseason berth before a packed house on South Capitol St.

Yes, the Nationals have arrived on the national stage at last. And unlike six years ago at the end of a dramatic (but ultimately insignificant) weekend against the Yankees, there's no reason to believe they're going to exit that stage anytime soon.

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Trea Turner is ready to step in and play center field for Nats if needed

Trea Turner is ready to step in and play center field for Nats if needed

With the expected return of first baseman Ryan Zimmerman on Tuesday, there will be some shuffling on the Nats roster, most notably with Trea Turner getting bumped from their infield.

Zimmerman, despite his .221/.284/.402 slash this year, is going right back into the starting lineup. He's a proven veteran, went 5-for-12 on his rehab assignment and manager Dusty Baker has already confirmed that plan, not that it needed to be done.

"I've got to get Zim back in the lineup. He’s a big part of our offense. And certainly, if I get Zim back in the lineup, that means [Daniel] Murphy is at second base," Baker said.

Turner will be out of the infield mix, but with Michael Taylor going back to Triple-A Syracuse, the door may be open for Turner to play some in the outfield. A lifelong middle infielder, Turner has been learning center field recently. He played six games there at Syracuse and has been doing outifled drills for several weeks now. 

Turner has shown in recent games the impact he can make offensively. He has 11 hits and four steals in his last nine games and in his last five outings alone has three triples and five runs. The Nats have seen the worst production of any team from their leadoff spot with a dead-last .586 OPS collectively. Taylor's now gone and Ben Revere's still hitting just .216 through 61 games.

"Now we've just got to try to find [Turner's] place with Zim coming back, find a place for him to play," Baker said.

If that is in center field, Turner feels ready to step in. 

"I did it in Syracuse and I'll do it here if they need me to," he said. "It's something that I've embraced, I guess. It's something that I'll do if they need me to. I'll continue to work out there whenever they give me the chance. On days I don't play, I go out there and shag some balls just to make sure I'm staying on top of it. It hasn't happened yet, but if it does I'll be ready."

Six games in Triple-A, of course, is not a lot of action at a brand new position. Whenever Turner does play in center field, there will be a learning curve and perhaps a noticeable drop-off from Revere. But Turner feels he did well in those six chances and can build off that experience.

"[I did] fine. I think I got a couple tough balls hit at me, line drives, and I made the right decisions at the time. I made all the plays that came to me. At the same time, I know it's not as easy as that. You've gotta play balls off the wall. In big league ballparks, it's going to be a lot different everywhere you go. Guys are a lot stronger, so they hit the ball a little bit farther. You've gotta take all that into account as well and learn," he said.

Baker himself has expressed confidence in Turner's ability to transition to the outfield. Earlier this month he offered a comparison to Robin Yount, a Hall of Famer who began his career as a shortstop before moving to center field. Yount won MVPs at both positions.

Zimmerman's return could simply mean Turner is heading back to the bench, ready to step in to give a Nats infielder a day off or wait for pinch-run opportunities. If that's the case, Turner believes he can still make an impact.

"Just keep it simple and do your job, whatever they ask," he said. "I'm still learning. I think you can always figure out ways to come off the bench and take advantage of those opportunities. If I have to do that, running is going to be a huge key. I think that's just a matter of stretching and paying attention by watching video on pitchers in case you get a stolen base opportunity, or whatever it may be."

[RELATED: For Giolito: 'It’s back to the drawing board']

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What Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs means for the Nationals

What Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs means for the Nationals

After a weekend full of rumors and speculation, it appears as if Yankees' flamethrower Aroldis Chapman is in fact headed to Chicago to join the Cubs.

The Yankees will reportedly send the closer to "The Windy City" in exchange for highly prized 19-year-old shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres as well as outfield prospects Billy McKinney, Rashad Crawford and reliever Adam Warren, according to multiple reports

The Nationals were one of the other two teams in the mix for Chapman's services, but the organization was not willing to give up the amount of young talent the Yankees wanted in return.

RELATED: WHO SHOULD THE NATIONALS TARGET AT THE TRADE DEADLINE?

With Chapman — and his 105 MPH fastball — off the table, there are two questions that need to be addressed: 1) Where do the nationals go from here and 2) Did the Cubs just become unstoppable?

The market for elite or even high-end pitching at the trade deadline is at an all-time low this season.

Chapman was the top prize, and after him, the drop off is quite significant.

Both of the Nationals' playoff appearances have ended with late-game pitching blunders and it has become clear that Jonathan Papelbon, while competent as a closer, is far from a shutdown reliever, and a patchwork unit of Sammy Solis, Shaun Kelly, Felipe Rivero and Oliver Perez doesn't yet appear to be stable enough to handle an entire postseason run.

The issue for the Nationals is that in order to acquire a closer like, Wade Davis of the Royals, the team will have to be willing to give up at least two of their highly prized young stars like Trea Turner, Joe Ross, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez.. If the team was unwilling to do so for Chapman, would the do it for Davis? 

If the Nationals do think they are just "one piece away," they could give up far less for someone like Brewers' closer Jeremy Jeffress, who has a 2.23 ERA with 23 saves and 30 strikeouts this season.

But again, the playoffs.

Jeffress is in just his second full season in the big leagues and what the Nationals need isn't just a talent closer, but one who won't get rattled in big moments and can close the door when the pressure is on.

As for the Cubs, getting Chapman is expected to be the final piece to the 108-year puzzle.

If the Nationals want to make the World Series, they will — more likely than not — have to go through Wrigley Field. The Cubs made it very clear during their early Mary series that they will not let Bryce Harper beat them. They also made it very clear that opposing pitchers cannot make more than a single mistake.

Now that the Cubs solidified their bullpen with the hardest-throwing pitcher in professional baseball, no matter how good the Nationals are — and they are very good — they may need some October magic to stop the Cubs from representing the National League in the World Series.

RELATED: UPDATED MLB POWER RANKINGS

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MLB Trade Rumors: Who should the Nationals target before the deadline?

MLB Trade Rumors: Who should the Nationals target before the deadline?

BY JEREMY FIALKOW (@JeremyFialkow)

The Nationals may be good — very good — but they're not perfect, not yet. 

With the trade deadline fast approaching, GM Mike Rizzo's hunt to turn the roster he assembled into a legitimate World Series contender will grab the spotlight.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE NATIONALS' TOP TRADE DEADLINE TARGETS

There's speculation around the league that Rizzo's plans start and end with adding a commanding bullpen arm, capable of shortening each game by three outs, at least.

Nevertheless, Washington has the assets on hand and in their farm system to secure anyone they fancy, whether it's an arm, a bat ... or both.

Fortunately for baseball fans (but unfortunately for the Nats) the 2016 season has been competitive all around, leaving teams deemed surefire sellers few and far between.

Still, Rizzo's team is in a desirable position with the always appreciated ability of flexibility, so which players will the Nats target before the July 31 trade deadline.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE NATIONALS' TOP TRADE DEADLINE TARGETS