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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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Bryce Harper's contract demand reportedly forcing Nationals to move on after 2018

Bryce Harper's contract demand reportedly forcing Nationals to move on after 2018

It is no secret that Bryce Harper's next contract could very well be the largest contract in baseball history.

The 2015 N.L. MVP has reprotedly been looking for something in the realm of 10 years, $400 million.

The Nationals would love to keep the cornerstone of their franchise, but with Harper garnering such a monumental price tag, the team may have no other choice but to move on when his contract expires in 2018.

With the MLB winter meetings taking place at the National Harbor in Oxen Hill, Md. this week, talks of Harper's contract situation have arisen again, and according to USA Today's Bob Nightengale, the news might not be good for Nationals fans. 

The Washington Nationals, balking at Bryce Harper’s demands in early talks about a long-term contract extension, now are preparing themselves to be without their All-Star outfielder after 2018, a high-ranking Nationals executive told USA TODAY Sports.

The executive spoke to USA TODAY Sports on Monday only on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations.

Agent Scott Boras says the only active negotiations of late have involved a one-year deal in 2017. Harper, who made $5 million last season, is eligible for salary arbitration.

RELATED: NATIONALS DECLINE TO TENDER CONTRACT ON SPEEDY OUTFIELDER

Harper is one of Major League Baseball's top stars but with the Nationals already investing $84.7 million in 2019 salaries to Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman, the money just might not be there for the Nationals to spend. 

The Nationals, who had begun preliminary negotiations this year to retain Harper beyond 2018, believe the chasm in their talks now have become too great to overcome. While no specific dollar amount has been broached by high-powered agent Scott Boras, the executive says Harper is seeking a deal more than 10 years in length, believing it would exceed $400 million.

The Nationals' reported mood toward moving on from Harper after 2018 could explain why the Nationals are aggressively pursuing former N.L. MVP Andrew McCutchen and former A.L. Cy Young award winner Chris Sale. 

In the grand scheme, not much has changed. Harper was always expected to command the largest cotnract on the market. But the latest news shines a light on the possible direction of the Nationals' front office. 

2018 is still a long ways away, but this could be an early sign of things to come, one Nationals fans have been hoping they would never have to see. 

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New York Daily News puts Bryce Harper and Manny Machado in Yankees uniforms

New York Daily News puts Bryce Harper and Manny Machado in Yankees uniforms

You can always count on the New York Daily News to run an audacious cover. The tabloid delivered again Friday with an image edited to show two of the league's best young hitters in Yankees pinstripes: Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper and Orioles short stop Manny Machado. 

"Bats to the Future" is exactly the headline you'd expect, too.  

It's hard to tell what's more odious to Washington and Baltimore fans: the image itself or the suggestion that baseball's new collective bargaining agreement makes it easier for the Yankees to poach their stars. 

The premise of that argument comes from sources who say the new CBA contains two changes beneficial to New York: reduced revenue sharing burden (due to tweaks in how sharing is calculated, plus a deduction for the cost of building and running Yankee Stadium) and an increased luxury tax threshold. 

Without going into number crunching detail, the Daily News explains how the club could afford Harper and/or Machado when they become free agents after the 2018 season. 

The article's tone of inevitability, despite its many assumptions, will rankle fans of all 29 other teams. After all, the Yankees aren't the only franchise interested in Harper and Machado. 

The Nationals and Orioles will presumably try to keep their stars. But to do that, they may have to fend off potentially historic money from the Bronx. 

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