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Nats ready to fire up Hot Stove

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Nats ready to fire up Hot Stove

Technically speaking, the baseball offseason began the moment the San Francisco Giants wrapped up a four-game whitewashing of the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. That was 29 days ago.

In reality, the offseason has barely registered a blip on anyone's radar screen to this point. Yes, free agency kicked off five days after the Fall Classic ended. But do you know how many of the sport's 175 free agents have signed contracts so far? Twenty-one. That's all.

Baseball, as everyone knows, likes to take its time. This is the rare sport, of course, that doesn't feature a clock. So it's only appropriate that it always takes a while for the offseason to kick into high gear.

That time, though, has finally come. Thanksgiving has come and gone, the annual Winter Meetings begin one week from today and the Hot Stove League is ready at last to ignite.

You'll start reading more and more rumors in the days ahead, which players are in discussions with which clubs. You may see a handful of free agents sign deals before anyone arrives in Nashville on Sunday. You'll certainly see a smorgasbord of activity once those Winter Meetings commence at the massive Opryland Resort and Convention Center.

And you'll probably hear the Nationals mentioned as much as almost any franchise in the game, a clear departure from previous offseasons when they existed mostly on the periphery of all the action.

What do the Nationals need? It's been well-documented since mid-October, but let's run through it all again, in order of greatest need...

1. ADAM LAROCHE
So much of the Nats' offseason hinges upon the veteran first baseman. If he returns to D.C., the lineup is set. If he goes elsewhere, the dominoes start falling all over the place, with Michael Morse likely shifting to first base and the club then deciding if it wants to simply give left field to Tyler Moore or pursue a free agent center fielder like Michael Bourn or B.J. Upton and shift Bryce Harper to left field (or Harper to right field and Jayson Werth to left field).

Very little has come to light about the LaRoche market, but this much is certain: The Nationals would happily give their 2012 MVP two guaranteed years at a healthy sum. The question is whether they would be willing to give him three guaranteed years, and if not, whether another club (ie. the Red Sox, Orioles or Rangers) would then be able to swoop him away.

Look for more clarity in this dilemma over the next week or two, with the market perhaps defining itself better to the point LaRoche can finally make his decision and the Nationals can finally proceed with their larger offseason plan.

2. A NO. 5 STARTER
If ever there was a good winter to be in need of a reliable, veteran starter, this is it. There are no shortage of available options via free agency, only a question of how high the Nationals want to set their sets and how much money they're willing to spend to bolster what may already be the majors' best rotation.

At the top end of the spectrum are Zack Greinke and Dan Haren. In the middle of the pack are Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Lohse, Ryan Dempster and Brandon McCarthy. Further down the list are Joe Saunders, Shaun Marcum and Carl Pavano.

And then, of course, there's John Lannan (still under the Nationals' control though now out of minor-league options) and Christian Garcia (who may be converted to a starter next spring).

If the Nationals are dead-set on acquiring one of the big names, they may try to be aggressive and get something done in short order. If they're content to pick from among the rest of the litter, they could take their sweet time and find themselves a better bargain once the dust has settled.

3. A LEFT-HANDED RELIEVER (OR TWO)
Sean Burnett and Michael Gonzalez are both free agents. Either (or both) could re-sign, though Burnett may command a three-year commitment along the lines of the contract the Giants gave Jeremy Affeldt to stay in San Francisco through 2015.

Who else is out there? There aren't many other quality lefties on the open market. Veterans Randy Choate and J.P. Howell are probably the best of the bunch, which could put some added pressure on the Nationals to at least re-sign Burnett or Gonzalez.

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Gonzalez on earning career win No. 100 : 'I’m just happy it came'

Gonzalez on earning career win No. 100 : 'I’m just happy it came'

Gio Gonzalez isn’t the type to harp on his accomplishments. After quality outings, he typically deflects praise to his Nationals teammates in postgame interviews when asked to describe his personal performance.

But as much as he tends to downplay, earning his career 100th win in Friday's victory over the Colorado Rockies clearly meant something to him. 

“I’m just happy it came,” Gonzalez said. “I finally showed up and I’m happy I did it here with this organization. Oakland gave me an opportunity and Washington helped me continue that opportunity and I couldn’t be happier to do it with these colors and represent the Washington Nationals.”

The feat came after two no-decisions in his previous two starts, so the third time proved to be the charm. After the game, he had a gathering of family and friends waiting outside the Nats’ clubhouse to congratulate him, some holding gold “100” balloons and others wearing hats featuring the oft-used Twitter emoji of the same number.

“I'm sure it was [on his mind],” manager Dusty Baker said. “…He didn’t want to come out of this game. He was going to get it eventually and we needed it.”

The 30-year-old left hander accomplished the milestone thanks to six innings of two-run ball on just 85 pitches against the hard-hitting Rockies lineup. Gonzalez displayed a lot of what his skipper wanted to see from him: a low pitch count, avoiding the big inning and, as he did later in the game, deliver shutdown frames immediately after the Nats offense scores.

“He threw great tonight," added Bryce Harper. Kept a very good Rockies lineup off balance and did what he needed to do. Stuck with his approach and threw like Gio knows how. Huge for him, that hundredth win. Couldn't be happier for him and his family.”

Historic achievement aside, Gonzalez has quietly turned his season around after a rough patch. In his last nine outings, he’s 5-1 with a 3.20 ERA over 50 2/3 innings. His resurgence couldn’t have come at a better time, as he’s charged with stabilizing the back-end of a rotation that’s in flux due to injuries to Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross.

“That's the key to his success,” Baker said. “Not getting runners on base or not walking people and he had a very good game tonight, excellent game. His last couple games, few games have been good. I'm just glad we were able to get him his 100th victory.”

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Nats ride Gonzalez, bats to 8-5 victory over the Rockies

Nats ride Gonzalez, bats to 8-5 victory over the Rockies

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 8-5 win over the Colorado Rockies on Friday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: The Nationals have quickly gotten the sour taste of their recent four-game skid out of their mouths.

Thanks to a resurgent offense and a quality start by Gio Gonzalez, Washington got back on track with Friday’s 8-2 win over the Rockies, the Nats’ second win in as many days.

True to form, the power-laden lineup didn’t take long to strike. Jayson Werth launched a solo home run, his second in as many days and his 18th of the season, to put Washington up 1-0 in the first inning, and scored again in the third on an RBI groundout by Daniel Murphy.

With the game tied 2-2 in the fourth inning, the Nats wouldn’t create breathing room until the middle innings. The Nats took a lead they wouldn’t surrender when they scored two runs on a Jose Lobaton fielder’s choice in the fourth inning, followed by a Murphy solo home run in the fifth to make it 4-2.

From there, the game was blown open in the seventh inning thanks to a four-spot that was highlighted by an RBI double by Werth and a two-run triple by Bryce Harper that nearly left the ballpark.

The Rockies closed the gap to 8-5 on a Nick Hundley three-run home run in the ninth off Shawn Kelley, so Dusty Baker turned to Mark Melancon to notch the final out and secure the victory.  

What it means: The Nats have won back to back games and have raised their record to 75-53. Pending the result of the Miami Marlins game, Washington could be up nine games in the NL East by the end of the night.

Gonzalez notches win No. 100: The lefty starter wasn’t dominant by any means, but he did what Baker wanted him to do: keep his pitch count down and avoid the big inning. Gonzalez allowed two earned runs on four hits over six innings and 85 pitches, and limited the damage every time the Rockies were threatening. He could have easily gone deeper in the game, but Baker opted to pinch hit for him when the Nats had two on and two out in the bottom of the sixth. Regardless, the performance was good enough to earn Gonzalez the 100th victory of his career. 

Murphy’s milestone: With his 25th home run of the season, a fifth-inning solo shot, Murphy notched his 500th career RBI. It’s a remarkable achievement considering that he currently has 98 RBI on the season, which means roughly a fifth of the runs he’s driven in have come in 2016.

Bryce back? Don’t look now, but Harper is looking very much like the reigning NL MVP these days. He added two more extra-base hits Friday night, including his first triple of the season, and is now hitting an even .400 since his return from a neck injury. His season average has suddenly risen to .254, and with the way he’s going, could get to .260 by the end of the weekend.

Up next: The middle game of this three-game set will take place Saturday afternoon at 1:05 p.m. as the Nats send A.J. Cole (0-1, 5.14 ERA) to oppose Jorge De La Rosa (8-7, 5.07 ERA).

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Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Friday night wasn't the first time the Nationals paid tribute to Senators slugger Frank Howard. After all, it’s his likeness that is featured in one of the few statues outside of Nats Park. 

But it wasn't until a recent change in the team’s Ring of Honor criteria — which now allows for any pre-Nats/Expos D.C. great to be inducted — that Howard became eligible for recognition by the franchise.  

 “It’s a real thrill for me, it really is,” said Howard, 80, before Friday’s game against the Colorado Rockies. “It’s nice when somebody says ‘Welcome to the Ring of Honor.’”

For many longtime D.C. sports fans, Howard is one of the few vestiges of the city’s last baseball team before a 34-year gap without the game. He had his best years as a member of the Senators from 1965 to 1971, hitting 237 home runs — the most any player representing D.C. has ever hit.

On Friday, Howard didn’t delve too much into his past, instead praising the current state of D.C.’s baseball team.

“They’re not a young organization anymore,” Howard said of the Nats. “They wanted to create their own image and they should. They’ve done a beautiful job, from top to bottom.”

Howard’s impact on the game went beyond the nation’s capital. Nats manager Dusty Baker said that when he was growing up, his brother would emulate Howard, who began his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“As a kid, his name was big Frank Howard, or 'Hondo,'” Baker recalled. “We’re playing games in the back yard and my brother was Frank Howard, and I was Tommy Davis.”

Baker would get to meet and interact with Howard over the years, calling him “the most gentle giant of a man I know.” Howard returned the favor with a few compliments of his own.  

“Dusty Baker is a quality big league player, quality big league manager,” he said. "Knows the game from A to Z and back to Z to A. He’s been very successful.”

And of course, talking to any D.C. baseball great means getting their opinion on the reigning NL MVP, Bryce Harper.

“He haven’t even begun to scratch the surface,” Howard said of the 23-year-old right fielder. “His next 10 years should be dynamite years.”

As great as Howard was for the Senators, the teams he played for in D.C. were rarely considered World Series contenders. This Nats club, on the other hand, represents a perennial threat to win it all, something Howard hopes the team will make good on someday. 

“I think it’d be great for the area,” he said. “We’ve got great fans here, and to give them a world championship ball club would be a real thrill.”