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Nats ready to host postseason game at last

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Nats ready to host postseason game at last

Though there was legitimate optimism surrounding the Nationals when this season began, it took some time before the city fully bought into the notion this team could win big in 2012.

Indeed, six of the Nationals' first 13 home games this season drew crowds under 20,000 to South Capitol Street.

Slowly but surely, though, the town bought into this team. And by the time the Nationals were wrapping up the regular season -- and their first-ever NL East title -- a ballpark that had never been known as a particularly rowdy venue had turned into something not seen around these parts in a long time.

"It doesn't go unnoticed," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "You could tell early on, it was almost more of a social gathering: Come out, nothing else to do, we'll just go hang out at the park. And now it's turned into some die-hard fans, some people probably skipping work and skipping school to come see the Nats. Our last few regular season home games, I think we're about as close to playoff atmosphere as you could get."

Nothing, of course, can completely duplicate a playoff atmosphere, which makes Wednesday's first-in-79-years event particularly exciting for so many.

After opening their National League Division Series with a two-game split in St. Louis, the Nationals now get to host a playoff game in their hometown, in their home park, in front of their home fans.

Considering how few people among the sellout crowd for Game 3 on Wednesday afternoon would have even had the opportunity to attend the last postseason ballgame in the District (Game 5 of the 1933 World Series), this is going to be no small-time event.

"We're excited, not only for ourselves and for all the hard work we've put in this year," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "But to bring a playoff game to D.C., it's something that's been a long time coming. They've been through a lot, a lot of tough years. It's an exciting time in the Beltway."

The setting won't be ideal -- Major League Baseball scheduled this game for 1:07 p.m. on a Wednesday, forcing fans to either skip work or school or pawn off their tickets on others who are available -- but that won't dampen the spirit as Washington puts itself on a true national baseball stage for the first time.

Official postseason logos have been painted along the baselines. Fans will be given red rally towels when they enter the park. Players and coaches will be introduced before the national anthem.

And an old friend will step to the mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch: Frank Robinson.

The first manager in Nationals history -- not to mention one of the greatest players in baseball history -- has made a couple of appearances here since he was fired at the end of the 2006 season, but never in a public capacity. After a contentious breakup with former general manager Jim Bowden and former team president Stan Kasten, Robinson accepted the invitation from ownership to attend Wednesday's game.

The response, from fans and players alike, should be among the day's highlights.

"Oh, absolutely, hands down," said shortstop Ian Desmond, who changed his jersey number from 6 to 20 this season in honor of Robinson. "When he signed up here, he had this in mind. He wanted to start something, and he did. He's got his stamp on this organization forever. I'm forever indebted to him, and I think D.C. will be also."

There is, of course, a more significant task at hand for the Nationals than welcoming back a baseball legend. There is a slightly important ballgame to be played, one that could prove the turning point in this series.

Plenty of teams have stared elimination in the face and won back-to-back postseason games at home. Just look at the Cardinals, who pulled off that feat in last year's World Series.

But there's a distinct advantage to holding a 2-1 lead in a best-of-five series versus facing a 2-1 deficit.

"We know what it's going to take," LaRoche said. "I think we're going to try to keep it to one game at a time and try not to look too far ahead. We've got a big one tomorrow. If we don't get it done, we're in a bad spot. But we know how important that is. It would be nice to get that one and move on."

And, for so many who have anticipated this event for so long, it will be nice to experience postseason baseball in the District of Columbia.

"We've been a good home team, and we've put ourselves in a very good position to come home and just win a series," said Ryan Zimmerman, the only man to appear in at least one game during each of the Nationals' eight seasons. "If we can do that like we've done a lot of times this year, then we'll be sitting pretty.

"We're all excited to go out there tomorrow in front of our fans, in front of a full stadium of Nationals fans -- finally -- and see what it's like."

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Ivan Rodriguez becomes first former Nationals player to be voted into Hall of Fame

Ivan Rodriguez becomes first former Nationals player to be voted into Hall of Fame

Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez became the first former Nationals player (2005-present) to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday. He was inducted in his first year of eligibility, marking the 52nd first-ballot hall of famer in history. 

Rodriguez, who was the first free agent signed by current Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, played the final two seasons of his career with Washington in 2010-11. During his time in D.C. he hit .254 six homers and 68 RBI. Pudge's greatest contribution to the Nationals came from his leadership and work ethic. He guided Stephen Strasburg through his rookie season and also helped develop Wilson Ramos so he could pass the torch to him. 

During his 21-year career, Pudge made 14 all-star teams, won 13 gold gloves, won seven silver slugger awards, led his league in caught-steeling percentage nine times, and was named American League MVP in 1999 with the Texas Rangers. He became a World Series champion in 2003 with the Florida Marlins. Pudge's 13 gold gloves are the most ever by a catcher, and his 2,844 career hits are the most ever by a player who appeared in 50 percent or more of their career games as a catcher.  

In addition to Rodriguez, former Montreal Expos great Tim Raines was inducted to the Hall of Fame. Raines is the franchise leader (Expos/Nationals) in walks (793), runs (947), stolen bases (635) and triples (82). Raines was an all-star seven times and he won a silver slugger in 1986 with the Expos. He is the only player in MLB history with at least 100 triples, 150 homers and 600 RBI in a career, and the only player to steal at least 70 bases in six consecutive seasons. 

Related: Bryce Harper wants Nationals to spend money on players, not team store

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Bryce Harper wants Nationals to invest in Matt Wieters, Greg Holland more than facilities

Bryce Harper wants Nationals to invest in Matt Wieters, Greg Holland more than facilities

Bryce Harper isn't one to keep his opinions to himself. The Nationals slugger is outspoken about what he wants, whether that's to "Make Baseball Fun Again" or to make at least $400 million on his next contract

On Wednesday, he gave his take on how the Nats should be investing their money this summer. Here's Harper responding to a tweet from ESPN's Jim Bowden.

Harper's message: Players over everything else. Sorry, gift shop. 

It's plain to see where the 2015 NL MVP is going with this. Obviously, he wants as much talent around him as possible for a chance to win the World Series. 

Matt Wieters, a four-time All-Star catcher, and Greg Holland, a two-time All-Star closer, could be significant additions to Washington's roster. 

Harper is set to become a free agent in 2018, at which point an organization like the New York Yankees will be prepared to offer him both a massive salary and a massive investment in the players around him.

The slugger probably hopes his current team will try to surround him with winning pieces in an effort to keep him. But if a report about the Nationals' reaction to his contract demands proves accurate, they may have another agenda. 

There's Harper drama around the Nationals? Just a regular Wednesday here in Washington.

MORE NATIONALS: Nationals avoid arbitration with Harper, three others