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A pennant race comes to Washington

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A pennant race comes to Washington

The crowd of 34,827 -- which certainly looked and sounded more like a sellout crowd -- began to rise as Michael Morse stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in the bottom of the fourth Friday night.

The crescendo grew as Morse took a ball inside from Johan Santana, then broke his bat fouling another one off, then took a mighty hack at an 89 mph fastball at the letters.

As the ball sailed over the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center, the first grand slam of the season by the Nationals, the roar turned deafening. And it didn't let up until Morse was coaxed out of the dugout for a two-arms-raised-followed-by-a-twirling-fist-pump curtain call that brought the emotions out of even the most-hardened members of the Nationals.

"That was awesome," Jayson Werth said. "From third base, I was probably just as excited as all the fans."

Why shouldn't they all be excited? Morse's four-run blast put the Nationals on top and put them on course for a 6-4 victory over the Mets to start this homestand off in fine fashion and catapult the local ballclub to 29 games over the .500 mark.

So this is what a pennant race feels like.

Welcomed home after a long, three-city road trip that featured enough highlights to warrant a 3-minute video on the stadium scoreboard before they took the field, the Nationals unofficially kicked off the home stretch of a remarkable season in style.

They saw Bryce Harper club a two-run homer of his own off Santana. They saw Ross Detwiler overcome some first-inning jitters to produce a quality start. They saw All-Star Ian Desmond return from a four-week stint on the disabled list. And they saw Tyler Clippard escape another harrowing ninth inning to seal their league-best 74th victory in 119 games.

And perhaps most significantly, they did it all in front of a boisterous fan base that is beginning to turn South Capitol Street into the site of a nightly block party, a fact that wasn't lost among the players.

"Absolutely," Detwiler said. "It makes you a little kid again to kind of look around. It's one of the best feelings in the world."

We can only imagine what it felt like for Morse to round the bases and receive a curtain call, because the slugger sneaked out of the postgame clubhouse without making himself available to reporters. His teammates and manager were left to speak about the impact he's made on what has become one of the sport's deepest and most-productive lineups.

"The whole first half of what he was here was like 70 percent of what he was last year," Davey Johnson said. "But he's in a good spot right now. The whole middle of the lineup is really in a good spot, and that's why we've been scoring a lot of runs."

It certainly helped to have seven key regulars (Morse, Werth, Harper, Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa) together in one lineup for the first time this season. With Werth (who now boasts a .509 on-base percentage in 14 games since returning from a broken wrist) taking over leadoff duties and Desmond and Espinosa providing some thunder from the No. 6 and No. 7 spots, this is no longer a team that must rely on top-flight pitching every single night.

"It's great," said Desmond, who went 0-for-4 in his return but hit a couple of balls hard. "When you can put a guy who has done what he's done like Jayson Werth in the leadoff spot with no complaints, when he comes out and produces, that speaks volumes about the kind of character we have in here. Guys are just willing to do whatever they have to do to, by any means."

It took that lineup a little while to get itself going Friday night. Santana, the two-time AL Cy Young Award winner who tossed a 134-pitch no-hitter on June 1 but hasn't been the same since, retired the first nine batters he faced.

But then Werth laced a sharp single up the middle to open the bottom of the fourth. And then Harper and Zimmerman followed with nearly identical base hits, setting the stage for Morse to really inflict some damage.

"He's tough," Werth said of Santana. "Even at 89 mph, he's still a great pitcher. It was evident that he mowed through our lineup the first time through. It was more just grinding out the at-bats and keeping your nose down and putting a good at-bat today. And we managed to get three hits right back up the box, and Mikey hits a slam the other way. It's just good hitting, really."

One inning later, Harper added his own blast, a two-run homer to right that brought another roar from the crowd and more than made up for his defensive gaffe in the top of the first when he airmailed a throw to the plate and hit the backstop on the fly.

Harper wound up 2-for-3 with a walk, one of his best offensive performances in weeks. Afterward, though, the 19-year-old was informed by Johnson he'll be out of the lineup Saturday as the manager seeks to give him another mental break while also giving fellow rookie Tyler Moore a chance to start.

"There's 25 guys," Johnson said. "I've said it 100 times: You don't just win with eight. ... Everybody's contributed so far, and I'm not going to just forget about the guys that had a pretty defined role until we got healthy. We're in a good place. It's where good teams need to be."

It's hard to dispute with the results. The season is nearly 75 percent complete now, and the Nationals continue to own baseball's best record.

And they're starting to put it all on display in front of large and appreciative crowds that are hopping aboard for the first pennant race this town has experienced in three generations.

"This is what makes it fun," Werth said. "I've been in this situation a few times before, and this is what it's all about. You play all season to put yourself in this situation. This is what it's all about. This is why you play your whole life, for this situation."

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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