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82 wins for Nats ... and still counting

82 wins for Nats ... and still counting

When victory No. 82 in the most successful baseball season in the District of Columbia in 43 years was official, the reaction on the field and in the clubhouse at Nationals Park was no different than after any of the previous 81 wins.

Tyler Clippard and Kurt Suzuki met at the pitchers' mound to shake hands. Players lined up for their customary high-fives. The same mix tape of songs heard after every win was pumped through the clubhouse stereo system.

Most Nationals didn't even realize their 2-1 Labor Day triumph over the Cubs had secured the first winning season by a D.C. ballclub since Ted Williams' 1969 Senators did it at the recently renamed RFK Stadium.

"I wasn't really concerned about that," manager Davey Johnson insisted.

"That's been the farthest thing from our goal," first baseman Adam LaRoche added.

"We want to take it to the next level," Tyler Clippard chimed in. "We don't want to stop there. That's what's exciting about the season."

All fair points, and all evidence of just how far the Nationals have come in such a short amount of time. When this team opened its season five months ago against these same Cubs, a winning record would have constituted a significant accomplishment.

But as the wins began piling up and the magic number suddenly became part of the local lexicon, the bar for success kept getting raised. Now, anything short of the first postseason berth by a D.C. ballclub since 1933 would be a huge disappointment.

So the most important development out of Monday's game from the Nationals' perspective wasn't how many wins they had at the end of the day but who earned that win with another impressive pitching performance: Ross Detwiler.

In churning out seven scoreless innings, Detwiler improved to 9-6 on the season, lowered his ERA to 3.15 and left his teammates feeling as confident as ever about his ability to keep winning games down the stretch and perhaps into October.

"He's been great for us this year, and it's really only the tip of the iceberg for him," Ryan Zimmerman said of the 26-year-old left-hander. "He's still learning how to pitch, so he's come a long way. I think we're all proud of how he's learned from his mistakes and grown and become the pitcher he is."

Where Detwiler used to be good for four or five innings before fading, he now appears to get stronger as the game progresses. It's no longer a big deal for him to complete seven innings, nor to pitch his way out of jams as he did a couple of times on Monday.

He's learned both to be aggressive with his fastball early in the count but also to know when to turn to his offspeed stuff in a pinch. Put it all together, and the Nationals' current No. 5 starter (and soon-to-be No. 4 starter once Stephen Strasburg is shut down) is at last living up to the promise the club saw when it drafted him sixth overall in the country in 2007.

"I'm learning myself and what I need to do in different situations," he said. "Say I'm behind in the count. I'm learning how to throw a changeup, or how to throw a sinker down in the zone, instead of just sinking in there and letting it get hit. I think that's the biggest thing."

Detwiler was aided on Monday by a couple of timely hits from some of the big bats in the Nationals' lineup. LaRoche got things started with a solo homer in the second, his team-leading 25th of the year. Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman combined to produce what proved to be a key insurance run in the eighth, with Harper singling to right and then coming all the way around to score on Zimmerman's double into the left-field corner.

That run turned out to be the difference after Clippard suffered a hiccup in the ninth, surrendering a couple of singles that allowed Chicago to plate its only run and threaten to plate the tying tally.

Clippard, though, calmly struck out Josh Vitters to end the game, secure his 30th save and secure a winning season for a once-downtrodden franchise that is at long last getting to enjoy the fruits of success.

There aren't many remaining in the organization from those early days in 2005 and 2006, when nobody quite knew what the future held for the Nationals.

As it turned out, there were plenty of dark days ahead: 100-loss seasons, front office and coaching staff overhauls, small crowds, poor TV ratings and only a glimmer of hope.

Which only makes this season sweeter for the few who have seen this thing all the way through and who understand 82 wins is only the next step toward a much loftier accomplishment.

"We've come a long way," said Zimmerman, the club's first-ever draft pick. "I guess you can't try to start an organization like we did here from the ground up and expect that to happen really quickly. We've gone through the process, and they've done things the right way. It's been a struggle sometimes and it's been frustrating, but I think now we're going to be set for not just this year, but a lot of years to come."

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Bryce Harper knows why he didn't play well, but he won't specify why

Bryce Harper knows why he didn't play well, but he won't specify why

Bryce Harper struggled by his standards in 2016 and he says he know why it happened last year. While it was rumored last season that he was playing through injuries, Harper never really missed significant time, nor did he really say that his injuries were the reason for his disappointing numbers. 

Speaking with the media today at spring training, Harper hinted at his injuries from last season as he said he was just trying to stay in the lineup every day.  

Although Harper's statistics dropped off dramatically from his MVP season in 2015, his numbers weren't entirely awful last year. He still hit 24 homers, drove in 86 runs and he had an .814 OPS. 

With a full offseason to heal up, Harper will be a prime bounce-back candidate as he looks to help the Nationals win their third NL East title in the last four years. 

Related: Sorry D.C. sports fans, Bryce Harper is a Dallas Cowboys fan

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Nationals' Max Scherzer says he may not be ready for season opener

Nationals' Max Scherzer says he may not be ready for season opener

The Nationals aren't certain to have ace Max Scherzer ready to pitch for Opening Day. Scherzer, 32, was unable to compete in the World Baseball Classic this summer due to a stress fracture in his right ring finger. 

When he spoke to the media today at the first bullpen session of spring training, he said that the fracture has healed but the symptoms continue. 

Scherzer also said he'd just started throwing again this week. Manager Dusty Baker confimed that the Nationals don't know whether Scherzer will be ready to start the season. 

Any time a team's star pitcher suffers an unusual hand injury, it's cause for concern for the club and fans. 

Scherzer won the NL Cy Young Award last season and posted a 20-7 record as a starter. He also led the MLB with 284 strikeouts. 

Scherzer is an especially vital part of the Nationals rotation considering the injury history of Stephen Strasburg, who landed on the DL twice last season, once with soreness in the elbow that needed Tommy John surgery in 2010. 

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