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Another impressive Nats rally

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Another impressive Nats rally

As the ball struck Adam LaRoche's bat and began its trek straight toward Giants second baseman Ryan Theriot, the Nationals dugout tried to maintain some positive thoughts and believe LaRoche could get down the line and prevent a tailor-made double play that would send this game into extra innings.

"Hopefully Adam's fast enough," teammate Ryan Zimmerman thought before correcting himself. "Actually, I know he's not fast enough. Hopefully they mess it up."

Prayers answered. The Nationals didn't pull off a wild, 6-5 win because of LaRoche's legs. (Even the veteran's 9-year-old son, Drake, later told his dad: "You got lucky.") They pulled it off because San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford's throw to first bounced and Brandon Belt couldn't make the short-hop scoop.

Not that the Nationals were any less thrilled to win this game via the opposition's mistake. The way things are going for them these days, they just assumed they'd win this one eventually, whether in regulation or extra innings.

"Those are the things that have happened to us this year," Zimmerman said. "We got some opportunities, we've caught some breaks, and more importantly, we've taken advantage of those breaks. Good teams do that."

At 48-32, the Nationals are better than good right now. They're the best team in the NL, they just swept the team that owned the league's second-best record when it arrived in town Tuesday and they've earned the respect of the entire sport.

"We've played Texas, and we've played Anaheim. That's two really good teams," Theriot said, citing a pair of American League powers. "In my opinion, these guys are right up there."

If nothing else, the Giants can attest to the Nationals' resiliency during this series. They beat up on Tim Lincecum Tuesday night in a 9-3 victory. They rebounded from an early three-run hole Wednesday morning to win 9-4. And Thursday night they spotted All-Star Matt Cain a 5-1 lead through six innings and still stormed back to win in dramatic fashion.

All the more remarkable: Prior to Wednesday, the Giants were 74-1 over the last two seasons when they led any game by at least three runs. They're now 74-3.

"There's no quit in this ballclub," manager Davey Johnson said. "There's a lot of character on this ballclub."

On Turn Back the Clock Night -- with both clubs wearing replica 1924 uniforms to commemorate that year's World Series between the Senators and Giants -- the Nationals waited until the seventh inning to finally get their gears cranked up. Stifled all evening by Cain, they eventually got to the right-hander when Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa clubbed back-to-back homers, trimming a 5-1 deficit to 5-3.

After Desmond launched his solo shot (his 15th in 80 games this season), Bryce Harper turned to LaRoche in the dugout.

"We're going to win this game," the 19-year-old told his veteran teammate. "Just be ready for it."

"Yeah," LaRoche said, confirming the exchange. "He was feeling pretty good about it."

Harper played a key role in completing this comeback, starting with his two-out, RBI double later in the seventh. That clutch hit came seconds after he was called for a check-swing by third base umpire Jerry Meals on a 2-0 pitch despite barely moving his bat into the strike zone.

"If it was a 1-1 count and he got me 1-2, I would've been kind of fired up," Harper said. "But it was still in my favor, so I wasn't that upset. I got a pitch I could handle a little bit and flicked it off for a base hit."

The crowd of 29,819 -- which in the throwback spirit of the evening was treated to minimal in-game entertainment and music -- roared with approval. Those fans stayed fired up throughout the game's final three innings, culminating with the Nationals' winning rally in the bottom of the ninth.

That rally was ignited by Tyler Moore, another rookie who managed to turn on an 0-2 slider from Giants closer Santiago Casilla and drill a leadoff double to left-center.

"Last year, I'd go up there and just hack 0-2," said Moore, now hitting .328. "I'm just trying to cut down your swing once you get two strikes, take it the other way. It's just something I've been working on."

Steve Lombardozzi, yet another rookie in the Nationals lineup, then dropped a sacrifice bunt attempt that Casilla couldn't handle, leaving runners on the corners with nobody out and Harper at the plate with a chance to deliver in the clutch again.

Harper did just that, sending a 3-1 pitch from Casilla into right field to bring Moore home with the tying run.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy elected to intentionally walk Zimmerman, loading the bases with nobody out for cleanup hitter Michael Morse, but creating a potential force out at any base. That move paid off when Morse rapped a grounder to second, with Theriot firing to the plate to get Lombardozzi for the inning's first out.

Theriot got another chance moments later when he fielded a tailor-made, double-play grounder off the bat of LaRoche, who had only one thought as he made contact.

"Run as fast as I can -- which isn't very fast -- and put a little pressure on them," he said.

Whether it was LaRoche's blazing speed, the pressure of the moment or some other cosmic force, Crawford and Belt couldn't complete the 4-6-3 double play. LaRoche saw the ball hit the dirt, pumped his fist in celebration and then was mobbed by teammates.

Hundreds of miles away in the clubhouse at Turner Field, members of the Atlanta Braves (who had just won their game) were watching on television and reacted with a loud exclamation and a few inappropriate words.

That may be the prevailing sentiment across the National League right now as 15 other teams wonder what, if anything, can be done to derail Washington's juggernaut of a ballclub.

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Nationals' Bryce Harper mashes monster homer on second pitch of spring training

Nationals' Bryce Harper mashes monster homer on second pitch of spring training

The Nationals played their first game of spring training today against the Mets. They won, but that's not nearly the biggest story of the day. It was Bryce Harper's first at-bat that stole the show. 

On just the second pitch he saw of spring training, from lefty Sean Gilmartin, Harper mashed a ginormous home run to right center field. MLB.com shared video of the bomb. 

According to Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post, Harper smacked the ball at least 400 feet. In his second at-bat, he hit a line-drive single on the first pitch. 

Let's just say it was an exciting start to the year for Harper, who won the 2015 NL MVP only to endure a let-down last season. As Castillo points out, the slugger hit .226 against left-handed pitchers in 2016. 

Harper enters spring training at 230 pounds, up 15 pounds of muscle from last year. 

“I just felt going into the offseason you want to get as strong as you can, try to maintain your weight the best you can and just do everything the right way,” he told the Post. 

MORE NATIONALS: Baker thinks DC sports teams can win a championship this year

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Nationals' Dusty Baker thinks Washington teams are positioned to win a championship this year

Nationals' Dusty Baker thinks Washington teams are positioned to win a championship this year

Nationals manager Dusty Baker is back for a second year and feeling optimistic for his Washington team. Spring training has begun in Florida and it has Baker thinking about how the Nats can create some excitement for local sports fans.

In an interview with American University’s WAMU radio station, Baker said D.C. wants to be a "city of champions.” Furthermore, he thinks it can be pulled off before the year ends.

"I came here to win a championship and you know I would love nothing more than to bring one to Washington. Washington, I didn’t know it before I got there, but it’s had a tough time getting out of the first round in a number of sports."

He projected the Nationals to bring home the next championship for the District, but he knows they have competition of late. 

"Washington Wizards are looking pretty good. I’m pulling for them first because their season ends before ours, so I’ve been really following them. The Capitals have a good thing going. I started watching the Redskins more this year.

"You know once it gets contagious in a city and you get a positive attitude throughout the city, then it transfers to the sports teams. So we want to be known as a city of champions, before the end of the year hopefully."

Baker has a reputation for bringing out the best in his teams, especially managing star players. He managed the San Francisco Giants for ten seasons before moving on to the Chicago Cubs, a team he managed for four seasons.

He's never won a World Series, but has taken a team to Game 7. He also finished third for the 2016 National League Manager of the Year award.

So, what are Baker’s steps for the Nationals to get that ultimate prize? A simple formula, really.

"I think that we’ve got to stay healthy, number one. We’re trying to fill the holes that we need to fill, and we’ve got to play," he said. "You know last year we were very close, we were one hit away or one play away or one pitch away from going to the next round against the Cubs."

While he says he came to win Washington a championship, he's also enjoying his time in the city. 

"I love D.C. Before that, San Francisco was my favorite town; that’s my home. But I tell you, D.C. is definitely in the running," he said. "I thought San Francisco had the best seafood, but man, you guys have the best seafood I think in the world."

Thanks, Dusty!

The Nationals play their first spring training game against the New York mets on Saturday.

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