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Harper, Zim leading Nats' offensive surge

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Harper, Zim leading Nats' offensive surge

MIAMI -- Don't look now, but the Nationals are actually scoring runs in bunches. A lineup that not long ago featured more black holes than a Carl Sagan novel is starting to produce in a manner more befitting a first-place club.

Over the season's first 40 games, the Nationals averaged a scant 3.6 runs. Over their last eight games, they've raised that average to 5.2 runs.

So, what's been the biggest difference? It's not necessarily what you might expect. The Nationals aren't producing that many more hits (8.6 per game during this stretch vs. 8.2 during the season's first quarter). And they're actually reaching base with less frequency (posting a .314 on-base percentage during this stretch vs. a .315 mark prior to it).

No, the reason the Nationals are scoring more runs these days is that they're hitting for more power.

Through games 1-40, they averaged only 2.8 extra-base hits, a pretty paltry total. Since then, they're averaging 3.9 extra-base hits. That equates to nearly a 100-point increase in the team's slugging percentage and OPS.

Where's this sudden surge of power coming from? A lot of it is coming from the longest-tenured player on the roster and the least-tenured player on the roster.

Let's start with Ryan Zimmerman, whose first season since signing a 100 million contract extension hasn't exactly gone according to plan. Sidelined for two weeks with shoulder inflammation, Zimmerman was slow to get back on track. But he's been heating up over the last week-plus: In his last 10 games, he's hitting .318 with five extra-base hits and nine RBI.

"I'm starting to have better at-bats," Zimmerman said. "I'm hitting the ball harder; I'm not just slapping it around. I'm starting to feel good. And I think if I can continue to work and doing the things I've done for the last week and getting this thing (the shoulder) stronger, I think I can kind of take off from there."

Zimmerman admitted he's still getting his shoulder back to 100 percent. He's not in any kind of significant pain, but he continues to get daily treatment on it while trying to build the strength back up.

"Just like anyone, when you hurt something in the middle of the season, you can't give it the maximum time to get it to a point where you're able to play and you know you're not going to injure it by playing," he said. "So you just let it progress and then you continue to work and work and work. It's felt better week by week. As long as I continue to treat it and do the things that I've been doing to get it stronger, I think it's just going to get better and better."

Zimmerman isn't the only one producing more power at the plate. Bryce Harper has chimed in as well, especially since manager Davey Johnson moved him back to the No. 2 spot in his lineup.

Over his last eight games, Harper is batting a hefty .419 while slugging .742 thanks to a pair of triples and a pair of homers. He's recorded at least one hit in all eight of those games (two hits in five of them) and has scored 10 times during the span.

Guess who's been hitting behind Harper in the lineup and taking advantage of those RBI opportunities? Yes, the Face of the Franchise.

Obviously, this is only an eight-game stretch, and that's far too small a sample size to suggest we're seeing a long-term shift here.

But it's clear that the production of both Harper and Zimmerman, bolstered by the fact they're hitting back-to-back near the top of the lineup, has helped ignite what had been a sluggish Nationals lineup.

And with Harper gaining valuable experience by the day, Zimmerman strengthening his shoulder and seeing the ball better each day and Michael Morse drawing ever closer to his return from the disabled list, the Nationals have to feel encouraged about the promise of even more offense to come.

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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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