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LaRoche, bench deliver for Nationals

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LaRoche, bench deliver for Nationals

The NL East title clinched at last, Davey Johnson felt it was more important Tuesday night to rest most of his regulars than field his very best lineup against the Phillies in an attempt to lock up the league's best record on the season's penultimate day.

So it was that Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Michael Morse, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Kurt Suzuki all watched the game from the dugout, their bodies and minds still recovering from the previous night's raucous celebration at Nationals Park.

There was, however, one key veteran who found his way into his familiar spot in the heart of the Nationals lineup. Adam LaRoche, sitting on 99 RBI, wanted to take a crack at reaching the century mark for only the second time in his career.

"I was going to get one of these next two days a little breather," he said. "We had a bunch of guys sitting today. I told them I'd go in there and try it out. I'm glad they talked me into it."

As are the Nationals, who benefited from LaRoche's leadoff homer in the sixth, the go-ahead blast that sent them on their way to a 4-2 victory over the Phillies and left them on a precipice of baseball's best record heading into Game 162.

At 97-64, the Nationals remain tied with the Reds (who beat the Cardinals, 3-1) entering Wednesday's finales. Because they own the head-to-head tiebreaker against Cincinnati, one more victory would make them the NL's top seed in the postseason and leave them to open the NLDS on Sunday at the winner of Friday's Wild Card game.

Thing is, the clubhouse still isn't sure whether that's the best-case scenario or not, with a Saturday-opening NLDS in San Francisco the other option.

"I don't know," LaRoche said. "We've been talking about that. I think we're 50-50 on it. I don't know necessarily the advantage. We're going to play to win tomorrow, and either way we're not in a bad spot. So I'd say we're fine, whatever happens."

They certainly were fine Tuesday, in spite of their lineup of backups and the parade of relievers who combined to churn out nine innings so Game 1 starter Gio Gonzalez could get the night off.

Tom Gorzelanny, typically a long man, was given the ball to make his first start since July 23, 2011, and responded with 3 23 solid innings. Christian Garcia, Zach Duke, Ryan Mattheus, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen then finished it off, combining to allow one run on five hits over the final 5 13 innings.

"We did a great job today," Gorzelanny said. "Guys came in did a great job. Guys have been pitching a lot lately and still are able to come in there and produce."

The real stars of this game might well have been the bench players who took this rare opportunity to start and made the most of it.

Steve Lombardozzi drove in two runs. Roger Bernadina drove in a run and scored another by tagging up on a shallow fly ball to center field. Sandy Leon reached base three times.

And Mark DeRosa singled, doubled, scored a run and started at shortstop for the first time since 2006, turning a nifty 1-6-3 double play to end the second inning.

"Awesome," the 37-year-old utilityman said. "Little older, little heavier on my legs, no doubt. But it's a position I played my whole life, coming up through the minors. ... So I appreciate Davey giving me that. That was, kind of come full circle, finish it off nice."

The biggest blast of them all came via LaRoche, who led off the sixth by belting a home run into the right-field bullpen. That gave him 33 homers on the season (a new career-high) and gave him 100 RBI (matching his career-high).

"It feels pretty good," he said. "That's something that for anybody in the middle of the lineup, it's kind of a milestone to reach 100. If I had finished on 99, it would have been a tough pill to swallow."

LaRoche's homer earned him a curtain call from the crowd of 33,546. Those same fans were back on their feet as Storen recorded the game's final out, securing the Nationals' 97th win and leaving them one win shy of baseball's best record in 2012.

Whether they actually want that designation remains unclear.

"I prefer not to fly out to San Francisco for just two days, just for travel purposes," DeRosa said. "But in 2010 with the Giants that's exactly what we did and it was fine. It really doesn't matter once those games start. It's who's going to execute and who's going to enjoy the moment instead of letting it get too big for them."

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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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