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Nats 2nd half storylines: The pennant race

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Nats 2nd half storylines: The pennant race

The Nationals open tomorrow what promises to be the most compelling second half to a season since the franchise arrived in town in 2005, owners of the NL's best record but saddled with several major questions that need to be answered.

Today we're counting down the five most significant storylines to the remainder of the Nationals' season. Last up is storyline No. 1: The race to reach the postseason for the first time since the franchise arrived in town...

At what point does a pennant race truly begin? When is it OK to start watching the out-of-town scoreboard? To start calculating magic numbers?

This is uncharted territory for the Nationals, who haven't found themselves even on the fringes of contention since their inaugural 2005 season. And it's completely uncharted territory for just about any fan of Washington baseball, unless there's anyone still around who remembers the 1945 Senators, the last D.C.-based club to miss the postseason by fewer than eight games.

Members of the 2012 Nationals insisted throughout the last three months they were not thinking that far ahead, they remained focused on that day's game or that week's series. It was too early to look at the standings or discuss a pennant race.

Well, it's not early anymore. When the Nats take the field Friday night in Miami for the season's second-half opener, they'll have fewer games remaining on their schedule than they've already played. Memorial Day, Father's Day and Independence Day have all passed. The July 31 trade deadline will be only 18 days away.

And should they take a glance at the standings, the Nationals will find themselves four games up in the NL East, 4 12 games up in the NL wild-card race and two games ahead of anyone else in the National League.

Start paying attention to those numbers, because they're going to become more and more important with each passing day.

This isn't the 2005 club that turned a 50-31 first half into a 31-50 second half. This team is built to keep winning through the remainder of the season. It's got the deepest pitching staff in baseball, deep enough even to survive the September shutdown of Stephen Strasburg. It's got an improving lineup that will be further bolstered by Jayson Werth's pending return. And it's got a seasoned manager in Davey Johnson who has guided five of his last seven big-league clubs to the postseason.

None of that, of course, guarantees anything. But there are far more reasons to believe these Nationals can stay in the race through the finish line than reasons to believe they cannot.

And that race begins in earnest on Friday.

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Even after two-plus years, Hunter Strickland couldn't forget last meeting with Bryce Harper

Even after two-plus years, Hunter Strickland couldn't forget last meeting with Bryce Harper

965 days. That's the amount of time that separated the second time Bryce Harper and Hunter Strickland faced each other on an MLB diamond and the third one.

In that second matchup, which came back in Game 4 of the 2014 NLDS, Harper launched a game-tying home run in the seventh inning off of Strickland. Harper also hit a blast off Strickland in Game 1 of the same series.

Well, apparently, the Giants reliever still hasn't gotten over his last time he saw the Nationals star, because on Monday, the right-hander plunked the MVP candidate with a fastball the first chance he had since their postseason encounters almost three years ago.

Ironically enough, after San Francisco beat Washington in the NLDS, Strickland told the SF Chronicle how he would have to "have a short memory" on the mound for the rest of the playoffs and keep his composure after the home runs. Judging by this video, however, it's clear that Strickland's had some issues moving on:

RELATED: MORE ON THE HARPER VS. STRICKLAND BRAWL

When you look back at that Game 4 meeting, you'll see Harper pause at home plate and watch his moonshot after sending it into the McCovey Cove, then glare at Strickland a few times as he rounds the bases. Some will call what No. 34 did a violation of baseball's unwritten rules, but it was a huge moment on a huge stage, which contributed to Harper's emotional reaction.

The fact of the matter is that plenty of pitchers have moved on from much more egregious things in much shorter time frames, but for whatever reason, Strickland just wasn't able to.

Afterward, Harper explained why he thinks the hit by pitch should've never happened.

But Ryan Zimmerman had the best quote of all when talking about the sequence:

The veteran is right on with that statement. Harper was better than Strickland back in 2014, so Strickland felt the need to tag Harper first before Harper had a chance to tag him again on Monday. Essentially, the pitcher followed the, "If you can't beat him, bean him" strategy.

965 days is a long time to get over a grudge. For Hunter Strickland, though, 965 days still wasn't enough.

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Bryce Harper charges mound, throws punches after Hunter Strickland hits him with pitch

Bryce Harper charges mound, throws punches after Hunter Strickland hits him with pitch

In their two previous meetings, Bryce Harper took Hunter Strickland deep. Very deep, in fact.

So in their third encounter, Strickland made sure that Harper wouldn't have the chance to do it again. 

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In the top of the eighth inning of Monday's Nationals-Giants game, the San Francisco reliever went after Washington's best player on the first pitch and hit him in the thigh with a 98 MPH fastball.

Harper — without hesitation — responded by charging the mound and throwing his helmet at Strickland, and the two then squared off and exchanged punches.

Here is the wild video of the whole sequence:

Harper and Strickland were, of course, ejected after initiating one of the best MLB fights in recent memory. This was the pair's first time facing each other since Harper's two home runs in the 2014 NLDS, meaning Strickland's had a long time to get over No. 34's blasts but simply couldn't do it.