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Nats have come a long way


Nats have come a long way

It's been six years since the New York Yankees last appeared in Washington, D.C. It feels like 600.

The three starters then-Nationals manager Frank Robinson sent to the mound during that Father's Day weekend in 2006: Shawn Hill, Ramon Ortiz and Mike O'Connor. Alfonso Soriano hit the 24th of his team-record 46 homers during the series opener at RFK Stadium. Daryle Ward scored the go-ahead run on Jose Guillen's eighth-inning triple during the Saturday matinee. Rookie Ryan Zimmerman clubbed his first career walk-off homer (a two-run shot off Chien-Ming Wang) to complete the Sunday finale and leave a sellout crowd in a state of pandemonium.

And at the end of all that, the Nationals remained seven games under .500, en route to another last-place finish in the NL East.

That won't be the case this weekend when the Bronx Bombers return to the nation's capital, this time to face a far different Nationals franchise.

How far have the Nats come? Well, even if they're swept this weekend, they'll still remain in sole possession of first place in the division, having built themselves a 4 12-game cushion thanks to a perfect 6-0 trip to Boston and Toronto over the last week.

How far have the Nats come? Well, even though their ace won't appear in this series, they'll still send three starters to the mound with ERAs below 3.03.

How far have the Nats come? Well, all three games will be televised nationally (Friday and Saturday on MLB Network, Sunday on TBS).

How far have the Nats come? Well, despite the presence of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez in the opposing dugout, the spotlight will shine brightest this weekend on a National: 19-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper.

The times have indeed changed, and changed so quickly and so dramatically it's hard to keep up.

In a season that has already seen the Nationals make major statements against several traditional powerhouses (the Phillies, Braves and Red Sox), this represents the latest opportunity for this rising power to make a statement on the big stage.

The early-May "Take Back the Park" showdown against Philadelphia was perhaps the biggest series in Nationals history. Until the late-May battle for first place in Atlanta. Until last weekend's star-riddled interleague duel at Fenway Park.

Now comes this, a meeting between the team with baseball's second-best record (38-23) and its third-best record (37-25). A marquee matchup between the most accomplished franchise in baseball history and a franchise and a city that has accomplished very little on the diamond over the decades.

Overflow crowds will pack Nationals Park for all three games. Excess media will cover the series. Locals won't know how to react to all this attention.

Better get used to it, folks. Because while this weekend's series represents another significant moment in the Nationals' brief history, this is only the start of a summer and autumn filled with significant moments and games.

By the time October rolls around, this Yankees series may barely even register on the importance scale. We might instead be recalling the Nationals' 13-game stretch against the Marlins, Mets and Braves to open the season's second half in mid-July. Or we might note the significance of a mid-September clash with the Dodgers, perhaps a playoff preview. Or we might be consumed with an Oct. 1-3, regular-season-ending showdown with the Phillies, with the Nationals attempting to clinch their first postseason berth before a packed house on South Capitol St.

Yes, the Nationals have arrived on the national stage at last. And unlike six years ago at the end of a dramatic (but ultimately insignificant) weekend against the Yankees, there's no reason to believe they're going to exit that stage anytime soon.

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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.