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Nats ready for home cooking

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Nats ready for home cooking

Much has been made of the Nationals' best-in-baseball road record, which following an 8-2 trip through Houston, Arizona and San Francisco now stands at 41-23. That's a better road winning percentage, by far, than any team in the majors has at home, a stunning fact when you stop and think about it.

One point, however, hasn't been made about the Nationals' prowess away from the District: They've played more road games than anybody in the sport.

Which also means they've played the fewest home games, which could prove quite the advantage as the final stretch of a remarkable season fast approaches.

Indeed, 27 of the Nationals' final 44 games are scheduled to be played on South Capitol Street, a nice little bonus for a club that already has done everything it can to position itself for a postseason berth.

Based on what we've seen over the last 4 12 months, the Nationals are perfectly comfortable playing wherever they are instructed to play. And certainly they aren't going to take for granted all these home games down the stretch.

But as the final leg of the regular season arrives, we are about to find out just what type of environment the Nationals (and everyone else in the sport) can expect from a town that hasn't experienced a pennant race in three generations.

Interest and attention in this team has progressively increased since Opening Day. Overall, the Nationals are averaging just under 30,000 fans per game, which ranks 14th among MLB's 30 clubs.

But the numbers keep getting larger. Over their last 33 home dates, the Nats are drawing an average crowd of 33,053. That's a 32 percent increase from this point last season.

There's every reason to believe those numbers will continue to climb. A six-game homestand against the Mets and Braves would typically draw well regardless. But with the Nationals returning home from the best road trip in club history and holding a four-game lead in the NL East, there's all the more reason for attendance to swell. The same theory should hold true later this month when the Cardinals and Cubs come to town.

It's no secret the Nationals' fan base is growing. MLB announced this week local television ratings are up 67 percent this season, the largest increase in the sport. There's been ample opportunity to watch this team on TV because so many games have been played on the road.

Now, though, the Nationals are gearing up for 27 home games in 48 days. The ballpark should be as electric as its ever been in its five years of existence.

This is when a team and its following establish its true identity, when the bond between players and fans grows and everybody lives and dies with each pitch. It may reach a crescendo sometime in late-September or early-October, when the outcome of every game really matters. And if all goes well, it reaches an entire new level after that.

What will that identity look and feel like? We don't know. Barely anyone in this town has experienced something like this before. It will have to develop organically over the next six weeks.

The process begins tonight. And for those who have waited a lifetime for this, it's not a moment too soon.

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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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