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A new era begins


A new era begins

Everyone knew the day would come when Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg would take the field together as Nationals teammates for the first of many times. Nobody knew that day would come so soon.

It took an unusual alignment of stars for Strasburg and Harper's paths to intersect tonight in the city of stars. This wasn't supposed to happen for another month or two, but a rash of injuries to the heart of the Nationals lineup forced Mike Rizzo's hand, so tonight we will see this organization's two No. 1 draft picks together at last.

Nats-Dodgers. A couple of first-place clubs going head-to-head. Strasburg on the mound. Harper in the lineup.

Welcome to a new era of Nationals baseball.

Summoned from Class AAA Syracuse after only 20 games, Harper will make his major-league debut at Dodger Stadium, batting seventh and starting in left field for a Washington club that desperately needs an injection of life into a stagnant lineup.

Last night's 3-2 loss to the Dodgers represented the fifth time in six games the Nationals have scored three or fewer runs. And with Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse now on the disabled list, Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson had run out of places to find offense.

So the call was placed to Syracuse, where a stunned Harper learned from Chiefs manager Tony Beasley he would be making his big-league debut at 19.

That alone isn't as big a deal as you might think. Harper will be the 608th player in baseball history to debut before age 20. Success, though, is anything but guaranteed. Of those 607 previous big-league teenagers, only three had double-digit home run total in their first season: Tony Conigliaro (24 in 1964), Ken Griffey Jr. (16 in 1989) and Mickey Mantle (13 in 1951).

So the expectation level for Harper in his first taste of the majors should be minimal. That line of thinking should also hold true based on Harper's well-established track record: At every level he's played, he's struggled mightily at the plate for two or three weeks before taking off.

The Nationals and their fans would be wise to assume history will repeat itself now that Harper has arrived. He shouldn't be expected to be the savior of a lineup that needs saving. Anything he does produce at the plate is gravy.

Truth be told, the lion's share of the attention on tonight's game should be directed at the 23-year-old on the mound, not the 19-year-old in left field. Strasburg already survived his much-ballyhooed arrival two years ago, perhaps setting a new standard for excellence in a debut performance.

These days, the right-hander is merely one of the best young pitchers in the game. And tonight he faces one of his stiffest challenges to date: A first-place Dodgers club that boasts the best hitter on the planet right now in Matt Kemp.

Coming off back-to-back losses for only the second time this season, the Nationals would love to get back on the winning track and give themselves a shot at their seventh series victory in as many tries.

Thus, the spotlight should shine brightest tonight on Strasburg, who gets to find out if he can play the role of stopper and pitch his team back into the win column.

No matter what happens tonight, though, baseball in Washington will never be the same. Remember the embarrassment of those consecutive 59-win seasons in 2008 and 2009? Well, the payoff for that ineptitude is finally here, in the form of two No. 1 draft picks, each touted as the best prospect at his position in a generation.

That's a lot of pressure for Strasburg and Harper to have thrown at them. As we saw two years ago, Strasburg can handle the heat. And there's no reason to believe the supremely confident Harper won't also deal with this task in fine form.

Whether that manifests itself into a 3-for-4 performance or a three-strikeout night remains to be seen.

For now, all the Nationals can do is sit back and count down the hours until the next chapter in their history is written.

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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.