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Washington becomes a baseball town

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Washington becomes a baseball town

How does a town respond to something that hasn't happened in 79 years? How does a city that hasn't hosted a postseason ballgame since Franklin Roosevelt's first term in the White House catch pennant fever? And how does a region known mostly for dividing itself down the middle along political party lines come together in support of one common goal: Winning a World Series?

Washington is about to answer all of those questions, and the rest of the country is about to find out what those who live here have known for decades: D.C. is a big event town.

And for the next week (and perhaps the entire month) there's going to be no bigger event in town than Nationals playoff games.

From the moment the Nationals clinched their city's first postseason berth since 1933, there's been a baseball buzz around the District and surrounding suburbs not experienced in generations, if ever. The local papers are filled with more baseball coverage than many have time to read. Local TV news has hopped on board the bandwagon. Radio stations are announcing plans for Super Bowl-like pregame and postgame coverage of first-round playoff games.

Politicians and network news anchors have been showing up at Nationals Park, some of them mysteriously becoming part of the clubhouse champagne celebration. The President of the United States has expressed his support of the Nationals (as well as his hometown White Sox, who have since been eliminated from contention).

And, in perhaps the craziest example of Nationals buzz overtaking the city, the long-awaited triumph of Teddy in the Presidents Race on Wednesday instantly became one of the biggest (non-) news stories in the country. Moments after he crossed the finish line ahead of nemeses George, Tom and Abe, Teddy became a trending topic on Twitter, with a replay of the race becoming the No. 1 "highlight" on ESPN's SportsCenter (ahead of Miguel Cabrera securing MLB's first Triple Crown in 45 years).

For those who have followed the Nationals since the franchise arrived from Montreal following the 2004 season, there's a surreal nature to all this attention. Sure, there was hype and buzz surrounding the Nats during their inaugural 2005 campaign, especially when they took over first place in the NL East for a stretch in early summer.

But few outside of the die-hards cared much about what was going on during the dark days from 2006-09, when a 73-89 record was considered a significant achievement. Around the country, just about the only time the Nationals were mentioned beyond a passing breath was when they were being mocked, whether for misspelling their name on a couple of jerseys, producing the worst TV ratings in the majors, getting booed in their own park on Opening Day by Phillies fans or losing games at an astonishing rate.

Then, at long last, came a glimpse of what could be: June 8, 2010, the night Stephen Strasburg made his major-league debut. Considering all the hype surrounding the rookie right-hander from the day he was drafted No. 1 in the country by the Nationals, his first career start turned into a major baseball event in D.C.

And when Strasburg surpassed everyone's expectations by striking out 14 Pirates over seven innings, an overflow crowd at Nationals Park rejoiced in a manner that suggested this could indeed become a baseball town ... if the team ever started winning.

There were glimpses of it late in 2011, with manager Davey Johnson guiding the team he took over in midseason through a strong September and coming within two games of producing the club's first-ever winning record.

But it wasn't until the Nationals burst out of the gates in 2012, opening the season 14-4 and taking over first place in the division, that the skeptics began to believe. And over the course of the summer, fans began turning out in bigger numbers and more and more people around town became engaged with what turned into the best team in baseball.

Now, you can't walk more than a few blocks without spotting someone wearing a curly W cap or a Bryce Harper jersey. Now, it's perfectly acceptable to begin a conversation about local sports not with an analysis of the Redskins' next game but with a debate over which potential postseason opponent the Nationals would be most likely to beat.

The toughest ticket in town right now isn't to see RG3 and the Skins face the Falcons on Sunday. It's to see Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth host either the Cardinals or Braves in Game 3 of the NLDS on Wednesday. Starting times haven't been announced yet, but when they are, thousands of federal government employees and regular working Joes in Maryland and Virginia are going to be putting in requests to leave early to catch the first postseason ballgame here in three generations.

It's uncharted territory for just about everyone involved. But it's left everyone in a state of euphoria for now, then ultimately high tension as this city gets to experience the meat grinder of emotions that comes with postseason baseball.

Fans in New York, Boston and Philadelphia -- regular participants in this exercise -- may scoff and ask why this is a big deal.

Washington sports fans need not respond. They've spent the last six months falling in love with the National Pastime, and they're about to be rewarded with a honeymoon that could last anywhere from four days to four weeks and could bring this town together like few past events have.

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Nationals vs. Braves Preview: Gonzalez looks to rebound

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USA TODAY Sports

Nationals vs. Braves Preview: Gonzalez looks to rebound

ATLANTA -- One of the questions the Atlanta Braves brass must answer during the offseason is whether right-handed pitching prospect Lucas Sims belongs in the rotation or the bullpen.

Sims (2-5, 5.52 ERA) will make another start Wednesday against the Washington Nationals, who send veteran left-hander Gio Gonzalez (14-7, 2.68) to oppose him in the second contest of a three-game series at SunTrust Park.

The Nationals won the series opener 4-2 on Tuesday to take a 9-8 lead in the season series. The loss guaranteed Atlanta (67-82) would have a losing record for the fourth consecutive season.

RELATED: WHEN WILL BRYCE HARPER RETURN?

Gonzalez, like teammate Max Scherzer, is a candidate for the National League Cy Young Award. The southpaw is coming off a poor showing against Atlanta on Sept. 12, when he allowed five runs in five innings despite eight strikeouts.

"You get the strikeouts and then all of a sudden, the hits came in," Gonzalez said. "It was just one of those games. You take it for what it was, sweep it up the rug and get ready for tomorrow. It was one of those games you can't really understand what happened, just pick up where you can and go from there."

The Braves have fared well against Gonzalez. In 20 career starts against Atlanta, he is 4-11 with a 5.27 ERA. This season, Gonzalez is 0-2 with a 6.48 ERA in three starts vs. the Braves.

Sims, a rookie who was the team's first-round draft choice in 2012, has made 11 appearances (seven starts). He has made it clear that he prefers to be a starting pitcher.

The Braves moved Sims to the bullpen after his Sept. 2 start against the Chicago Cubs, when he allowed seven runs in three innings. Because he was stretched out, Sims had the ability to throw multiple innings out of the 'pen, which he did in two of his subsequent four relief appearances.

However, on Sunday, the Braves announced Sims as the starter for the Wednesday game and moved left-hander Max Fried to the bullpen. Fried is another rookie who will be under consideration to join the rotation in 2018.

"The kid never quits," Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Sims. "He keeps pitching. He competes."

In seven starts, Sims has averaged 5 1/3 innings per outing. In 44 innings overall, he has recorded 31 strikeouts and 15 walks.

Sims has made only one appearance against Washington, that a perfect one-inning stint on Sept. 13.

Atlanta has had trouble scoring runs of late. Over the past five games, the Braves managed only 11 runs.

The Braves likely will be without catalyst Ender Inciarte on Wednesday. The center fielder left the game early Tuesday with right thumb soreness. Snitker said there was no structural damage and that Inciarte needs a day of rest.

"We just have to back off," Snitker said. "It's just sore."

Inciarte doesn't like to take a day off under normal circumstances, must less when he is chasing 200 hits. He was 0-for-2 on Tuesday, leaving him with 190 hits. He is trying to become the first Atlanta player to reach the milestone since Marquis Grissom in 1996.

Washington is close to getting its injured players back.

Outfielder Bryce Harper (hyperextended left knee) and infielder Stephen Drew (left abdominal strain) ran before the Tuesday game. Both are eligible to come off the disabled list whenever they are deemed healthy.

RELATED: MLB POSTSEASON 2017 BRACKET PROJECTION

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When will Bryce Harper return to the Nationals' lineup?

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USA TODAY Sports

When will Bryce Harper return to the Nationals' lineup?

Bryce Harper hasn't seen the baseball diamond since August 12 and if you follow him on social media, you know the wait is nearly killing him.

In the past week however, he has been making positive steps in his road to recovery.

Before Thursday's game against the Braves, Harper was seen running foul pole to foul pole at Nats Park.

RELATED: NAT'S DANIEL MURPHY AND SON ATTEND CAPS PRACTICE

And prior to Sunday's game against the Dodgers, Harper took batting practice.

Then, on Tuesday, Harper batted in a simulated game prior to the team's road game against the Braves. He even ran around the bases to test out his injured knee.

These are all great signs, but when can we really expect him to return?

There have been rumors that it could be as soon as this week, so the Sports Junkies took matters into their own hands and ask general manager Mike Rizzo about it on their show Wednesday morning.

"Bryce had a very productive day yesterday, a very busy day," Rizzo said.

"He had a lot of work to put in yesterday. Harp came out looking good. The anchor leg, his left leg, which is Harp's back leg, his power leg, came through it fine. We'll see how he feels today, which will be very very important and see where we take it from there. He ran bases yesterday which was good and threw from the outfield, so he's slowly and cautiously getting back into a routine. Depending on how he progresses, we'll see where we take it from there. Hopefully, he can get a couple of games of live at bat under his belt before we have that four day break before the playoffs start."

RELATED: NATS FIRST MLB TEAM TO CLINCH PLAYOFF SPOT

So what exactly is Harper doing in a "simulated game?"

"It was just a hitting game for him. We brought up two minor league pitchers for him to see live stuff. What he and Steven Drew hitting, they probably had a total of about 10 or so at bats. 10 or 12 real at bats where four balls, three strikes type of thing, you hit a base hit you're out, that type of thing."

"You could do whatever you want in those games. So, we simulated with men on base, without men on base. The hitter did not know what the pitcher was going to throw and that was kind of the key to it, where you're recognizing spins and velocity and that type of thing. It's well beyond the batting practice that he's been getting recently. We'll continue to do this. We'll filter in some minor league pitchers as we go along and he'll get some time in that way until he can participating in game activities which we hope is sooner rather than later."

The magic date for Bryce Harper and the Nats is Friday, Oct. 6th when the National League Division series start and so does the Nats World Series run.