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Who could upend Nats in East?

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Who could upend Nats in East?

The Nationals tonight will take the field for the 78th time this season, and incredibly this will be the 68th time they do so as a first-place ballclub.

Yes, the Nats have spent only 10 days outside of first place in the NL East, and all 10 of those days were spent in second place, none of them since May 21.

None of this, of course, guarantees anything. There is still more than half of a full season to be played, and anyone who followed this team during its inaugural 2005 campaign knows all too well how different the standings can look on October 1 vs. July 1.

But if the Nationals were to be overtaken in the NL East, which team would be most likely to do it? Who should the Nats most fear in their division?

The answer isn't as clear as most would have expected when this topsy-turvy season began.

The Phillies, the division's five-time reigning champs, have spent all but seven days in either fourth or fifth place and have offered little reason to believe they're going to turn it around. A lineup and rotation of aging stars hasn't been bolstered by the return of Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard's pending return may not make much difference either. At 36-45, they're an astounding 11 games behind the Nationals and talking about selling off free-agent-to-be Cole Hamels before the end of the month.

The Marlins, who made the division's biggest offseason splash with their Winter Meetings spending spree, are an enigma. On rare occasions, they look like as good a team as there is in the NL, with a potent lineup full of stars and a deep starting rotation. But on far more occasions they've looked like a trainwreck, an inconsistent and oft-feuding club probably takes after combustible manager Ozzie Guillen than owner Jeffrey Loria hoped when he made that hire in the first place. At 38-41, they're totally out of the race yet. But they're running out of time.

The Braves, the division's most-consistent organization, always seem to find a way to keep themselves in contention. With Jason Heyward re-emerging as a force, Michael Bourn and Martin Prado enjoying fine seasons and rookie Andrelton Simmons off to an impressive start, this is a lineup that should be able to produce. The pitching staff, though, is less of a sure thing, especially with burgeoning Cy Young candidate Brandon Beachy now out for the remainder of the season with a torn elbow ligament. And a bullpen that overwhelmed opponents in 2011 looks far less imposing these days. At 41-38, they're very much in it for now. But the only way these guys are going to overtake the Nationals is if they can find a way to beat them, having gone 2-6 against Washington so far.

Which leaves ... the Mets, a team that wasn't expecting to do anything of consequence this season yet has become one of baseball's biggest surprises. For that, credit the unorthodox-yet-dynamic 1-2 pitching punch of R.A. Dickey and Johan Santana. One's the sport's lone active knuckleballer. The other came back from major shoulder surgery to throw a no-hitter. Together, they've spelled doom for opposing hitters. Throw in a re-energized David Wright at third base, and fans in Flushing have every reason to buy into this as a legitimate contender. Can the Mets, 3 12 games back at 43-37, keep this ride going straight into September? With each passing day, they look like less and less of a fluke.

And yet, there the Nationals continue to sit, all alone atop the division, owners of the game's best pitching staff and a lineup that is finally coming together with Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse healthy and productive.

For three months, they unquestionably have been the class of the NL East. Whether they can hold that distinction through the season's final three months remains to be seen.

But given the state of the rest of the division at the moment, they sure have to like their chances.

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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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