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On long, up-and-down day, Strasburg stands tall

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On long, up-and-down day, Strasburg stands tall

PHILADELPHIA — A lot happened over the course of seven hours Sunday at Citizens Bank Park, where the Nationals and Phillies engaged in 18 innings of baseball, some of it good and some of it bad and some of it painful.

A doubleheader split — a 3-2 victory in the opener, then an 8-5 loss in the finale — might have left the Nationals feeling like the entire day was a lost cause. Nothing gained, nothing lost.

That may be true in the standings, but the standings felt inconsequential on this day to what proved to be the most important development of the entire afternoon/evening: Another really impressive start by Stephen Strasburg.

With seven innings of 2-run ball, Strasburg validated his 5-inning return from the disabled list last week and gave further evidence to suggest his early season struggles are long behind him, with plenty more positive outings still to come.

"It's huge," said first baseman/outfielder Clint Robinson, who drove in two runs in the nightcap. "He struggled a little bit to begin the year, but now that he looks like he's back on track, he's just another piece to our great rotation. We need him a lot. He's really important to us. So to get him back on track and out there throwing up zeroes like everyone else is really important."

Dominant starting pitching was the common denominator throughout the Nationals' 8-game winning streak, which finally came to end Sunday evening after Tanner Roark was rocked for eight runs in a spot start necessitated by Saturday's rainout after only 1 1/2 innings. It's how this team was built to win. And Strasburg is a key piece to that puzzle.

What he has shown in two starts since a brief DL stint to deal with a strained trapezius muscle and out-of-whack mechanics — two runs, eight hits, two walks and 15 strikeouts over 12 innings — suggests he is back to his old self again.

"It's nice that he's healthy," manager Matt Williams said. "It's nice that he feels good about going out there. He's had no issues, which is great. When he doesn't, that can be the result."

Strasburg's start was important not only for the results he posted but for the quality innings he pitched. In the opener of a doubleheader with an uncertain Game 2 starter, the Nationals needed something like this from Strasburg, and he delivered.

Picking up right where he left off Tuesday against the Braves, Strasburg was in complete control throughout, relying on his fastball to set up hitters. He did turn to his offspeed stuff more to put guys away, leading to a season-high nine strikeouts, thanks to the best change-up he has featured in quite some time.

"Change-up is starting to come back to me," he said. "I'm starting to execute it a lot better and more consistently."

Perhaps the most important thing Strasburg did on Sunday, though, was take the mound for the bottom of the seventh and emerge from that inning having preserved the Nationals' 3-2 lead ... not to mention their bullpen.

With his pitch count at 96 and having labored somewhat in the sixth, Strasburg might normally have been pulled. But with another game still to be played, with a fill-in starter out of the bullpen, Williams decided to try to squeeze one more inning out of his right-hander.

"It's important for him to stretch it," the manager said. "We knew that going in. So, yeah, I thought it was important for our whole team for him to get deep in the game for us, and he provided that."

Strasburg finished with some of his best work of the day, retiring the side on a flyball and two more strikeouts, capping a 113-pitch performance that was sorely needed.

"This whole season my arm strength has always been there," Strasburg said. "It's been kind of fighting through the mechanical issues and everything like that. So I was glad to go out there for seven, and I felt just as strong in the seventh as I was in the first."

The Nationals would have loved to get a comparable start out of Roark in the nightcap, but the right-hander didn't have one in him. Pressed back into the rotation for one spot start, he was roughed up for eight runs on 12 hits (11 of them singles) in only 3 1/3 innings.

Not that the Phillies were blasting the ball all over the park against Roark. Three of the hits never left the infield, and another two were perfectly placed groundballs that sneaked their way through.

"That's the game of baseball," Roark said. "You can't win them all. You can't pitch lights-out every single time. You just go out there, go about your business, do your job and sometimes it goes that way."

Given how well their rotation has performed over the last week-plus, the Nationals couldn't be too upset with one clunker of a start at the end of a long weekend.

"They had some balls that snuck through," Williams said. "They did a nice job of staying on baseballs and making contact and hitting it through the middle of the diamond. But a lot of grounders today that got through the infield, a couple balls off the end of the bat. Yeah, not his day."

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It's Day 1 of spring training and Bryce Harper is already done taking questions regarding his future

It's Day 1 of spring training and Bryce Harper is already done taking questions regarding his future

So if you have not heard, Bryce Harper is going to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2018 season.

All off-season talking heads, baseball aficionados, radio hosts, etc. were speculating on where the outfielder’s destination will be next year.

And we are still a year away from it actually happening.

RELATED: VEGAS SETS OVER/UNDERS FOR 2018 MLB SEASON

Reporting to spring training on Monday, Harper did not waste any time telling the media how his press conferences were going to play out this season.

“If guys do [ask], or talk anything about that, I will be walking right out the door.”

Entering his seventh season with the Washington Nationals, the 25-year-old is coming off the second-best season, statistically, of his career. The 2015 NL MVP has hit .285 in his career, with 150 home runs and 421 RBIs. Unquestionably he is the face of the Nationals’ organization, if not, the best player in the team’s history.

If he does end the season without a contract extension, he will join Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, and Barry Bonds as the top sought out free agents in MLB history.

One thing is for certain in terms of Harper’s free agency; Harper has given no inclination on where his landing spot will be.  The top three cities are of course his favorite childhood team, the New York Yankees; joining with one of his closest friends with the Chicago Cubs; or just staying with Washington.

Wherever he does land, it does appear that it will be the largest contract given to a free agent ever.

As for now we just wait and direct any of your calls to his agent Scott Boras.

READ ALSO: NATIONALS FULL SPRING TRAINING SCHEDULE

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Nationals Spring Training Schedule 2018

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Nationals Spring Training Schedule 2018

Now that pitchers and catchers have reported, the next step in our long journey to Opening Day is the spring training games themselves. Not every game is televised, so get ready to follow along with your favorite beat writer's Twitter account for all your updates.

Even without getting to watch the games, it'll still be exciting to once again check box scores in the morning to see if Bryce Harper homered again, or if Max Scherzer is perfect through 4 innings (spoiler: both of these will happen).

This year's spring training will be especially interesting, considering how many big-name players will be signing contracts in the next few weeks. The Nats are always willing to make a big splash, and even beyond the available free agents, have been linked to impact players like J.T. Realmuto in trade rumors.

Typically, the excitement of adding a new piece to the roster has to be reignited after a long winter off, but this season, those additions will be happening while camp is already underway.

It's going to be a hectic few weeks as teams prepare for their seasons, so bookmark this page to check on the Nationals spring training schedule over the next few weeks as the team finally takes the field in 2018.

Nationals 2018 Spring Training Schedule

Friday, Feb. 23 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Saturday, Feb. 24 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Feb. 25 - Braves at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Monday, Feb. 26 - Nationals at Braves, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Feb. 27 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Wednesday, Feb. 28 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Thursday, Mar. 1 (SS) - Nationals at Braves, 1:05 pm
Friday, Mar. 2 (SS) - Nationals at Mets, 1:10 pm
Saturday, Mar. 3 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 4 (SS) - Tigers at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 4 (SS) - Nationals at Mets, 1:10 pm
Monday, Mar. 5 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Mar. 6 (SS) - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Wednesday, Mar. 7 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Thursday, Mar. 8 - Mets at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Saturday, Mar. 10 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 11 - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Monday, Mar. 12 - Nationals at Tigers, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Tuesday, Mar. 13 (SS) - Mets at Nationals, 7:05 pm (MLBN) (MASN)
Thursday, Mar. 15 - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Friday, Mar. 16 (SS) - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Saturday, Mar. 17 - Mets at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 18 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Monday, Mar. 19 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Mar. 20 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Wednesday, Mar. 21 - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm (ESPN2) (MASN)
Thursday, Mar. 22 - Nationals at Mets, 6:10 pm
Friday, Mar. 23 (SS) - Astros at Nationals, 6:05 pm (MASN)
Friday, Mar. 23 - Nationals at Marlins, 7:05 pm
Saturday, Mar. 24 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 25 - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Tuesday, Mar. 27 (at Nationals Park) - Twins at Nationals, 4:05 pm