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Stars shine in Nats' 9th straight series win

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Stars shine in Nats' 9th straight series win

It has turned into a broken record, but never has a broken record sounded so sweet to Washington baseball fans. The Nationals won another series Wednesday night, their ninth straight series won, matching a franchise record.

And what a series it was, a tense, compelling, 3-day event at Wrigley Field that saw the Nats win 2-1, the Cubs win 3-2 and then the Nats finish it off with a 3-0 win that felt much closer than the final score appeared.

It's rare that a baseball series sees all the big-name stars rise to the occasion, but it happened in this one. Kris Bryant homered twice. So did Bryce Harper. Max Scherzer and Jon Lester engaged in a fantastic pitchers' duel. Addison Russell provided a walk-off hit for Chicago.

Here's what stood out from Wednesday night's Nationals victory...

MAX SCHERZER IS EVEN BETTER THAN YOU THOUGHT HE'D BE
You knew the Nationals were getting one of the better pitchers in baseball when they gave him $210 million in January, a hard-throwing strikeout artist with a Cy Young Award on his mantel. But you probably didn't appreciate just how good of a pitcher he was.

You do now. Scherzer has exceeded the loftiest expectations, and Wednesday night's performance was among his best to date. Over seven brilliant, scoreless innings, he scattered four singles, a double and a walk while striking out 13.

Only two other pitchers in Nationals history have struck out 13 batters in a game: Stephen Strasburg (who fanned 14 in his MLB debut, then notched 13 K's on two other occasions) and John Patterson (who did it in 2005 and again in 2006).

Overall, Scherzer is now 6-3 with a 1.51 ERA, 85 strikeouts and 10 walks in 10 starts. How good is that? Well, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, only three pitchers in modern history have ever posted an ERA that low with that many strikeouts in their first 10 starts of a season: Pedro Martinez (1997 and 2000) and Randy Johnson (2000). That's some elite company.

And yet the numbers only tell part of the story, because Scherzer has stood out not only for the end results he has produced but the manner in which he has produced those results. Plain and simple, the guy knows how to pitch. Wednesday was a fantastic example of that, with Scherzer throwing 93-94 mph early on, then suddenly ramping it up to 97-98 mph to notch several of his strikeouts.

BRYCE HARPER HIT ANOTHER OPPOSITE-FIELD HOMER (HO-HUM)
Yeah, yeah, we've seen plenty of these now. What's the big deal anymore? The big deal is that he continues to do it.

The overall power numbers are bordering on the insane. Harper now has 18 homers in 47 games (that's a 62-homer pace, for the arithmetically challenged) and 13 homers in May. How good is that? Well, Harper how out-homered both the Phillies and Braves so far this month, and he only trails the White Sox, Royals and Padres by three.

Not a large enough sample for you? OK, let's go back a ways, all the way back to Aug. 25, 2014. That's 81 games ago, counting the postseason. Harper's totals during those 81 games: 27 homers, 54 RBI, 53 walks, a .314 batting average, .423 on-base percentage, .657 slugging percentage and 1.080 OPS.

But let's get back to Wednesday's homer, an opposite-field shot off Lester. That was Harper's seventh opposite-field homer of the season. How many is that? Well, among the proven, major-league sluggers who haven't hit seven total homers this year (to all sides of the field) are David Ortiz, Adam Jones, Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria and Matt Holliday.

Mercy.

CASEY JANSSEN PROVED HE KNOWS HOW TO PITCH
If you had been wondered why the Nationals went out and got Janssen over the winter, this was your first real opportunity to find out.

Given the ball with two on, nobody out and Bryant at the plate in the eighth inning of a 2-run game, the veteran reliever took the mound and put on a clinic. Janssen got Bryant to popup, made a fantastic play on Dexter Fowler's bunt to the right of the mound and got Starlin Castro to ground out to short.

Janssen did all this with an 88-mph fastball. How? By locating it. He threw eight of his 12 pitches for strikes, but more importantly he threw 10 of those 12 pitches below the belt.

That's called pitching, and that's why the Nationals have been anticipating Janssen's delayed debut for some time.

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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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USA Today Sports Images

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