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Ever-changing NL East remains a beast

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Ever-changing NL East remains a beast

The NL East was, for a good portion of the season's first half, the toughest division in baseball. All five franchises stood at least three games over .500 on June 1, and all looked poised to stay competitive through the remainder of the season.

That, of course, didn't happen. Though the champion Nationals and runner-up Braves each got better over the final four months, the Phillies fell apart in midsummer before a late surge got them back to the .500 mark, while the Mets and Marlins simply fell apart and never recovered.

Where, though, does that leave things heading into the offseason? The Nationals obviously will return loaded in 2013 and should be favored to repeat as division champs. But the Braves, too, will have the bulk of their 94-win club returning to the fold and will be determined to jump into first place and avoid the one-game playoff that killed their season.

The Phillies may continue to get older, but their strong finish will give team executives and players alike reason to think they can make another run. The Mets, on the other hand, remain stuck in the mud with a few elite players (R.A. Dickey, David Wright) but no depth whatsoever.

Which leaves the Marlins as the biggest wild card in the East. (Note: That's wild card in lowercase letters, as opposed to a team that wins one of the league's two Wild Card berths.)

What exactly are they doing down in Miami right now? All those good vibes, the star-studded roster and hundreds of millions of dollars spent both on payroll and a space-age new ballpark have officially vanished into thin air. Gone are Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez and Heath Bell. And now gone is Ozzie Guillen, who was fired yesterday after one miserable season as manager and $7.5 million still owed to him.

There's still plenty of talent down there on South Beach -- what team wouldn't jump at the chance to build around Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Reyes? -- but there doesn't appear to be any direction. Is owner Jeffrey Loria going to go out and splurge on free agents once again this winter, or will he gut the roster even further and start over from scratch?

Who will succeed Guillen as manager? And what, if any, positive impact can he have when his owner calls every shot?

Despite their continued dysfunction, the Marlins remain a major thorn in the Nationals' side. Their overall winning percentage over the last five years is a sub-par .485. Their winning percentage against the Nationals over that same span is a staggering .663.

So whether anyone believes the Fish will be a legitimate contender next season, you better believe the Nationals should treat them like they are.

In the end, it's hard to imagine the NL East won't be an even tougher division in 2013. All five teams will have reason to believe they can be better next year than they were this year.

That won't make the Nationals' challenge any easier. But, if nothing else, it should convince their front office they can't simply show up for spring training and expect to repeat as division champs.

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Soto, Harper homer in Nats' win over Padres

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USA TODAY Sports Images

Soto, Harper homer in Nats' win over Padres

WASHINGTON -- Juan Soto, the youngest player in the majors at 19, hit a three-run homer in his first career start as the Washington Nationals defeated the San Diego Padres 10-2 on Monday.

Mark Reynolds had two solo home runs for the Nationals, who snapped a three-game losing streak. Bryce Harper had a homer and an RBI double.

Soto's drive highlighted a five-run second inning for Washington. The promising outfielder, who played for three minor league teams this season, hit the first pitch from Robbie Erlin (1-3) over the Nationals bullpen in left-center field. Soto also singled.

Soto's homer traveled an estimated 442 feet at Nationals Park. He earned a standing ovation from the crowd and the teenager responded by taking a curtain call. Per Baseball-Reference.com, Soto became the first teenager to hit a home run in a major league game since Harper on Sept. 30, 2012.

Called up to Washington on Sunday, Soto became the first 19-year-old to make his major league debut since Dodgers pitcher Julio Urias in 2016. He entered that game in the eighth inning as a pinch-hitter and struck out.

Washington's starting left fielder began the season at Class A Hagerstown. He hit a combined .362 with 14 homers and 52 RBIs in his three minor league stops.

Gio Gonzalez (5-2) allowed two runs and two hits in seven innings.

San Diego's Franmil Reyes, playing in his seventh career game, also hit his first career home run.

Trea Turner hit a pair of RBI doubles for Washington. Reynolds had three hits.

Erlin surrendered six runs and seven hits over four innings in his third start of the season. San Diego had won three in a row.

Reyes connected for a two-run homer in the fourth inning, but the Padres' lineup generated little else against Gonzalez, who allowed one run over six innings in a no-decision at San Diego on May 9.

2018 MLB POWER RANKINGS AND OTHER NATS NEWS:

- Rankings Update: Where does your team fall?
- Cause For Concern?: How worried should Nats fans be?
- Very Persuasive: How Rizzo convinced Reynolds to come to D.C.

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Juan Soto crushes a homer in the first at-bat of his first-ever start

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Juan Soto crushes a homer in the first at-bat of his first-ever start

Juan Soto, the highly-regarded 19-year-old Nationals' prospect, got his first major league start of his career tonight. 

How did it go, you ask? Surely it would take Soto - who was in Single-A less than two weeks ago - some time to adjust? 

What were you doing at 19??

2018 MLB POWER RANKINGS AND OTHER NATS NEWS:

- Rankings Update: Where does your team fall?
- Cause For Concern?: How worried should Nats fans be?
- Very Persuasive: How Rizzo convinced Reynolds to come to D.C.