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Nats spring training question No. 1: Can they co-exist with Papelbon?

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Nats spring training question No. 1: Can they co-exist with Papelbon?

This week we are counting down the biggest questions for the Nationals as they begin their 2016 spring training in Viera, Florida with their first official workout on Saturday. The final installment looks at the unexpected return of Jonathan Papelbon...

So, we're really doing this, aren't we?

What seemed like a no-brainer at the end of the 2015 season, that Jonathan Papelbon would not be on the Nationals' roster at the start of spring training, did not ultimately come true. It was a situation that seemed untenable to most, yet here we are over three months later and Papelbon and Bryce Harper are still teammates.

Despite the embarrassing moment for the franchise, the outcry from fans, the suspension without pay and the grievance over that suspension without pay: Papelbon remains the Nationals closer.

In some ways you have to hand it to the Nationals. They know the potential risks of keeping him on the roster. They know what happened last season and how the public reacted. They have to see the same backlash on social media that all of us who cover the Nationals do when we merely mention his name.

They know he could be booed at Nationals Park when he's introduced in front of a packed house at the home opener. And they know Papelbon has a ton of work to do to get back in the fans' good graces. Yet none of that swayed their thinking, as Papelbon is back with the Washington Nationals and ready for his 12th MLB season.

In a strictly baseball sense, it's easy to see why they brought Papelbon back. He was and remains the best option they have at closer. Remove him from the equation and they could be in serious trouble. After a 2015 season where their bullpen was a major problem, that would not be ideal.

Why they brought him back doesn't even really have to be asked because we know the answer they will give. But how they will make this work not only in the short-term but throughout the 2016 season will be fascinating to watch. It was the biggest story entering the offseason, and because Papelbon is still on the roster it will be the biggest story this spring and perhaps beyond.

Everyone involved has been asked on multiple occasions about the incident and the future of Papelbon in Washington besides the pitcher himself. He has not spoken publicly on the matter since he was suspended by the team.

All parties will surely be asked again this spring about how they can co-exist. It's unlikely, though, that we'll hear anything new that we haven't already been told by both Harper and Papelbon, and their teammates.

Those who have spoken on the matter in recent months have expressed confidence it will not be an issue. They say the common goal of winning a World Series will trump all differences between them.

Some have said it's like brothers fighting, that they can now get along despite all that has gone down. It's normal for full-grown siblings - including one in their mid-30s - to fight like that, right? Right.

To be fair, being part of a professional sports locker room is an experience few can relate to. The players are adamant they have moved on and they would know better than us about their own work environment, one of which most of us have never been a part of.

But that doesn't mean it won't be interesting to watch and analyze, especially after Opening Day as the Nationals navigate through the inevitable ups and downs of a baseball season.

Nats spring training question No. 5: Who plays shortstop?

Nats spring training question No. 4: Enough starting pitching?

Nats spring training question No. 3: Can they catch the Mets?

Nats spring training question No. 2: What impact will Dusty have?

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Nationals look to halt red hot Tampa Bay Rays in 2-game series at Tropicana Field

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USA TODAY Sports

Nationals look to halt red hot Tampa Bay Rays in 2-game series at Tropicana Field

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays, routinely using relievers as starters to deal with a rash of injuries, are pitching their way to victories.

The Rays (37-40) go into a two-game interleague series against the Washington Nationals with the momentum of a three-game sweep of the American League East-leading Yankees. New York hadn't lost three games in a row at any point all season, but the Rays pulled it off, capped with a 7-6 win in 12 innings on Sunday at Tropicana Field.

"That's the best team in the league right now, them and the Astros ... I think coming home from that we had confidence and it all carried over into that series," said Rays rookie first baseman Jake Bauers, who won the game in the 12th inning.

Since beginning their experimental use of relievers as "openers" to start games, the Rays have a 3.07 ERA, and entering Sunday's game, that edged the Yankees for the best ERA in baseball since May 19. They've won five of seven games to again challenge .500, and Sunday's walkoff home run by Bauers was their second this season, after totaling one in three seasons from 2015 to 2017.

The Nationals (41-35) had gone 3-9 in their last 12 games before Sunday night's rain-delayed game against the Phillies, dropping into third place in the National League East. They'll send out Gio Gonzalez (6-4, 3.08 ERA), who has no wins in his last four starts and his ERA has risen from a sterling 2.10 to 3.08.

Gonzalez lasted only four innings in his last outing, giving up five hits and two runs against the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday. For his career against the Rays, he's 2-2 with a 5.54 ERA, though he's only faced Tampa Bay once since 2012. That was a rough 2015 start at Tropicana Field, lasting 3 1/3 innings and giving up five earned runs on eight hits, walking more batters than he struck out. For his career at Tropicana, he has an 11.25 ERA.

The Rays will have an actual starter on the mound in Blake Snell (9-4, 2.48), who is in line for an All-Star appearance after the first three months of his season. He has just one loss in his last seven starts, and while he has never faced the Nationals, he has generally fared well in interleague play, going 3-2 with a 2.33 ERA in eight career starts.

Tampa Bay, hoping to build on its current momentum, has a tough week ahead, with two games against Washington, then another four against Houston to close out the homestand.

Washington goes from St. Petersburg to a weekend four-game series at the Philadelphia Phillies before returning home for a week.

The Rays got a head start with a Sunday afternoon game and the Nationals saw their prime-time game delayed by rain, keeping them on the field beyond midnight and still needing to fly to Florida for the two-game stopover.

MORE NATS NEWS:

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Nationals power through rain delay, come back against Phillies

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USA Today

Nationals power through rain delay, come back against Phillies

WASHINGTON -- Daniel Murphy's two-run single drove in the tying and go-ahead runs in the eighth inning and the Washington Nationals rallied past the Philadelphia Phillies 8-6 on Sunday night to salvage the finale of the three-game series.

Anthony Rendon homered and doubled, Bryce Harper tied a career high with three doubles and Michael A. Taylor and Murphy each had three singles in a game that was delayed 38 minutes by rain in the bottom of the fourth inning.

Rhys Hoskins and Nick Williams homered for the Phillies, who had won three straight.

Pinch hitter Brian Goodwin led off the eighth with a walk against Victor Arano. With one out, right-hander Seranthony Dominguez (1-2) came on to face Harper, who doubled to right, with Goodwin stopping at third.

After Rendon grounded out, Juan Soto was intentionally walked and Murphy lined a 1-2 pitch to shallow right. Taylor's single made it 8-6.

Ryan Madson (2-3) pitched the eighth inning, and Sean Doolittle finished it for his 21st save.

The Phillies took a 6-2 lead in the fifth on a two-run triple by Odubel Herrera and a two-run homer by Williams.

Washington pulled within a run at 6-5 in the sixth with four two-out hits, including an RBI triple by Trea Turner and RBI doubles by Harper and Rendon.

Nick Pivetta went five innings and allowed two runs on eight hits for the Phillies.

Washington starter Jefry Rodriguez was charged with four runs and five hits in four-plus innings.

The Phillies broke on top on Hoskins's two-run homer in the third.

Rendon made it 2-1 with a solo homer in the fourth. The next three hitters singled, tying the game, but with the rain intensifying, out came the tarp. When play resumed, Pivetta struck out three straight to end the inning.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Phillies: C Andrew Knapp left in the seventh with a right knee contusion. ... 3B Maikel Franco slipped on first base and fell hard in the eighth. He stayed in to run, but left after the half-inning. ... INF Jesmuel Valent?n was placed on the paternity leave list and OF Dylan Cozens (left quadriceps strain) was reinstated from the 10-day DL.

Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson (right hamstring strain) allowed 11 runs in 4 2/3 innings of a rehab start at Class A Potomac on Sunday. "I'm more concerned with the way he feels," manager Dave Martinez said, downplaying the results. "We'll go from there." ... RH reliever Brandon Kintzler (right forearm flexor strain) threw a scoreless inning at Potomac. ... RHP Stephen Strasburg (right shoulder inflammation) played catch on the field again. "We'll keep doing his throwing progression and figure out when he can actually throw from the mound," Martinez said.

UP NEXT

Phillies: RHP Vince Velasquez (5-7, 4.82) starts the opener of a series against the Yankees on Monday. He is 0-0 with a 3.24 ERA in two games vs. New York.

Nationals: RHP Gio Gonzalez (6-4, 3.08) opens a series at Tampa Bay on Monday. He is 2-2 with a 5.54 ERA in six games against the Rays.