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Nats young stars rise to the occasion

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Nats young stars rise to the occasion

BOSTON -- They've been playing baseball in this cozy little yard for 100 years, and the names who have excelled on this field read like a guest list to some exclusive dinner party in Cooperstown.

Ruth. Cobb. Williams. Mantle. Musial. Yastrzemski. Griffey. Pujols. They all stood in the batter's box at Fenway Park.

Johnson. Grove. Feller. Gibson. Ryan. Clemens. Martinez. They all toed the rubber in the center of this baseball cathedral.

Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper don't belong among the company of those names, not yet. But the two young stars of the Nationals know the history of this game and know the history of this place. And when they stepped between the white lines at Fenway Park Friday night for the first time during a 7-4 victory over the Red Sox, they knew it was time to state their presence with authority.

"It was unbelievable," said Harper, who went 3-for-5 with a home run and three RBI. "I love those kind of atmospheres ... and I always pretty much rise to the occasion. I love playing in these situations."

"You know that you're playing in one of the most historic ballparks in the game," said Strasburg, who struck out 13 while throwing a career-high 119 pitches. "And to have the sellout crowd like that, it's awesome. It's awesome to go out there and be successful."

Awesome for Harper and Strasburg. And awesome for the Nationals, who with this convincing victory made another emphatic statement about their ever-growing stature as a force that will have to be reckoned with for years to come.

In a ballpark that has seen its share of phenoms shine, and against a franchise that has boasted some of the most well-known players in the sport, a star-studded Washington baseball team marched right in and stole the spotlight before a sellout crowd of 37,309.

Yes, these are strange times indeed. And thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying for the first-place Nationals, who got to see their two young studs seize the moment together in a manner no one had seen them do it before.

"Oh! Oh!" manager Davey Johnson exclaimed while talking about Strasburg and Harper's performance. "It was fun watching."

The night actually didn't begin so great for either player. Strasburg labored through a 27-pitch second inning, giving up two runs and putting his team in an early hole. Harper, meanwhile, looked foolish whiffing at a Felix Doubront curveball in the top of the first, striking out with a mighty cut.

"I think I just got a little overwhelmed with the atmosphere and whatnot," Harper said. "It was just a great atmosphere. I think I was just a little too anxious and tried to do a little too much."

But once they got settled in and made some adjustments, each young star flipped the switch and turned dominant.

Two innings after that unsightly strikeout, Harper dug in again against Doubront and laced a double. One inning later, he crushed a 92-mph fastball into the bleachers just to the right of the 420-foot sign in deep right-center.

As Harper raced around the bases upon clubbing his sixth homer in 36 big-league games, a funny thing happened. Whatever responses there were from the crowd were positive. Whether they were Nationals fans who made the weekend trip, Bostonians who simply appreciated the extraordinary feats of a 19-year-old or even members of the Red Sox who complimented him in mid-game, everyone was showering Harper with praise.

"Looking over at that dugout at David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia ... it's pretty unbelievable," Harper said. "Going around the bases and Pedroia's saying: 'Great job,' ... and I'm 19 years old. So I still look at those guys as the guys I grew up watching. It was pretty unbelievable to see that."

The crowd and opponents were less complimentary Strasburg and more in awe of the 23-year-old, who kept getting better and better as the night wore on.

After serving up a two-run double to Mike Aviles in the second, Strasburg retired 11 straight. Of the final 12 outs he record, 10 came on strikeouts.

"He's like a Justin Verlander," Red Sox right fielder Ryan Sweeney said, referring to the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner. "But he starts out throwing 97-98 the whole game."

And just when it appeared Strasburg might finally crack during a laborious bottom of the sixth, he dug deep and delivered the big pitches he desperately needed.

With the bases loaded and one out in the inning, Strasburg was already sitting on 106 pitches. He'd never thrown more than 108 in his professional career, but his manager didn't think twice about leaving him out there.

"There's no way I'm hooking him with the bases loaded," Johnson said. "I don't care what his pitch count was. I was going to have to fight ownership if I let him go too long, but I didn't want to have to fight Stras if I went and took him out."

How did Strasburg respond? He struck out Jarrod Saltalamacchia on a curveball, his 113th pitch of the game. Then he struck out Kevin Youkilis on a 3-2 fastball at the knees that left Youkilis arguing with plate umpire Doug Eddings (and getting ejected for it) and left Strasburg (now 7-1 with a 2.41 ERA) dancing his way back to the dugout at the end of a brilliant, 119-pitch night.

"I mean, I knew it was up there," Strasburg said of his pitch count. "But I had so much adrenaline being in Fenway for the first time, it didn't really matter."

"That's the difference between great pitchers and ones that aren't," Saltalamacchia said. "He just did a great job of getting himself out of jams."

Strasburg's 13th strikeout -- on the two-year anniversary of his 14-strikeout, major-league debut -- represented the emotional climax of the game. The denouement was mostly academic, with Harper coming up a triple shy of the cycle and Tyler Clippard coming into a jam in the bottom of the ninth to record his sixth save.

By that point, many among the sellout crowd had departed. A group of Nationals fans seated near the first-base dugout proudly waved a large banner with the curly W logo; there was nothing the locals could do to respond.

And there was nothing those inside the Red Sox clubhouse could do at the end of the night but shake their heads in amazement at what they had just witnessed firsthand from a couple of of the game's newest stars.

"Two very impressive players," Gonzalez said.

Not to mention a very impressive team, a suddenly relevant franchise from a city not accustomed to baseball excellence, that with each passing day converts a few more believers.

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Breaking down Bryce Harper's early years of stardom with the Nationals

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USA TODAY Sports

Breaking down Bryce Harper's early years of stardom with the Nationals

We’ve written plenty of times about the potential end of Bryce Harper’s Nationals career. We’ve examined what were maybe his final days at Nationals Park, started discussing where he might end up, and taken a look at the journey that brought us to this point.

Over the course of a few posts, we’re going to take a deeper look at some of the highlights of the last half-decade in Nats history through the lens of Harper. We’ll be breaking this up into a three-act series, but who knows? If he ends up re-signing in D.C., we may end up looking back on 2012-18 altogether as just the first act of a storied career in the nation’s capital.

Whether or not he comes back to Washington, it’s clear that we’re entering a new era in both D.C. baseball and Harper’s career, so it’s a natural point to take a step at and review where we’ve come from so far.

Act I (2012-2014)

Really, the story of Bryce Harper dates back to 2010, the year in which he was drafted (or possibly back to 2009, the year of his notorious Sports Illustrated cover story). 2010 was a year of endless excitement and optimism for the future of Nationals baseball, with the franchise enjoying the second of their back-to-back top overall draft picks.

In just about the most fortunate setup in draft history, Washington’s first two No. 1 picks came in 2009 and 2010, which happens to be the two draft classes headlined by the most hyped prospects entering the league in recent memory. 2009 brought the future ace in Stephen Strasburg, and 2010 brought the future face of the sport in Harper.

The Debut

After continuing his rise to fame through the minors, Harper finally made his big-league debut in April of 2012 at the tender age of 19. The recent success of Juan Soto may lead some fans to believe it’s normal for uber prospects to reach the majors this quickly, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most prospects are still in college or the lower levels of a team’s farm system at the age of 19, but Harper wasn’t most prospects.

Based purely on the crazy hype surrounding Harper, it’d be tough to exclude his Major League debut -- the Nats played the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 28, 2012 -- among the early highlights of his career. He showed off a lot of the skills we’d see over the next six years. There was his rocket arm, his flair for the dramatic, his pure strength and his steely demeanor in the face of overwhelming pressure.

What made his debut game even more special was that Strasburg was starting for the Nats. The team lost to the Dodgers in extra innings, but in one glorious evening, fans could see the future taking place right before their eyes.

The All-Star

The next major milestone for Harper was making the All-Star Game, which he did somewhat controversially in that magical 2012 season. Harper became the third teenage All-Star ever, and the first one to do so as a position player.

He entered the game as a reserve, and in two at-bats, walked and struck out. He had very little impact on the game itself but was still one of the biggest stories at an event made for baseball’s biggest stars.

The Playoffs

There were other highlights during his rookie season, of course, as the team experienced its first success since returning to Washington. The Nats won 98 games that year to take the NL East, and Harper was helping lead the charge. The NLDS that year pitted the Nats against the 88-win St. Louis Cardinals, and the back-and-forth series went the full five games.

Harper notably struggled during his first exposure to October baseball, hitting just 3-for-23. He struck out eight times, which the most between both teams. The highlight, however, was a Game 5 home run off Adam Wainwright. Harper had already tripled in the Nats’ three-run first inning, and he led off the third with a solo blast to extend the lead to 4-0. At the time, it felt like the team’s youngest superstar cemented a franchise-altering win.

This is the part where Nats fans yell at me for reminding them of what came next.

Drew Storen fell apart in the ninth inning, the Cardinals completed the comeback victory, and the Nats were eliminated from the playoffs. Harper did get an at-bat in the 9th inning and struck out swinging. Say what you want, but he wasn’t going to go down without a fight.

The Recognition

Harper deservedly won the National League Rookie of the Year that season, and looking back, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t that close to unanimous (his stiffest competition came from Wade Miley and Todd Frazier). His 5.2 WAR and 57 extra-base hits both represented modern era records for a teenage hitter, and Harper even found himself getting down-ballot MVP votes (he finished 30th).

It was a historic season, and Harper has the accolades to show for it. The future was bright.

The Follow Up

Bryce Harper’s 2013 season didn’t go as well as 2012 for a litany of reasons. The team surrounding him was worse, failing to follow up 2012 with another postseason run. He struggled with injuries, including missing time after crashing into an outfield wall that May. It was a signature aggressive Harper play, going all-out in an attempt to help the team, but ended up being costly. He only ended up playing in 118 games and hitting 20 home runs. He was still an All-Star, but that was partially aided by his fame and stature.

That said, he kicked off the 2013 in incredible fashion, and that Opening Day stands out as his clearest highlight from the entire season. Harper didn’t just become the fourth-youngest player to ever homer on Opening Day (trailing names like Ken Griffey, Jr. and Robin Yount), but he ended up hitting home runs in his first two plate appearances. He was the first player to do so in franchise history and did it at the prodigious age of 20.

His powerful start to the year sent fans into a frenzy, and he gave them a curtain call four innings into the new season. The success wouldn’t last throughout the summer, but it was a wild start and is one of the lasting highlights from the early years of Harper’s career.

The Postseason Return

The 2014 regular season would be a forgettable one for Harper. Thanks to a thumb injury he suffered running the bases, Harper set a career-low in games played with exactly 100. The time missed contributed to a third straight season with fewer home runs than the last, but his rate stats suffered as well. He had the lowest slugging percentage and OPS of his career, and it remains the only season in which he wasn’t named to the National League All-Star team.

For his regular season struggles, however, Harper experienced much more success in his second postseason. The Nats bounced back from a down 2013 team, beating up on a weak division and winning 96 games to lead the National League. They ended up facing another inferior NLDS opponent in the San Francisco Giants, and the end result was the same as in 2012.

The Giants may have won the series thanks to a dominant performance by their pitching staff (the Nats batted .164 as a team), but Harper held his own this time around. In what still stands out to this day as his strongest postseason performance, Harper had a slash line of .294/.368/.882, buoyed by his three home runs in four games. The 1.251 OPS represents by far a career-high, and his three home runs were 75 percent of the team’s total in the series.

He went 0-for-7 in the 18-inning Game 2 marathon, but essentially was the entire Washington offense in Games 1, 3 and 4. He even launched a ball into the third deck at Nats Park in Game 1. It was a titanic blast that won’t soon be forgotten.

The clear highlight, however, came in Game 4. The Nats fell behind 2-0 early, but Harper got them on the board with a fifth-inning double. Trailing 2-1, he came to bat in the seventh and blasted his third home run of the series to tie the game. The Nats were eight outs from elimination, and Harper had saved them.

Of course, once again, the bullpen would go on to lose the game for the Nats and end their season. Harper again had a chance in a do-or-die 9th inning, and this time, the Giants learned their lesson and walked him. His team lost, but the legend of Bryce Harper was cemented.

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Ex-Oriole Manny Machado homers off ex-National Gio Gonzalez in NLCS Game 1

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USA Today Sports

Ex-Oriole Manny Machado homers off ex-National Gio Gonzalez in NLCS Game 1

Sure, the Nationals and Orioles didn't make the playoffs, but that didn't stop a "Battle of the Beltways" moment from breaking out during NLCS Game 1.

Ex-National Gio Gonzalez started the game for the Brewers. In the second inning, ex-Oriole Manny Machado stepped to the plate for the Dodgers.

Here's what happened next:

If you squint, you can imagine the ball flying into the Nationals Park bullpen or the Camden Yards bleachers. 

And in case you're wondering, we have indeed entered the Twilight Zone. 

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