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A new era begins

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A new era begins

Everyone knew the day would come when Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg would take the field together as Nationals teammates for the first of many times. Nobody knew that day would come so soon.

It took an unusual alignment of stars for Strasburg and Harper's paths to intersect tonight in the city of stars. This wasn't supposed to happen for another month or two, but a rash of injuries to the heart of the Nationals lineup forced Mike Rizzo's hand, so tonight we will see this organization's two No. 1 draft picks together at last.

Nats-Dodgers. A couple of first-place clubs going head-to-head. Strasburg on the mound. Harper in the lineup.

Welcome to a new era of Nationals baseball.

Summoned from Class AAA Syracuse after only 20 games, Harper will make his major-league debut at Dodger Stadium, batting seventh and starting in left field for a Washington club that desperately needs an injection of life into a stagnant lineup.

Last night's 3-2 loss to the Dodgers represented the fifth time in six games the Nationals have scored three or fewer runs. And with Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse now on the disabled list, Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson had run out of places to find offense.

So the call was placed to Syracuse, where a stunned Harper learned from Chiefs manager Tony Beasley he would be making his big-league debut at 19.

That alone isn't as big a deal as you might think. Harper will be the 608th player in baseball history to debut before age 20. Success, though, is anything but guaranteed. Of those 607 previous big-league teenagers, only three had double-digit home run total in their first season: Tony Conigliaro (24 in 1964), Ken Griffey Jr. (16 in 1989) and Mickey Mantle (13 in 1951).

So the expectation level for Harper in his first taste of the majors should be minimal. That line of thinking should also hold true based on Harper's well-established track record: At every level he's played, he's struggled mightily at the plate for two or three weeks before taking off.

The Nationals and their fans would be wise to assume history will repeat itself now that Harper has arrived. He shouldn't be expected to be the savior of a lineup that needs saving. Anything he does produce at the plate is gravy.

Truth be told, the lion's share of the attention on tonight's game should be directed at the 23-year-old on the mound, not the 19-year-old in left field. Strasburg already survived his much-ballyhooed arrival two years ago, perhaps setting a new standard for excellence in a debut performance.

These days, the right-hander is merely one of the best young pitchers in the game. And tonight he faces one of his stiffest challenges to date: A first-place Dodgers club that boasts the best hitter on the planet right now in Matt Kemp.

Coming off back-to-back losses for only the second time this season, the Nationals would love to get back on the winning track and give themselves a shot at their seventh series victory in as many tries.

Thus, the spotlight should shine brightest tonight on Strasburg, who gets to find out if he can play the role of stopper and pitch his team back into the win column.

No matter what happens tonight, though, baseball in Washington will never be the same. Remember the embarrassment of those consecutive 59-win seasons in 2008 and 2009? Well, the payoff for that ineptitude is finally here, in the form of two No. 1 draft picks, each touted as the best prospect at his position in a generation.

That's a lot of pressure for Strasburg and Harper to have thrown at them. As we saw two years ago, Strasburg can handle the heat. And there's no reason to believe the supremely confident Harper won't also deal with this task in fine form.

Whether that manifests itself into a 3-for-4 performance or a three-strikeout night remains to be seen.

For now, all the Nationals can do is sit back and count down the hours until the next chapter in their history is written.

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Craig Kimbrel could help any NL East contender solve a division-wide problem

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Craig Kimbrel could help any NL East contender solve a division-wide problem

WASHINGTON --  Progressively, the lines of desperation and declined price will have to intersect.

At least it would seem. Craig Kimbrel’s demands reportedly are receding during his extended unemployment. The needs of contenders in the National League East’s rock fight continue to increase day by day. The sides should be on a path to merge. Right?

Take this week. 

Atlanta announced closer Arodys Vizcaino underwent right shoulder surgery. He’s out for the season. This the day after his would-be replacement, A.J. Minter, gave up three earned runs in ⅔ of an inning. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos acknowledged he heard the chants from Braves fans Tuesday night demanding he sign Kimbrel.

Philadelphia placed reliever David Robertson on the 10-day injured list because of a flexor strain (initially labeled elbow soreness). It used Hector Neris to close Wednesday afternoon. He entered with two runners on base. Neris struck out the first batter, gave up a soft single, hit Wilson Ramos to load the bases, then struck Keon Broxton to end the game. That’s an interesting path to the end.

The Mets are living similar to the Nationals. They have a closer -- Edwin Diaz -- who can be relied on. It’s getting to him which has been such a challenge. Seth Lugo (5.06 ERA), Jeurys Familia (6.48) and Robert Gsellman (3.48) are often dispatched to drag New York to the ninth inning.

All five members of the National League East are in the bottom half of bullpen ERA entering play Friday. Philadelphia is 15th, Atlanta is 22nd, Miami is 24th, New York is 27th and Washington remains last by a wide margin -- almost a run-and-a-half worse than 29th-ranked Baltimore.

The Nationals’ bullpen toiling around with the have nots is endangering the team’s season as a whole, the $190 million payroll investment, the demands of the Lerner family to be better than first-round playoff exits. But, few paths are available to fix it without relinquishing a commodity -- whether human or financial.

Multiple reports claim Kimbrel’s asking price has come down in both years and cash. It may never reach a point of intersection with the Nationals if team ownership remains steadfast against surpassing the competitive balance tax threshold for the third consecutive year. Passing the $206 million roster mark would result in a 50 percent tax on every dollar spent from there on. 

Kimbrel would also cost the Nationals a compensation draft pick and international draft money because he declined a qualifying off from Boston. In all, four layers of cost exist around Kimbrel: salary, luxury tax, a draft pick and international money.

Financial stances can change when circumstances do. Though, the Nationals’ leverage with Kimbrel has evaporated. Owning the league’s worst bullpen is not a promising negotiation point for a team preferring to restrict this final portion of spending. Imagine their pitch: “We’re desperate for your services, but don’t want to spend much.” 

Whichever lagging bullpen signs Kimbrel still needs to subsist until he is ready. In Washington’s case, it continues to hunt for solutions ahead of a six-game road trip which starts Friday in Miami. Trevor Rosenthal’s lost early season, a better way to match up with left-handed hitters, help in the middle and a way to use closer Sean Doolittle less -- he’s on pace for 86 appearances -- are all on the docket. 

“Things haven’t gone the way we envisioned them coming out of camp,” Doolittle said this week. “Part of being a reliever -- you don’t get to this level without having taken some lumps; without having taken some punches. So guys, they might be in the jungle a little bit right now, but they know how to get through this. We’re working on it. Guys are talking to each other about things they can do, whether it’s pitch selection or mechanics or straight up execution to try to get things smoothed out. 

“We’re in it as a group. As a reliever, you can’t have an ego. You have to be ready for whatever the team needs, whatever the group needs and be ready to pick your teammate up.”

Doolittle’s words could have come from the leader of any NL East bullpen. Four contenders with the same problem populate the division. One big name looms. Day by day, the tussle for a fix and leverage goes on. 

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3 things to watch as the Nationals head to Miami for the first time in 2019

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3 things to watch as the Nationals head to Miami for the first time in 2019

The Washington Nationals wrapped up their series with the San Francisco Giants by winning the final two contests to take the series. Now their sights turn back toward their division and the Miami Marlins for a three-game tilt. Here are three things to watch for:

  1. Negotiations between Anthony Rendon and the Nationals opened back up this week in their six-game homestand. How will the Nats third baseman take the added noise? He was 3-for-11, both hits being singles, in the two games following. Before the Giants series started he was batting .400 with a 1.333 OPS.
  2. From the lead-off spot Adam Eaton has been doing damage to opposing pitchers in a short amount of time. While still early, he's at .319 on the year and getting base knocks in the opening innings. Five of his 22 hits are from the first at-bat of the game to go with three walks. Getting the young pitchers rattled early in Miami will allow them to jump out to early leads. 
  3. This year's Marlins are putting up the 2018 Baltimore Orioles numbers. Through 19 games they have four wins. Two in their past 15. They've scored the fewest runs (48) in MLB. They're bad and a couple of innings pitched against the Marlins might just be what the Nats bullpen needs.  

 The game broadcast will be at 7:10 PM ET on 106.7 the Fan and MASN2. 

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