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Offense has Nats standing out in NL East

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Offense has Nats standing out in NL East

With the Nationals returning home having gone 5-2 on their West Coast road trip with just a half-game deficit in the NL East to make up, it seems like a good time to take stock of where they stand in the division heading into an off-day with the New York Yankees up next.

Some may say it's too early after just 39 games to make overarching judgements. Somebody tell that to the Marlins, who fired manager Mike Redmond minutes after their loss to the Braves on Sunday.

Remember when people were freaking out about the Nats? What's happening in Miami is what real panic looks like.

The Nationals have now won 15 of their last 19 games and sit five games over .500 at 17-12. They've won six consecutive series, four of them against NL East teams.

With 10 runs in Sunday's series-closing win against the Padres, the Nationals' offense exploded once again. Bryce Harper hit a three-run homer and so did Danny Espinosa. The Nats now rank second in Major League Baseball with 194 runs scored. Through 39 games, they are averaging 4.97 runs per contest.

For a comparison, none of the Nats' division counterparts rank in the top 12 in baseball in runs scored. The Nationals are also fifth in team OPS (.742), while no one else in the NL East places higher than 17th.

This is all without Anthony Rendon, one of their most complete offensive players. It is also without Jayson Werth for total 12 games and Denard Span for the first three weeks of the season. Ian Desmond has also struggled mightily with just two homers and nine RBI so far this year after three consecutive Silver Slugger campaigns. Those were their top four hits leaders in 2014.

A large part of the Nationals' ability to score runs despite those factors has been the play of Harper. The 22-year-old outfielder went 12-for-23 (.522) with three home runs and nine RBI on their road trip. He's now batting an unreal .338 with 14 homers, 37 RBI and a 1.206 OPS. Nobody has carried an OPS that high across a full season since Barry Bonds in 2004.

We're just nearing the quarter-mark of the 2015 schedule, but so far Harper has been playing at an MVP level. Many of us thought he would lead the league in homers someday and it's exactly what he's doing right now.

I wrote yesterday about how Max Scherzer is off to the best start of his MLB career and how important he has been so far for the Nationals. But Doug Fister aside, the rest of the Nats' rotation has shown positive signs in recent games.

Gio Gonzalez has a 3.32 ERA in his last three outings. Jordan Zimmermann has thrown a quality start in six straight appearances with a 2.58 ERA during that stretch. Stephen Strasburg wasn't great against the Padres, but his three earned runs in five innings was a turn in the right direction considering his 6.06 ERA to begin the day.

The Nationals' pitching staff is still a work in progress. They hold a 3.85 team ERA, which ranks 13th in baseball. That's not terrible, but far from the 3.00 mark the Mets currently have, which is second in MLB.

The Nats rank third in starters ERA in the division at 3.91 and 11th in baseball. The Mets are tops in the majors at 3.16 and the Braves are also barely ahead of the Nats. The Marlins are not far behind Washington.

The Mets could very well have the best pitching staff in baseball, a distinction many predicted for the Nationals. But their offense - ranked 22nd in runs scored - is not even close to what the Nationals have produced so far. And again, that's without Rendon, who is arguably one of the best hitters in the NL.

New York currently holds a half-game lead over the Nats entering the week, but up next for them is the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards have the NL's best record and a remarkable 2.87 ERA as a team so far.

The Nats will play the Yankees on Tuesday and Wednesday with a day off before and after. Then they host the Phillies, who despite somehow winning five straight are still in last place.

The Mets have surprised many by leading the division through the first month-and-a-half of 2015. But with the way things are going, it doesn't look like it will last very long.

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Nationals look to avoid sweep against Phillies on Sunday night

Nationals look to avoid sweep against Phillies on Sunday night

WASHINGTON -- Having already won their first series at Nationals Park since April 2016, the Philadelphia Phillies will go for the sweep of Washington on Sunday night.

Phillies right-hander Nick Pivetta (4-6, 4.08 ERA) faces Nationals right-hander Jefry Rodriguez (0-0, 4.66).

Pivetta was drafted by the Nationals in 2013 and went to the Phillies in 2015 as part of the Jonathan Papelbon trade.

After struggling for three straight starts -- giving up 13 runs in 14 innings -- Pivetta allowed two runs and four hits in 7 1/3 innings of a no-decision against the St. Louis Cardinals last time out, striking out a career-high 13 batters.

"That's some of the best stuff I've seen him have all year," catcher Andrew Knapp told mlb.com. "The curveball was electric."

Pivetta got 11 swings and misses with the curveball.

"It was nice to have it back," Pivetta told mlb.com. "It all started with my delivery. I was staying up through it, not trying to rush too much and it worked out."

It his first start -- and second big-league appearance -- the 24-year-old Rodriguez picked up a win against the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday. He allowed five runs, four hits and three walks in five innings.

Rodriguez and Satuday's losing pitcher, Erick Fedde, are filling in for injured starters Stephen Strasburg and Jeremy Hellickson.

The Phillies have outscored the Nationals 17-5 in the fist two games of the series. On Saturday, Maikel Franco had four hits and Carlos Santana homered to back Aaron Nola in a 5-3 victory.

"That was just a tremendous all-around baseball game," Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said of Franco. "It's so interesting how we've been looking for him to be not just a hitter but a defender and a baserunner and an all-around athlete."

Franco drove in a run and scored twice, including the go-ahead run when he scored just ahead of the tag on Jesmuel Valentin's sacrifice fly.

The Phillies, who have won six of seven, pounded out double-digit hits for the second day in a row in Washington.

"They have a lot of patient hitters," Fedde said of the Phillies. "I think that's what makes it tough. Guys aren't swinging at bunch of junk, so you have to attack them."

The Phillies have now won four straight series for the first time since May 2016 and are 2-0 in what will be a stretch of 10 games against the Nationals and the New York Yankees.

Anthony Rendon homered and Daniel Murphy had a two-run single for Washington, which has lost three of four while scoring nine runs.

"Look, I've got all the confidence in the world we're going to start hitting," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "We'll start scoring some runs. Right now, the bullpen is a little beat up. We've got to get them going again."

Rendon is doing his part. In his las 15 games, he is batting .382 with seven doubles, two homers and 12 RBIs.

Hellickson (right groin strain) will make a rehab start Sunday for Class A Potomac and then is expected to rejoin the Nationals' rotation.

Hernandez said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman (right oblique strain) is about a week from beginning a rehab assignment.

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Bryce Harper will compete in Home Run Derby, but only on one condition

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Bryce Harper will compete in Home Run Derby, but only on one condition

It’s happening.

When the 2018 All-Star Weekend comes to Washington, D.C. in the middle of July, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper will compete in the 2018 Home Run Derby, but only on one condition: He has to be a member of the 2018 National League All-Star Team.

Though Harper is having a down year, only hitting .213 thus far, he leads the NL in home runs with 19.

In the June 18 update of All-Star game voting, Harper sat second among all outfielders with just north of 1,000,000 votes.

That means he’s not only going to make the All-Star team, but he’ll likely start in the outfield.

Harper, a five-time All-Star, competed in the Home Run Derby once before. He was the runner-up to Yoenis Cespedes in 2013, losing by just one long ball, 9-8.

The 2018 Home Run Derby will take place on July 16 at Nationals Park.

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