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Nationals Finally Back as Playoff Contender

July 1, 2014

In the bottom of the fourth inning June 30, the Washington Nationals' struggling offense was trying to scratch out a run to take the lead against the Colorado Rockies. Unfortunately, during past weeks, runs had been as rare as bipartisan votes on nearby Capitol Hill. 

But Bryce Harper was back June 30, his second at bat after missing two months with a broken thumb. He quickly roped a single, and the Washington Nationals' Opening Day lineup, which had been expected to reach the World Series, was finally producing again.

Nationals 2012: Bryce Harper (batting)
Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer/PressBox

The Nats beat the Colorado Rockies, 7-3, June 30. Some 33,660 came on Bryce Harper Bobblehead Night to see Harper, who really is remindful of Reggie Jackson of the 1970s New York Yankees, who called himself "The straw the stirs the drink."

Harper may not be the Nats' best player -- the team also has standouts such as Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche, among others. Harper might not even be the best positional young player, given that infielder Anthony Rendon has been phenomenal. And there are pitcher Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman as the franchise's faces. 

But there's something special about Harper that creates chemistry. Maybe it's his hustle -- he scored on a single with his helmet flying off as he rounded third. Perhaps it was his savvy throw that should have picked off a runner if the Nats hadn't made their first of three defensive mistakes.

After a rash of injuries, which took their Opening Day 3-4-5 hitters away for much of the season's first half, the Nats opened game 82 with a full lineup, and the type of victory that made Harper declare they're the best team in baseball.

Indeed, Washington just may be if it stays healthy.

It was a frustrating season's first half at 43-38, which projects to just 86 victories. But then, the Nats stayed in contention while healing. Instead of falling behind in the National League East by a half dozen games or more to Atlanta, they're half a game back and beat the Braves during the last two meetings. 

Washington is in perfect position to reach the postseason, where overall victories won't matter. They can have the momentum needed to compete with San Francisco, Milwaukee and Atlanta, maybe Cincinnati or St. Louis during the playoffs.

Nobody doubts Washington's pitching is among baseball's best. It just needed Harper to bring back that missing spark for the offense. 

The lineup June 30 was the toughest to decide during first-year manager Matt Williams' tenure. He needed 10 slots for nine players. Second baseman Danny Espinosa was benched for Rendon, while Zimmerman returned to third base and Harper to left field. 

Either center fielder Denard Span or Espinosa needed to sit. Both are better defensive players, while Span is batting .265 and Espinosa is hitting .217. Span plays for now. 

Harper talking of moving to center while Zimmerman plays left and Rendon is at third makes long-term sense. Rendon is the future third baseman with Zimmerman eventually moving to first, so why not let Rendon get comfortable at his long-term position? Well, LaRoche is batting a team-best .307, including an upper-deck home run June 30, so he's going nowhere this season. The Nats are worrying about this season and will see what happens next spring training. 

For now, the gang is back together, and Washington has another chance to win a title.