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Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper Will Transform The Washington Nationals From Doormats to Darlings

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Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper
Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper

 *Bryce Harper Signs (August 16,2010)—It’s never easy for the Washington Nationals. They make their fans sweat out every personnel decision till the very last moment. Just minutes before a midnight deadline would have sent him back into next year’s amateur draft, last year’s top pick Bryce Harper signed a five-year deal with the Washington Nationals worth nearly ten-million dollars. While it is certainly not the $15,000,000 plus that  Stephen Strasburg got a year ago, it is record money for a position player, eclipsing the deal the Rangers gave  Mark Teixeira at the turn of the century. If Harper has half the career that Teixeira has had so far, this pact will look like a bargain. Harper will be able to buy the two-ton jar of the industrial eyeblack he’s known for.

As I wrote about in early June below, it is now imperative that the Nationals season Harper quickly and effectively. A slugging teen monster who just turned 17 would be a huge gate attraction for a second division squad. And even though Harper is now on the 40-man roster, he is at least a full season away from making his major-league debut. The pressure will be immense to rush Harper to the bigs, but the team must be careful. Not many adolescent sensations are going to come up from the minors and start belting record blasts onto South Capitol Street. But the future is indeed brighter this morning than it was yesterday for the lowly Nats. They are assembling some interesting player puzzle pieces that will make them most entertaining to watch in the NL East for years to come.

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Is there any question that Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper are going to raise the fortunes of the Washington Nationals to heights local baseball fans have been dreaming about? Strasburg and Harper are simply the best thing to happen to this franchise since major league baseball returned to DC. Will they replace Barack and Michelle Obama as the Capitol’s next power couple?

*Webster’s 1913 Dictionary defines a “laughingstock” as “ An object of ridicule; a butt of sport”. The Washington Nationals weren’t around nearly a century ago. But if they were, the bold “N” logo could have been the picture with that ancient dictionary entry. DC area fans suffered back-to-back last-place finishes. Not just in the competitive National League East. But the worst record in all of the major leagues. Local MLB fans were wondering, “This is what we waited for? Montreal should have kept le Expos!” If Canada wasn’t such a beloved neighbor, it might have caused an international incident. The fancy new stadium on Capitol Street was like the newest DC comedy club. Only this comedy of errors had baseball fans ready to heave their overpriced hot dogs and dump their season tickets.

But there are advantages to stinking out the joint in modern professional sports. The worst shall be rewarded by selecting the best (supposedly). The Nationals got to select first in each of the past two amateur drafts. Last June, the consensus #1 was lanky righthander Stephen Strasburg out of San Diego State University. So frustrated in his early college days over lack of playing time, he nearly quit the team. By his senior year, his untapped talent caught up with his immense physical skills. Everything suddenly clicked. Strasburg had the rare combination of a triple-digit fastball, a waffle-ball-like curve and a changeup that compared favorably to the San Francisco Giant’s CyYoung x 2 Winner Tim Lincecum. The Nationals nurtured their prize prospect in the minor league hamlets of Harrisburg and Syracuse. On Tuesday, June 8, Strasburg didn’t disappoint in his major-league debut. He bedazzled the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates with a full aresenal of pitches on primetime TV, striking out a team record 14 and earning the win. The nationwide baseball buzz was something this area hadn’t seen since Frank Howard was a young slugger for the Senators. Washington’s newest media darling was honored on the floor of Congress the next day and even did the Top Ten list on Letterman several nights later. Sainthood and a trip to Cooperstown are surely around the corner. At just 21, Strasburg’s unlimited potential no doubt has long-suffering DC baseball fans salivating. But he may simply be the appetizer.

Just days before Strasburg’s debut, the Nationals once again held the top pick in this year’s baseball draft. And once again, scouts indicated that this year’s no-brainer selection was man-child Bryce Harper, a 17-year old catcher with a rifle-arm and left-handed power potential reminiscent of Baltimore’s own Babe Ruth. While most teens his age are home popping pimples and planning for the prom, Harper was mashing 500-foot home runs in Tampa’s Tropicana Field. With eye-black resembling the WCW’s Sting (circa 1987), Harper’s offensive skills are so bodyslam outrageous that his days behind the plate are likely over. Catchers simply take too much physical punishment (see AL MVP Joe Mauer’s gimpy start to this baseball season). Young Bryce will be manning right field in Nationals Park well before he’s able  to legally drink. And National fans will be lifting a brew to salute a potential home-run champion. Babe Ruth

So the once-lowly Washington Nationals are suddenly in the major-market sports spotlight. This is virgin territory. They are playing .500 baseball, contending in the surprisingly-mediocre National East and sending the following message to major-league baseball fans in the DC area and beyond: “Strasburg & Harper are baseball’s next dynamic duo of young bookend superstars!”

Upcoming Washington Nationals Series at Home

The Nationals are in town beginning Friday, June 18 with an interleague series against the Chicago White Sox, followed by the Kansas City Royals, June 21-23. Barring rainouts, Stephen Strasburg is scheduled to pitch both the opener of the six-game homestand on June 18 and the finale on Wednesday, June 23. Tickets are still available. I hope to see you at the ballpark!