First Things First

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For all of the hype surrounding this weekend’s three-game sweep of the Boston Red Sox on the road at Fenway Park, perhaps Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa summed it up best when reflecting upon the feat.

“I think we were the team to beat right here,” he explained. “We’re the first-place team.”

Indeed, they are. They were when the weekend began, and found their lead padded to two games when Atlanta finally saw its six-game win streak come to an end on Sunday. Nevertheless, the national media was paying more attention this weekend to all the things that Nationals fans have been watching since Opening Day, now more than two months in the rear-view mirror.

That’s the thing about playing at Fenway: wherever the Red Sox reside in the standings, everyone is watching. It is one of those venues that puts you under the magnifying glass of the entire country. Peter Gammons, the Hall-of-Fame writer who covered the Sox for decades before ascending to the National stage, was unapologetic in his gushing over the Nationals fan support, those who showed up to cheer the team on in a hostile environment. As The Washington Post’s Tom Boswell pointed out in his column this morning, The Boston Herald even called the Nats “The most exciting team in baseball.”

The last such moment of national attention for this team came during NATITUDE Weekend against Philadelphia in early May. While the Nationals won that encounter – taking two-of-three including a dramatic, extra-inning victory to open the set – they lost in the nationally televised finale, missing perhaps the opportunity to claim the attention that they demanded this weekend in Boston.

Sunday’s heroes Bryce Harper (right) and Roger Bernadina (middle) celebrate with Rick Ankiel. (Jim Rogash/Getty)

Given the opportunity to close out the sweep once again, they did not disappoint. Following a dynamic team performance Friday and a solid effort on Saturday, the Nationals were in a battle in the finale. Bryce Harper, who was given his first day off since his call-up, found himself thrust into the middle of a tie game with one out in the ninth inning. He drew a five-pitch walk, then spent the bulk of the next two at-bats trying to size up Boston reliever Alfredo Aceves for the best time to steal. With a quick delivery to the plate, Aceves kept Harper on the bag until two outs and two strikes, when the rookie finally broke for second on the perfect pitch, a letter-high fastball that Roger Bernadina laced towards the right-field corner. With his momentum already at full blast (nearly overly so, as he struggled to keep his footing heading into second base), Harper tore around the 270 feet toward home, slapping the plate with the go-ahead run as he slid across well ahead of the relay throw back to the infield.

That allowed Tyler Clippard to come out of the ‘pen for the third straight day, and for the third straight day he shut the door on the Red Sox, silencing the Fenway crowd. His final masterpiece, a literally knee-buckling changeup to Dustin Pedroia, iced both the game and the cake of the weekend’s heroics. It marked the second road sweep in just over two weeks for this team, showing the continued growth that they have already experienced since that Phillies series just over a month ago.

Speaking of those Phillies, they now trail the front-running Nationals by eight games in the NL East, and by a staggering 10 games in the all-important loss column. So, yes, a three-game road sweep of a team with the history and tradition always makes for a great weekend. But with a much-less talked about three-game set against a less-heralded (yet quite talented) Toronto team beginning Monday night, it is where the Nationals sit as a result of that sweep that matters far more.

First place.

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