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Nationals give Washington something to cheer

Washington Nationals All-Stars, from left, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond and Gio Gonzalez, meet with the media Tuesday at Nationals Park in Washington. (Associated Press)
Washington Nationals All-Stars, from left, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond and Gio Gonzalez, meet with the media Tuesday at Nationals Park in Washington. (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – Three All-Stars, first place on the Fourth of July and a 19-year-old sensation who is mature enough to defer to a 40-year-old from another team.

Baseball in the nation’s capital hasn’t looked this good in decades. And decades. And decades.

Instead of holding news conferences to tell everyone how good they hope to be, the Washington Nationals can finally start bragging about what they’ve done. The N.L. East leaders put Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Ian Desmond at the featured table Tuesday to discuss their selections to next week’s All-Star game.

“We’ve set new standards here,” Desmond said.

Desmond knows plenty about the previous standards. He was drafted by the franchise when they were still the Montreal Expos, before the 2005 move to Washington and the five last-place finishes in six years that followed. The city was supposedly itching for baseball after a 33-year absence, but attendance was disappointing, local television ratings were abysmal and – with the exception of 2005 – there was always just the one minimum representative at the All-Star game.

Now attendance is up – by 32 percent so far from last year – ratings are on the rise, and the Nationals hold a 3 1/2-game lead over the New York Mets after both teams won Tuesday. The starting rotation might legitimately be the best in the baseball, and Strasburg and teenager Bryce Harper have become above-the-title stars, someone you have to watch when they come to town.

“It’s hard to break a winning mentality, and it’s a lot easier to have a losing one,” Strasburg said. “Once we learned how to win together, I think it’s really started to stick.”

The franchise hasn’t had three All-Stars since Mark Grudzielanek, Pedro Martinez and Henry Rodriguez represented the Expos in 1996. Harper is a candidate to earn the final N.L. spot in fan online voting. If he gets in, it will be the most since the ’94 Expos sent five.

The last time a Washington team finished first was 1933, when the Senators won the American League and lost the World Series to the New York Giants. That was two Washington franchises ago.

The Nationals have been promising it would be like this, pointing to 2012-13 as the timeframe to be a contender while their young talent developed. It helped that they hit the jackpot by losing 100 games in just the right years, allowing them to get can’t-miss talents Strasburg (2009) and Harper (2010) at No. 1 overall in back-to-back drafts.

Strasburg’s path to the top of the rotation was detoured for a year by elbow surgery, while Harper’s ascension has been unstoppable.

Harper earned immeasurable respect on Sunday when he said he’d vote for 40-year-old Chipper Jones, who is retiring this year, over himself in the online balloting.

Harper said Tuesday that he received a text message from Jones appreciating the kind words.

And, as it turns out, there might be room for both Jones and Harper anyway.

Jones was selected Tuesday as an injury replacement for Matt Kemp, leaving Harper among four players vying for the last spot on the N.L. bench.

“Of course, I want to be there,” Harper said. “But if it doesn’t work out, I’ve got hopefully 20 years in my career that I’ll get back there.”

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