Yankees are a measuring stick for young Nationals

Bryce Harper connects for a two run home

Bryce Harper connects for a two run home run against the Boston Red Sox. (June 8, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

WASHINGTON

Bryce Harper took plenty of abuse, and deservedly so, for his supportive tweets of CC Sabathia and the Yankees last October. But Harper had yet to make his major-league debut, and like the rest of the Nationals, he was home watching the playoffs on TV.

If Harper was vilified in D.C. for using an inappropriate venue to cheer on his childhood team -- given that he was 18, his Yankees pajamas probably still fit -- then what are we to make of the wild applause that erupted Friday night at Nationals Park whenever Derek Jeter stepped to the plate? Or for the RBI singles by Alex Rodriguez and Nick Swisher in the third inning? Or the standing "O'' for Robinson Cano when he entered as a pinch hitter in the seventh?

Judging by those reactions, the Yankees sent most of the sellout crowd of 41,406 home happy with a 7-2 victory. Just like Harper and the other youngsters on the upstart Nationals, the Washington franchise still is in the midst of some growing pains.

"America likes winners," Ryan Zimmerman said afterward. "The Yankees are winners. Derek is one of the most likable guys in the world. I'd cheer for him."

Sweeping the Red Sox and Blue Jays on the road to move 15 games over .500 (38-23) was an impressive lead-in to this weekend series with the Yankees. But swaying the hearts and minds of the entire Beltway region -- let alone convincing the rest of the country -- is not something that can be completed in two months.

"Winning makes everything better," said Zimmerman, who at 27 already has endured four seasons of 90-plus losses in the nation's capital. "Why would you take your money and pay for a ticket for a team that loses 100 games a year?"

Now that the Nationals are on pace to win 100, shouldn't the reverse be true? With two of the game's most dazzling young stars -- the big-bat, big-hustle Harper and top gun Stephen Strasburg -- it's a team that has both talent and marketability.

But there remains a wide gap between a legendary franchise like the Yankees and D.C.'s flavor of the month, which is why Friday's sellout crowd was not even a bipartisan group. There was a heavy turnout for the Yankees, who beat Gio Gonzalez with a flurry of singles to go with a solid performance from Phil Hughes. There was plenty of entertainment -- even for the Nats, apparently. "They're fun to compete against," Gonzalez said. "They always put on a show when they go out."

While Harper had a quiet night at the plate -- his only hit was an infield single -- the centerfielder excited Nationals fans with a diving catch that robbed Mark Teixeira to end the first.

In that small snapshot, Harper was as advertised, the 19-year-old prodigy whom A-Rod and Jeter said they were looking forward to watching.

"It's pretty unbelievable," Harper said Friday afternoon. "They're Hall of Fame-caliber guys. For them to say that, it's just a blessing. It's absolutely amazing for them to say that."

Harper grew up admiring both players, but he was all business when asked if he would talk to A-Rod and Jeter.

"I don't like bothering people," Harper said. "I just want them to be able to play their game and me to play mine. It's a big series, and everybody knows it."

But this weekend is bigger for the Nationals. Few doubt the Yankees will be playing in October again this year, and especially now that they have won seven straight to remain perfect against the NL East, which is beginning to look like baseball's second-best division.

For the Nationals, beating the Red Sox and Blue Jays was nice. But if the Yankees really are a measuring stick, then the Nats got slapped in the face with it Friday night.

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