- - Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Bryce Harper is gone and the Nationals’ streak of fruitless postseasons remains.

Nothing is going to change the first fact, but obliterating the latter is well within the realm of possibilities.

When John Wall has endured extended absences from the Washington Wizards, some observers have posited that the team is better without him. From a long-term point-of-view, that might true where Harper and the Nationals are concerned, provided that outfielders Juan Soto and Victor Robles produce as imagined.

Manager Dave Martinez’s lineup card for Thursday’s opener, against the New York Mets, will feature a void impossible to ignore, the spot that No. 34 filled. A middle-of-the-order featuring Harper, Anthony Rendon and Soto, is much more imposing than Rendon-Soto-Ryan Zimmerman.

So it’s clear that Harper will be missed as the Nats cross their fingers that: new second baseman Brian Dozier returns to his 2015-2017 form when he averaged 35 homers and 90 RBI; center fielder Adam Eaton plays more than 118 games, his mere total for the last two season; and Soto avoids a sophomore slump after a dazzling inaugural campaign that nearly netted Rookie-of-the-Year honors.

But if all of that happens — and the back of the rotation and middle of the bullpen hold up — we like the Nats’ chances, even though Sports Illustrated picked them to miss the playoffs.

Oh well. Considering that the magazine predicted Washington would win the World Series last season, maybe it’s for the better.

Having won the NL East in four of the last seven seasons, we are dangerously close to the point where winning is taken for granted. All of those division titles — and playoff flameouts — were accomplished with Harper in the mix, but expectations haven’t been lowered since his departure.

Philadelphia, Atlanta and the Mets will ensure an arduous test for whichever team wears the crown. However, despite SI’s lack of faith, several national writers have tabbed the Nats as favorites, with a couple even predicting a ticker-tape parade down Constitution Avenue.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Imagine the Nats winning it all without Harper, after failing to win a single postseason series with him. Even his fans would have to chuckle at that. None should feel the least bit sorry for him.

Harper is still one of baseball’s best players and the Nats are still one of the game’s best teams. Now they can go head-to-head against each other for 19 games and maybe even battle some more in the playoffs.

What’s not to love about that?

On Thursday, Nationals Park will buzz with the same electricity that circulates throughout the stadium every opening day. The home white uniforms will be bright and crisp as ever. The field will be immaculate and the bunting will hang perfectly. It will be business as normal, as usual, minus the former MVP in right field.

And once Harper gets his return out of the way, on Tuesday, the Nats’ new reality will be completely sealed, with all eyes forward. No more looking back because next season is here and that’s been a blessing for seven years and counting.

“We’re in a good position where every year we’re expected to make the playoffs,” Zimmerman told reporters Monday. “Ownership continually puts a good team on the field and we’re lucky to have that. Now it’s on us to go out there and compete.”

Good things have happened more often than not lately. The Nats haven’t missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since this era began in 2012, and there’s no reason to assume they’re about to start a streak.

Certainly, they might. But that’s not what we’ll be thinking Thursday when Max Scherzer fires the first pitch to Mets center fielder Brandon Nimmo around 1:05 p.m.

We’ll contemplate Scherzer contending for his third Cy Young Award in four seasons. We’ll envision Soto becoming a historic 20-year-old after being virtually unprecedented as a 19-year-old. We’ll foresee Robles morphing into the Nats’ second consecutive Rookie of the Year candidate.

As a new skipper, Martinez was given a team expected to win the World Series. A year wiser and missing a prominent piece, he still faces a high bar that feels right in D.C. The renewed focus on fundamentals and better defense should help compensate for you-know-who and Martinez’s mistakes as a first-time manager.

Will the 2019 Nats be better than the 2018 version? Beats me. Besides, they can be superior and still come up short in the division and/or wild-card race. Or lose another first-round playoff series. Or advance and fall in the NLCS, if not the World Series.

That’s not the point, at least not at the moment.

For now, suffice it to say baseball is back.

And even though a familiar face hasn’t returned, nothing can put a damper on Washington’s hopes and dreams for the Nats on opening day.

Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

• Deron Snyder can be reached at deronsnyder@gmail.com.

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