FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2015 file photo, Washington Nationals relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park in Washington. At some point during the Washington Nationals' first homestand of the season, odds a
Jacquelyn Martin, File
April 06, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) At some point during the Washington Nationals' first homestand of the season, odds are Jonathan Papelbon will head from the bullpen to the pitcher's mound, perhaps with a lead to protect and a save at stake.

Whenever the closer does wind up entering a game, it will be worth observing the crowd's reaction. That could happen as soon as Thursday, when the Nationals are scheduled to play their home opener against Giancarlo Stanton and the Miami Marlins. There is a chance of rain in the forecast.

The series begins a seven-game homestand, with three games against Miami followed by four versus Atlanta, part of a stretch in which Bryce Harper & Co. begin the season with 16 games against NL East opponents.

The last time Papelbon pitched at Nationals Park in a game that counted, on Sept. 27, he was involved in his infamous dugout dustup with teammate Harper, grabbing last season's eventual unanimous NL MVP by the throat. That earned Papelbon a four-game suspension, and when a three-game ban from Major League Baseball for throwing at an opponent's head was added, the pitcher was done for the season.

The kerfuffle, a day after the club was eliminated from playoff contention, led to plenty of speculation about whether Papelbon - acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies in a July trade - would be back with the Nationals in 2016.

He is, of course, and while his teammates, including Harper, have said they see no reason to harbor negative feelings toward the reliever, fans already gave one small indication of their take.

At an exhibition game at Nationals Park last week, Papelbon entered for the ninth inning of a 4-3 victory over Minnesota. There was a mix of boos and cheers as he made his way toward the mound, and again when his name was introduced over the stadium loudspeakers.

While manager Dusty Baker insisted he didn't hear any negative reaction from spectators, he also urged Nationals fans to give Papelbon their support.

''We need him. We need him big time. And so we need to let bygones be bygones,'' Baker said. ''Things happen in baseball. The thing we have to realize is that he's on our side. So jeering him and getting on him is not going to help the situation. You want to come home and feel that home is where your heart is. So let's cheer him rather than jeer him.''

STARTING TIME

Nationals RHP Tanner Roark is scheduled to face Marlins LHP Adam Conley on Thursday. Roark split time between the rotation and bullpen last season, going 4-7 with a 4.38 ERA overall; 12 of his 40 appearances were starts. Conley went 4-1 with a 3.76 ERA in 2015 after making his major league debut in June.

HARPER AND 100

Entering Wednesday night's game at Atlanta, Harper was closing in on a pair of milestones: He began that game with 98 career homers and 98 career doubles.

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Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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