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WASHINGTON D.C. (CBSMiami/SportsDirect) – Two teams hoping to compete for the National League East crown will open their seasons with a key divisional matchup.

The window of opportunity remains open for the Washington Nationals as they begin the 2017 season at home Monday against the Miami Marlins, but the expectations are heavy for a team that won the NL East but failed again to win a playoff series.

The key will be for the team’s top two starters – Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg – to stay healthy, and for Bryce Harper to rebound after a disappointing 2016.

Harper followed up his 2015 MVP campaign (.330, 42 homers) by hitting .243 with 24 homers – including a .226 average with only five homers in his final 61 games.

Miami endured tremendous tragedy late last season with the sudden death of star pitcher and emotional leader Jose Fernandez, and a 13-25 stretch from late July through early September extended the NL’s longest postseason drought to 13 years.

The Marlins have one of baseball’s better outfields with emerging star Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and slugger Giancarlo Stanton.

Keeping Stanton healthy – he missed 131 games the past two years – is critical given the Marlins have question marks in their starting rotation.

TV: 1:05 p.m. ET, FSN Florida (Miami), MASN, WUSA (Washington)

PITCHING MATCHUP: Marlins RH Edinson Volquez (2016: 10-11, 5.37 ERA) vs. Nationals RH Stephen Strasburg (2016: 15-4, 3.60)

Volquez led the American League in earned runs allowed (113) during an uneven season with Kansas City, during which the 33-year-old’s ERA rose nearly two runs a game.

He really struggled in the second half, posting a 6.12 ERA in 15 starts with a .317 opponents’ batting average and a 1.76 WHIP.

Volquez, who gave up two runs in 7 2/3 innings with seven strikeouts in a loss to the Nationals on May 2 last year, finished spring training with a 3.77 ERA in 14 1/3 innings.

Nobody debates Strasburg’s stuff – adding a slider in 2016 resulted in an All-Star selection and a 13-0 start to his season – but health once again short-circuited his season.

An elbow injury limited the 28-year-old to 2 1/3 innings after Aug. 17 and sidelined Strasburg for the postseason.

He went 1-2 in five spring training starts, posting a 6.61 ERA with 14 strikeouts in 16 1/3 innings in advance of his fourth career opening-day start.

WALK-OFFS

  1. Miami closer Brad Ziegler recorded 22 saves with a 2.25 ERA with Arizona and Boston last season.
  2. Washington CF Adam Eaton, acquired in a blockbuster trade with the White Sox at the winter meetings, posted a .362 on-base percentage last season while Nationals center fielders combined for a .304 mark.
  3. The Nationals have a chance to get off to a hot start, given they play nine of their first 12 games at home, where they finished 50-31 a season ago.

[graphiq id=”3Iz6tfpcM3r” title=”Miami Marlins 2016 Payroll by Position Group” width=”600″ height=”495″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/3Iz6tfpcM3r” link=”https://www.graphiq.com/vlp/3Iz6tfpcM3r” link_text=”PointAfter | Graphiq” ]

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. Sports Direct Inc. contributed to this report.)

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