Marlins-Nationals Preview

(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.

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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 Philadelphia 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.''

Baker's team opened the season with a pair of late-inning victories in Atlanta.

Two days after a 4-3 10-inning win, pinch-hitter Matt den Dekker provided a two-run double in a three-run seventh in Wednesday's 3-1 victory. Den Dekker arrived at Turner Field in the fifth inning after being recalled earlier in the day to replace center fielder Ben Revere, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right oblique.

The Marlins opened 2016 being swept in a two-game home series to Detroit.

Reigning NL batting champ Dee Gordon is off to a fast start, though, going 6 for 11. Giancarlo Stanton is 2 for 8 with a homer and struck out with the bases loaded to end Wednesday's 7-3 loss.

Although the Marlins lost seven of 10 in the nation's capital last season, Gordon and Stanton are looking forward to playing there.

Gordon has hit safely in 12 consecutive games at Nationals Park and Stanton has 15 homers in 38 contests there, his most in any visiting park.

Harper has also enjoyed batting in this series, belting seven homers and posting a 1.161 OPS against Miami last season.

Harper and his teammates have faced starter Adam Conley once previously, with the left-hander allowing three runs in five-plus innings to win at Nationals Park on Aug. 28.

Conley went 4-1 with a 3.76 ERA in 2015 after making his major league debut in June, and had a 1.86 ERA in three spring starts, though only went longer than three innings once.

"To be quite honest with you, I'm looking forward to watching him pitch," Don Mattingly told

The Nationals counter with Tanner Roark, who split time between the rotation and bullpen last season, going 4-7 with a 4.38 ERA overall. He had a 7.45 ERA in losing both of his starts against Miami.

The right-hander started four of his five spring training games, posting a 2.00 ERA with 17 strikeouts to three walks over 18 innings.