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Nats knock Kershaw out early, but drop Game 1 of NLDS vs. Dodgers

Nats knock Kershaw out early, but drop Game 1 of NLDS vs. Dodgers

Max Scherzer's fearless aggression on the mound is part of what places him among the absolute elite of his craft. He lives and dies by that never-back-down approach, a motto well-illustrated by the fact he led the majors in strikeouts this season, yet also topped the National League in home runs allowed. He prefers going right after those who step in the box to challenge him, knowing full well the danger of swimming in those waters.

That attitude, which has served him well so many times over the years, and so many times this year, was his downfall in the Nationals' 4-3 Game 1 loss to the Dodgers to begin the NL Division Series on Friday night in Washington. Scherzer got bit twice on first pitch strikes thrown right down the heart of the plate to dangerous hitters seeking just what he offered them.

Scherzer's first homer was on the initial pitch of the second at-bat of the game, as Dodgers rookie Corey Seager wasted no time making his presence felt with a towering shot to center field. Scherzer's second took place in the third inning, a two-run bomb launched by Justin Turner into the visitors bullpen in left. That made it 4-0 and spotted Clayton Kershaw a healthy early lead, one that he nearly let slip through his hands.

RELATED: Baker, Roberts on being first pair of opposing black managers in postseason

“I made some mistakes, and they cost me," Scherzer said. "Giving up those two home runs, I really feel like that was the difference in the ballgame. I take ownership of that, and I’m accountable for that.”

The Nationals chipped away, beginning with two runs in the third inning brought home on a single by Anthony Rendon. Bryce Harper sparked the rally with a one-out double, and Jayson Werth followed with a walk. The two then moved over on a double steal helped by a Kershaw ball in the dirt to set up Rendon's two-run knock. 

The rally was halted by a Danny Espinosa strikeout, as he went down swinging on a pitch thrown about a foot above the strike zone. Espinosa also whiffed to end the fifth inning with runners on the corners. The Nats shortstop struck out in each of his three at-bats and left six total men on base.

"His swing was long tonight," manager Dusty Baker said. "That's what's kind of frustrating when... he was swinging at balls out of the zone, and then balls in the zone he wasn't catching up to."

Washington got one more run in the fourth keyed by two rookies. Trea Turner sailed a sacrifice fly to center field to score Pedro Severino, who reached with a leadoff double and moved to third on a groundout by Scherzer. The Nats then cut the Dodgers' lead to one and upped Kershaw's pitch count to 83 through four.

One of the Nats' most enticing opportunities off Kershaw came in the bottom of the second when an error at second base by Chase Utley loaded the bases with two outs. The rally was started with singles by Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman, who had two on the night. It was Severino who smacked a grounder right to Utley and used his plus-speed — by catcher standards — to reach first. That brought up Scherzer, who worked a full count against Kershaw, only to pop out on a bloop flyball to shallow left field, a swing that came on a would-be ball four.

Scherzer made it six innings on 91 pitches with four total earned runs allowed. He was replaced by rookie Wilmer Difo, who pinch-hit as the first player summoned off the bench by Baker. Lefty Sammy Solis took over on the mound and got them through the top of the seventh. 

In the bottom half of that frame, Murphy drew a one-out walk but was thrown out attempting to steal second. Murphy was out of the starting lineup for the final 14 games of the regular season with a left buttock strain, yet he was given the go-ahead to steal in a big spot with the Nats down a run.

"I was surprised," Baker said, noting it was not a direct call from the dugout for him to run in that moment. "Our guys have a green light, if they think a guy is slow to the plate, which [Pedro] Baez is. I guess the leg felt better than I imagined."

"I thought he was slow enough for me to get, unfortunately he wasn't," Murphy said. "I can't get thrown out right there. It cost me an at-bat in the ninth inning as well, running into an out on the bases."

The Dodgers called on closer Kenley Jansen shortly thereafter hoping for a five-out save. He saw a host of pinch-hitters in the eighth, including Clint Robinson, who doubled with two outs. Chris Heisey, however, then struck out looking on a cutter that clipped the bottom edge of the zone. That out pushed the Nats to 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.

Jansen would then bat in a critical spot for the Dodgers, who loaded the bases with two outs in the top of the ninth off Nationals closer Mark Melancon. Melancon quickly got rid of his counterpart with a swinging strikeout. Jansen, however, then went out and shut the door by dispatching Turner, Harper and Werth in order. That finished off five straight scoreless innings for both teams.

"That's just baseball," Harper said. "A hit there or blooper there and it's a different outcome. You've got to tip your cap to how their bullpen threw and how they played. Sometimes that happens."

The Nats did some damage against Kershaw with three runs off eight hits and a walk. That qualifies as an off-night for the three-time Cy Young winner, who allowed more than two runs just twice in 21 starts during the regular season. They battled his pitch count to places he didn't want it to go, and Kershaw showed fatigue at times. The sellout crowd of 43,915 did their best to rattle him with chants of his name.

It wasn't Kershaw's best day, but Scherzer didn't have the stuff required to take advantage and because of that, the Nationals may have let the Dodgers off the hook in a game they know was winnable, a game that could foster regret as this series moves on.

RELATED: Does Clayton Kershaw get away with balks?

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Why Bryce Harper would be a bargain at $500 million

Why Bryce Harper would be a bargain at $500 million

$500 million.

That number is so hard to wrap your brain around, but it's a number a lot of professional baseball players may soon start seeing on their contracts.

One player who could be the first to see that amount within the next year is Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper.

Harper will become a free agent in 2018 and people are already projecting his market value at close to $500 million, if not more.

Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton signed a contract back in 2014 for 13 years, $325 million, holding the league record.

For Fancy Stats writer Neil Greenberg, $500 million is a bargain for someone of Harper's caliber.

"Harper is every bit as good [as Stanton] but he's also young," Greenberg told the Sports Junkies Friday.

"I mean, we don't see a player that's as good as Harper, that's as young a Harper, hit the market almost ever I want to say. You look at how many years of his prime he has left and then even if you start to give him just the typical aging curb off of that prime, he's probably worth close to 570 million dollars starting from 2019 and going forward ten years. And that includes also the price of free agency going up and other factors."

Harper, who is only 25 years-old, brings more to a team than just talent. He's one of the most recognizable figures in baseball, bringing tremendous marketing opportunities to an organization. Greenberg dove deeper into how that will increase his market value.

"And that's just for the on-the-field product. You talk about all the marketing that's done around Bryce Harper [and] what he does for the game. In my opinion, and based on the numbers that I saw, he's a bargain at $500 million."

Don't we all wish someone would say $500 million is a bargain for us?

After crunching the numbers, the biggest takeaway for Greenberg is the return on investment the Nationals have gotten out of Harper.

"Like if you look at his wins above replacement throughout his career, he's given you 200 million dollars in value for 21 million dollars in cash and he's due what another 26 or 27 million this year. I mean he's already given you an amazing return on investment."

"So, if you're the Nationals having - benefited from that - you know you have a little bit of, I guess, wiggle room in terms of maybe you're paying a little bit for past performance 'cause, you know, when a player is on arbitration in their early years they don't really get paid that much."

The Nationals still have Harper for one more season and many feel they need to make him an offer sooner than later. Whenever and whoever he gets an offer from, it's going to be a nice pay day for him.

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Nats' Max Scherzer wins second straight NL Cy Young Award

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Nats' Max Scherzer wins second straight NL Cy Young Award

Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals has coasted to his third Cy Young Award and second straight in the National League.

Scherzer breezed past Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, drawing 27 of the 30 first-place votes in balloting by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

The honor was announced Wednesday on MLB Network.

Scherzer earned the NL honor last year with Washington and the 2013 American League prize with Detroit. He became the 10th pitcher with at least three Cy Youngs.

RELATED: WIETERS WILL RETURN TO NATS IN 2018 

Scherzer was 16-6 with a 2.51 ERA and a league-leading 268 strikeouts for the NL East champion Nationals.

Kershaw has already won three NL Cy Youngs, and was the last pitcher to win back-to-back. He was 18-4 with a league-best 2.31 ERA and 202 strikeouts.

Corey Kluber of the Cleveland Indians easily won his second AL Cy Young Award earlier in the day. He got 28 of the 30 first-place votes, with Boston's Chris Sale second and Luis Severino of the New York Yankees third.

Kluber led the majors with a 2.25 ERA and his 18 wins tied for the most in baseball.