Nationals

Henley leads and breaks a record in PGA Tour debut

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Henley leads and breaks a record in PGA Tour debut

HONOLULU (AP) Russell Henley still remembers the celebration, even though the party had been in the works for more than a month. His family was with him when he finished the Web.com Tour season at No. 3 on the money list to earn a spot in the big leagues.

``It was just kind of like, `Wow! I just got my PGA Tour card.' You hope eventually one day you'll make it out here,'' Henley said Friday.

He showed up at the Sony Open for his rookie debut without any expectations except to play the same way he did on the Web.com Tour, where he won three times in two years, one of them while still in school at Georgia. His goal was to use this year to learn and improve.

And after two days?

Wow!

Henley opened with a 7-under 63, one shot behind fellow rookie and good friend Scott Langley. He followed that Friday with seven birdies, no bogeys and another 63. That not only gave him a two-shot lead over Langley and Scott Piercy, it gave Henley the 36-hole scoring record at the Sony Open with a 14-under 126.

Not bad for his second day on the job.

The last rookie to win his PGA Tour debut was Garrett Willis at the Tucson Open in 2001, played that year opposite the winners-only Mercedes Championships at Kapalua. The Sony Open is far different - the first full-field of the PGA Tour season, which included five Ryder Cup players from Medinah.

The tournament is only at the halfway point, but the rookies are taking over, even if most of the players don't know who they are.

``It's Russell something and Langley? I think Russell won when he was in college, right?'' Piercy said. ``Hey, they're playing well. I think I played in five final groups as a rookie and didn't come through. There's a learning curve. But maybe their curve is quicker than mine.''

The first tournament can be an awkward time for the rookies. They don't know a lot of the older players. Henley, for example, went into the dining room earlier this week and saw an older player sitting by himself. He didn't join him because he simply didn't know his habits - maybe he preferred eating by himself. This is not a time to make introductions, rather to sit back and soak it all in.

On the golf course, it's a different story.

It helped that Henley and Langley played in the same group for the first two days. There's a comfort level, and it showed. They became fast friends after sharing low amateur honors at Pebble Beach in the 2010 U.S. Open, and then sitting next to each other on the long flight to Royal Portrush for the Palmer Cup.

Langley opened with a 62 and followed that with a 66, the kind of score that usually keeps someone in the lead. This time, he was two shots behind, and he's lucky it wasn't more. Henley kept making birdies, and Langley was four shots back at one point until he made birdies on his last three holes.

``It's never easy to back up a really good round, I kind of got off to a little slower start,'' Langley said. ``But it was certainly nice to finish the way I did and kind of get back in it with Russ. He played so well, and I was just trying to keep pace as much as I can. To finish that way was really good.''

Piercy played in the afternoon and made eagle on the 18th hole at the turn as he tried to catch up to Henley, only to get slowed on his back nine. He had to settle for a 64 and will join the kids in the final group Saturday.

Matt Kuchar made eagle on his last hole for a 63 and was another shot behind at 11-under 129. Chris Kirk had the low round Friday at 62 and was in the group at 130 that included Tim Clark (66) and Charles Howell III (64).

That the scores were low - six players had a 63 or better Friday - was no surprise. Oahu hasn't received much rain over the last several months, and in tropical sunshine, the fairways were running fast and the greens were pure. And for those coming over from a windy week on Maui, it truly felt like paradise.

``Coming from last week, it feels really easy out there,'' Kuchar said. ``This course, as simple as it seems, it's one of the tougher courses on tour. If you're not playing well, you're going to make some bogeys. ... I understand the wind is supposed to really die down over the weekend, so I certainly expect low scoring. The course is in great shape, greens are beautiful, so there's going to be a lot more birdies and foot has definitely got to be down on the pedal.''

Dustin Johnson won't get a chance to match Ernie Els as the only players to sweep the two Hawaii events. Johnson, who won last week at Kapalua, withdrew after playing nine holes because of the flu.

``I feel like I'm coming down with whatever my caddie's got,'' said Johnson, who was 3 over at the turn. ``Just not feeling well. Stomach hurts, headache, tired.''

Pat Perez, equipped with a new attitude, had a 63 and was five shots behind.

Perez has decided to abandon his Twitter account because of all the comments he reads, instead promoting his Facebook account. His goal is to have fun on Facebook by poking fun at adages and cliches.

``For example, when people say they're on cloud nine. What's cloud nine? There is no such thing,'' Perez said.

Try telling that to Henley or Langley.

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Phillies’ manager Gabe Kapler says he’s ‘fascinated’ by Bryce Harper

Phillies’ manager Gabe Kapler says he’s ‘fascinated’ by Bryce Harper

LAS VEGAS -- Gabe Kapler commanded his nondescript, off-brown chair during his media session Monday at the Winter Meetings. He wore a black leather jacket, presumably the only MLB manager sporting such a look, spoke firmly and with projection when going over what went right, wrong and is to come for his Philadelphia Phillies.

The first question posed to Kapler was about...Manny Machado. Soon enough, Bryce Harper came up. Kapler said Harper “might be the best player in baseball” in September. Monday, he lauded a player his organization is rumored to be in hot pursuit of.

“I think -- in my opinion, Bryce Harper does a number of things well, but one of the things I found most fascinating about him last year was even through the times of his struggles, he still worked an incredible at-bat,” Kapler said. “So it wasn't like rolling over to the second baseman on the first pitch when he was struggling, although that happened from time to time. But when he struggled he still put together a quality at-bat. He still worked the pitcher. He still made the opposition uncomfortable. And sometimes he'd end that at-bat with a walk, which I think there's a lot of value in that."

“Now, when he's going good, he's one of the more difficult players to get out in the game. And I love the way he plays. I think there's so much to like about what Bryce Harper brings to the table.”

Kapler’s laudatory comments are not a surprise. And, Harper does appear an on-field fit in Philadelphia after their recent trade with Seattle which extracted Carlos Santana from first base, enabling Rhys Hoskins to move there from the outfield, where the Phillies played him out of necessity last season. That opens an outfield spot. Harper could easily slide in there.

Harper also makes sense in the Philadelphia lineup. He would pair nicely in front of or behind the right-handed Hoskins. Kapler said his initial thought is to hit Jean Segura second, Odubel Herrera third and Hoskins fourth. For all the progress they made last year, the Phillies still finished just 11th in National League OPS. They were 14th in OPS among right fielders. The No. 1 right field OPS in the National League last season? The Washington Nationals.

Miami in a vice

The Nationals and Phillies are sorting out their free agent plans with marquee players on the market. Atlanta won the division, added Josh Donaldson and has moves ahead. The Mets acquired Robinson Cano and closer Edwin Diaz. They are expected to do more in order to beef up their team as opposed to break it apart.

Then, there are the Marlins. Things are bad in Miami. They are set to remain so in 2019.

Monday, Marlins manager Don Mattingly, who is in the final year of his contract, was asked if he could definitively name a starting position player for 2019 outside of Starlin Castro at second base. He couldn’t.

“We knew it was going to be a tough year, but we needed to take steps forward,” Mattingly said.  “You see what's going on in the division, what's happening with all the other teams."

“And it's not going to get easier with the teams in our division. So it's hard to say anybody definitely in one spot. But I think our thought process is just continue, you gotta get better. And I think that's what [Michael Hill] has talked about, it's what Derek [Jeter] has talked about.”

Mattingly said he thinks catcher J.T. Realmuto, the team’s best player, is handling all the trade rumors about him well. Beyond Realmuto, the conversation centered on the bushel of prospects and young players Miami will be rolling onto the field in 2019.

Miami won 63 games last season. It finished 26 ½ games out of first place. Its best player will probably be gone by Opening Day. Other than that, everything is going well.

Baines, Smith ready for the Hall

Harold Baines and Lee Smith were surprise guests Monday at the Winter Meetings. Maybe not so much Smith, but certainly Baines.

Both were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday by the Today’s Game Era Committee, a 16-person panel not associated with the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, which also votes on Hall of Fame candidacy.

Baines piled solid numbers during a 22-year career. However, he never come close to inclusion by the writers. His chances changed once his candidacy was presented to the committee, which included Jerry Reinsdorf, who owns the Chicago White Sox. Baines played 14 of his 22 seasons for the White Sox.

Smith delivered 478 saves in his 18 seasons.

Both selections rankled the baseball community, to a degree. They also had a positive impact for players like Edgar Martinez, who are struggling to be voted in by the writers, but could find a more congenial path with the committee based on these two selections.

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Mike Rizzo left to clarify mixed messages on Harper

Mike Rizzo left to clarify mixed messages on Harper

LAS VEGAS -- Sixty stories above the street, Mike Rizzo was asked to clarify once more what the organization’s stance on Bryce Harper is.

The reason Rizzo is going through this again was born last Friday when Nationals managing principal owner Mark Lerner declared the team all but out on Harper. At the time, Rizzo was a few feet away saying the Nationals hadn’t determined anything. The door remained open. An initial offer was made, the organization would go from there. 

That sounded like a common-sense strategy. Offer a low, but respectable, deal. Let the sides work on other things. Circle back to an agent and player the organization has significant ties to.

Instead, Lerner’s comments made the pursuit sound concluded. The Nationals had done the best they could, he said. Other teams would present more cash, piles the Nationals could not -- or at least would not -- match. This was counter to Rizzo’s open stance.

Which is why Monday, Rizzo was trying to merge the sentiments and navigate back to a better place of public understanding.

“I didn’t make much of it,” Rizzo said of Lerner’s comments. “Mark was asked to speculate about Harp’s future and, the one thing I have learned doing this for a long time, I don’t speculate about free agents, where they are going, how much they’re getting. It’s just too difficult because there’s so many factors involved.

“Nothing’s changed with Harp since the end of the season except I think we’re a better team than we were at the end of the season. But we’re not closing the door on anything.”

Rizzo added they do not have a meeting in Las Vegas scheduled with Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, or Harper himself. So, there’s that, too.

The general view of Washington’s handling of Harper has been positive. He was thankful for his treatment since arriving as a 19-year-old comet. Rizzo defended him at all turns. The support moved into the offseason, during which Rizzo has said positive things about Harper to anyone who asked. He’s not playing semantics in that department, using his statements to negotiate or twist what may occur. He told NBC Sports Washington last week their relationship is one of “open dialogue” from both sides. Rizzo has backed Harper in all ways.

Hence, things were smooth. Until last week when Lerner’s comments emerged. They present layers of questions and complications. 

Here’s what the Nationals knew in July, if not sooner: Harper was going to become a free agent. Gio Gonzalez would not be back, leaving a hole for a left-handed starting pitcher in the rotation. Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel would become the prime candidates to fill that spot. They would cost at least $100 million each. And, apparently, the organization’s max offer to Harper would be $300 million, one he would never accept. All this was clear.

So, why was he still here? 

The Nationals reportedly pulled back a mid-summer trade on the table at Lerner’s behest. Five months later, he would also say publicly -- we’ll get to the oddity of that decision in a minute -- the Nationals made their best offer to Harper. Which means he knew around the trade deadline Harper was not coming back via a too-low offer, yet kept him around anyway. That doesn’t add up. Not soundly, at least.

Maybe what Lerner said was part smoke. He wanted to make it appear the Nationals were fading away from Harper. That process was long anticipated for several reasons. Not the least of which is the glut of talented outfielders and more than half-a-billion dollars dedicated to the top three in the rotation.

But there’s no reason to say that in public. It’s a competitive disadvantage at a minimum. Rizzo’s framing allowed the Phillies to think the Nationals could still be around. Similar comments from ownership, which would ultimately make the decision, could supplement that idea. Pushing the price on Philadelphia may not have a direct result now. However, it could eventually kick it beyond the competitive balance tax in the future. It could complicate dealings with the next uber free agent, like Mike Trout or Mookie Betts. It at least doesn’t ease the situation. Seeds of doubt count as a pound of flesh when tussling with a division rival.

Instead, on a day the New York Yankees publicly backed away, when it appears Harper’s options are dwindling, the Nationals were forced to recycle a general sentiment in order to unwind ownership comments from three days prior.

They’re open, Rizzo said. And he seems to mean it. The question is if his owner does, too.

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