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Victor Robles' first home run give Nationals fans something to be happy about in September

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Victor Robles' first home run give Nationals fans something to be happy about in September

There is not much to get excited about these days if you are a fan of the Washington Nationals.

The team is still a week's worth of games out of a postseason spot and the sinking feeling that arises when one thinks of Bryce Harper's future looms larger and larger with every passing day.

But what should get one excited is this home run hit by Victor Robles against the Miami Marlins in an 8-5 loss on Monday evening.

Sending out the first dinger of his Major League career, Robles made sure there was no doubt. Recorded at 427 feet, it was quite the showing for the 21-year-old in only the 23rd game of his young career.

Early in September, in the midst of a stretch that officially pushed the team out of playoff contention, Robles was called up to the Nationals for the first time in 2018. Monday marked the fifth start for the outfielder since joining the top club.  

A highly touted prospect from the Nationals' farm system, Robles has struggled since the call-up. He's only batted .150 in this two week period and .205 in two seasons with the Nats. This home run shows why there is so much excitement from the Nationals when it comes to Robles.

Joining Rookie of the Year contender Juan Soto, the future of the Nationals appears bright. *If* Harper were to leave this summer, the Nats appear to be somewhat set in the outfield. 

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Pressure and patience key words upon Juan Soto's arrival at spring training

Pressure and patience key words upon Juan Soto's arrival at spring training

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Two ideas are percolating around Juan Soto this spring: pressure and patience.

There was none of the former last season. Howie Kendrick’s torn Achilles tendon opened a chance for Soto to come to the major leagues. Mike Rizzo’s surprise call -- even folks overseeing the minor-league system were startled by the choice -- was also necessary for Soto to be tossed into left field.

If the 19-year-old floundered, so be it. His discipline at the plate earned him a shot. Soto could easily be sent back down if he was not ready. No pressure.

His patience became the baseline for his evolving into a phenomenon. At the plate, in the outfield, with the work and tedium of a full baseball season. Soto kept working when he dipped in August relative to his other months. He “took” his walks throughout the season. His discipline was uncommon and resonated more because of his age.

He’s famous now, asked for autographs during a tour of Japan and recognized at home in the Dominican Republic. Soto arrived at big-league camp for the first time Monday. His plush locker is next to Victor Robles. Anything that has jumped out since walking into the major-league side of the operation in West Palm Beach?

“It's really good to see what a nice clubhouse here,” Soto said with a smile.

Soto said he feels no pressure to replicate the rocket ride of his first year. He didn’t just come from the minors. He rose from low-A ball to the major leagues, where he finished second in National League Rookie of the Year voting.

Martinez already spoke to him about not thinking about numbers. The emphases for Martinez are to repeat last year, but not in a numerical sense. More so in the thirst to learn and daily amusement that should accompany playing this game as a 20-year-old.

“For me, it’s keeping him grounded,” Martinez said. “The biggest thing for me is not to try to do more. Just go out there. He’s really good at taking his walks. And just playing the game. I want him to continue having fun and just play the game. I told him: Don’t put any numbers in your head. Just go out there and have fun like you did last year. Just play the game.”

A few feet from Soto’s new locker is Howie Kendrick. He’s entering his age-36 season and 14th year in the majors. Nine of those years were spent with the Anaheim Angels. Four were alongside Mike Trout. All of this makes Kendrick a good resource for assessment, and he voluntarily made the comparison.

“He’s happy, loves the game,” Kendrick said. “He goes 0-for-4, he’s, ‘no big deal’ and right back at it. I played with another guy that was just like that and his name was Mike Trout. The guy came in and would play the game, wanted to win every day and just had a great attitude every single day. And I see a lot of those same similarities in Juan coming in every day, playing the game, plays it at a high level. Not quite as speedy as Mike Trout but he does a lot of similar things that Mike does and hopefully he’ll continue his success into the season and…show us what type of player he’s really going to continue to be.”

Improving his defense remains a priority for Soto. The Nationals placed him in left field last season out of need. He had played five games at that spot in the minor leagues prior. He improved, continued to work on outfield drills during the offseason, and comes to Florida focused on that aspect.

Martinez has also publicly taken a bit of a defensive stance about one Soto-related item: The Soto Shuffle. Players pinned a nickname on Soto’s tendency to swipe the dirt away in the batter’s box after he takes a ball. Martinez argues it’s Soto’s way of resetting and being in the moment. It’s also caught the attention of opponents and veterans who like to dip into the unwritten rules when determining whether someone is “showing up” the pitcher.

“We talk a lot about it,” Martinez said. “But they’ve got to understand it’s his way of keeping engaged in the at-bat and getting to the next pitch. That’s all it is. He’s not showing anybody up. We talked to him about it. We also told him: Look, every now and then, I know you get in the moment and you don’t realize you do it, but just back it down a little bit.”

So, the spring training formula for Soto is be the same. More or less. Then let everything else take care of itself.

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MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred uses appearance to fire back at players’ association

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MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred uses appearance to fire back at players’ association

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Gone the first week of spring training is the Smurfs and rainbows vibe. The usual light-hearted feel conjured by first sounds of gloves and bats, the initial regathering of the scattered, has been replaced by acrimony and jabs.

Player after player has taken shots in the media about this offseason’s free agency grind. What was expected to be a star-laden moment for Major League Baseball has been replaced by disdain. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned. The whole process feels like dragging an anvil through the desert by your teeth.

And players have not been modest about their irritation. Nationals closer Sean Doolittle spent the offseason on Twitter decrying the situation. He’s continued to do so in-person and via social media since arriving in Florida. Max Scherzer delivered expansive thoughts when asked. Ryan Zimmerman said Sunday, “I don't think it takes a genius to see that something is going on.”

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred used Sunday afternoon to fire back. In front of a small crowd of reporters and intrigued handful of coaches and general managers, Manfred stepped to a podium at the West Palm Beach Hilton and began to swing.

“There are 11 players who had a WAR above 1 last year that are unsigned,” Manfred said. “I believe, just like last year, that market is going to clear at some point here in the next few weeks. Those players are going to be signed. Do I wish, if I had my way, that Scott Boras would find a way, or Dan Lozano, or whoever, whatever agent, would find a way to make a deal with some club sooner rather than late? Yes, I do. But, we negotiated a system that allows the market to operate and I have every confidence that those players that I just described, that market is going to clear before we get to playing real games.”

Tanking, free agency and pitch clocks were the main concerns of Manfred’s press conference. He said the pitch clock would be tested in the spring. It’s of little consequence. What matters is all the pre-loaded ammo Manfred brought to beat back the public claims of the players, while simultaneously pushing the issue onto the union and, in part, media.

Watching Manfred were the old and the new in baseball. Tony La Russa, 74, relaxed at his assigned seat from the earlier media scrum on what baseball called, “Spring Training Media Day” for the Grapefruit League. Thirty-something club executives, including Baltimore’s Mike Elias, turned to listen in. Former players who are now managers -- Don Mattingly and Davey Martinez -- pivoted from their spots.

What they heard was Manfred taking shots at the union. They saw and heard him sigh when asked about teams perceived to be not trying. Manfred laughed, poked a reporter for sticking to the topic of free agency, and generally tried to recover a narrative slipping through baseball’s control. He threw a body blow when a reporter suggested the players, based on their comments, would be open to radical changes in the next collective bargaining agreement.

“Look, let me say a couple things: You seem to have more information than I do, which is, um…somewhat surprising,” Manfred said, then tried to laugh it off. “I went to [MLBPA executive director] Tony [Clark] a year ago. A matter of fact, a year ago this week. I told him in an effort to try and diffuse some of the negativity he had started in the public with, that we’re prepared to talk to him about whatever he wanted to talk about in an effort to get our labor relations in a more positive spot.

“Look, we can live with the basic agreement we negotiated. I’ve negotiated some not-so-good ones. I’ve negotiated some good ones. In each and every one of them, to the owner’s credit, they were prepared to live with those deals. And we’re prepared to live with the deal we have now. Despite that fact, we went and offered Tony the opportunity to have dialogue. I have had no response to that offer. So, what you’re talking about in terms of what they’d like to do is kind of news to me.”

Manfred countered suggestions of tanking by saying payroll was not a good measure of an organization’s overall effort to win -- which is a strange sentiment for a league with a competitive balance tax. He took another shot at Clark by referencing a statement from March of last year in which Clark claimed a third of the league was not trying to win. The MLBPA had filed a grievance against the Pirates, Marlins, Athletics, and Rays for not complying with spending rules outlined in the CBA. Those teams averaged 83 wins last season. Oakland (97) and Tampa Bay (90) were two of 11 MLB teams to win 90 or more games.

“He did very poorly with those four teams,” Manfred said. “...Our teams are trying.”

Despite multiple succinct jabs at Clark, Manfred later said there is no acrimony between the two. Of note here: Manfred is a lifelong lawyer with a degree in labor law negotiations.

When he pivoted to the media without saying the word, Manfred mentioned the idea of a $400 million player being floated years in advance of his free agency. He did not name who this mystery player could possibly be. Manfred tacked on in his reasoning for the malaise by saying MLB’s free agent system is entirely different than that of the NFL or NBA, called it “bi-lateral,” and said he “hates” the negativity around the game’s current and future state.

What he didn’t do was deliver statements to quell those concerns. Instead, he swung back at the MLBPA during 30 minutes of finger pointing, further embedding the idea 2021 is en route to a troubling situation.

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