Nationals

Streaking Redskins need 1 more for NFC East title

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Streaking Redskins need 1 more for NFC East title

WASHINGTON (AP) It has something like the feel of 2005, when someone posted a sign that read ``Five in a row or we don't go!'' in the locker room.

The Washington Redskins, 5-6 at the time without much of an offense, then somehow rolled off five straight to claim a wild-card berth.

Or maybe it's more like 2007, when the Redskins dropped to 5-7 following a coaching blunder: Joe Gibbs' decision to call back-to-back timeouts, resulting in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That allowed the Buffalo Bills to move much closer to kick a winning field goal.

Nevertheless, riding a swell of emotion in the aftermath of the death of safety Sean Taylor, those Redskins took their next four and again claimed a spot in the playoffs - beating the Dallas Cowboys, of all teams, to finish the job.

But, really, 2012 is something else altogether.

These Redskins were 3-6 on Nov. 4. They had just lost what coach Mike Shanahan had proclaimed a ``must win'' against the Carolina Panthers, who entered the game 1-6.

And while Shanahan can massage it all he wants - and he's tried to, in many different ways - he clearly no longer had realistic postseason goals when he spoke after that game.

Shanahan said, among other things: ``You lose a game like that, now you're playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come.''

``He was having a moment of frustration,'' defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. ``But I think the whole team knows exactly where he stands, and where we stand is a testament to that.''

Shanahan clarified his remarks two days later, telling the players in the final meeting before the bye-week break that the playoffs remained a possibility. Still, even a veteran like Cofield couldn't envision, say, an NFC East title.

``I thought we needed to win the next game, but I definitely did not look that far in advance,'' Cofield said. ``It was too low of a moment to look and think we could win the division. We wanted to win as many games as possible and hopefully sneak into the playoffs. It was a low point for us. The bye came at a perfect time. We came back and were energized.''

So, as it turned out, that Panthers game wasn't a must win. But every game since then has been.

Six victories later, the Redskins (9-6) are definitely not a team playing ``for years to come,'' as the coach put it that November day. They're playing for this year's division championship, attempting to become the first team since the 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars to rally from 3-6 to the playoffs.

What a sight it will be, therefore, when the Redskins and Cowboys (8-7) meet Sunday night, a game flexed to prime time to mark the end of the NFL's regular season.

The winner takes the NFC East. Dallas will be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss. Washington can lose and still get a wild-card spot, but only if the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings lose earlier in the day.

``It is two great franchises playing hard to beat one another, and that is good stuff,'' Redskins tight end Chris Cooley said.

Shanahan said he will tell his players that it will be a game they'll remember for the rest of their lives. The fact they've been playing on the brink for a month and a half should have them well prepared.

``I think they get used to the pressure,'' the coach said Monday. ``Over the last six weeks, they knew every game was do-or-die, and they're used to that scenario.''

The Redskins turned it around by following the leadership of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. His demeanor has lifted the entire franchise and he showed in Sunday's 27-20 win over the Philadelphia Eagles he can win even when he's not as much of a running threat because of a sprained right knee.

There's also rookie running back Alfred Morris, whose 1,413 yards puts him within range of Clinton Portis' franchise record of 1,516. And midseason pickup placekicker Kai Forbath, who had a game ball shipped to the Hall of Fame on Monday after breaking the record for most consecutive field goals to start an NFL career.

The Redskins are no longer the most penalized team in the league - they committed only three against the Eagles - and a defense once on pace to break the NFL record for yards allowed through the air is getting sacks and forcing turnovers.

Washington has exorcised several demons this year. It ended an eight-game losing streak against rookie quarterbacks; a 10-game home losing streak on Monday nights; an 0 for 6 futility against the Cowboys in Thanksgiving games; and a four-year hold on last place in the division.

Now they can clinch their first division title since 1999.

``Everything we've been working for comes back to this weekend, taking advantage of what we've done over the last six weeks,'' Shanahan said. ``It really doesn't mean anything unless we take advantage of our game versus Dallas.''

Notes: S DeJon Gomes has a second degree sprain of the MCL in left knee, which could leave the secondary more short-handed than usual for the regular season finale. ... The coaching staff worked extra hours Friday and Saturday nights to get a head start on the Cowboys game plan, allowing the coaches to have Christmas Eve dinner with their families and arrive later for work than usual on Christmas Day.

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Bryce Harper's 2018 Home Run Derby win by the numbers

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USA Today Sports

Bryce Harper's 2018 Home Run Derby win by the numbers

Bryce Harper is the 2018 Home Run Derby champion.

In his home ballpark, Harper put on a show Washington won't soon forget.

He ran through a division foe in the first round in Freddie Freeman, took out a strong, hefty lefty in the semifinals in Max Muncy and then hit nine home runs in 47 seconds in the final minute of the final round when it seemed like he had no chance. On the second swing of his 30 seconds of extra time, Harper launched a bomb to deep center field to win.

And while winning the Home Run Derby in his own ballpark is an impressive feat on its own, the numbers behind his victory make it all the more impressive.

3.

He is just the third hometown winner of the Home Run Derby in the history of the event. Todd Frazier did it most recently in 2016 in Cincinnati, and Ryne Sandberg won at Wrigley Field in Chicago in 1990.

13.

Harper won each of the first two rounds with 13 homers. He didn't need his full time in either of the first two rounds.

446 & 441.

Harper's first two home runs of his first-round matchup against Freeman traveled farther than any of the Braves' superstar's dingers.


10.

In the semifinals, Harper only hit three homers in the first minute, but then blasted 10 in his next 11 swings. That's called efficiency.


5.

In the first round, Harper hit five of the 10 longest home runs of anybody in the field.


45.

Harper hit 45 bombs en route to claiming the title. Here's a visual representation of all of them.

That's also how many dollars cheaper Nats tickets will be... oops!


2.

That's John Wall's number and this is him celebrating his fellow D.C. sports superstar's victory.


19,058.

Bryce Harper hit an absurd 19,058 feet of home runs during the 2018 Home Run Derby. That's more than the 5k you ran last year.

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With All-Star Game in Washington, Bryce Harper looks back on baseball life, ahead to uncertain future

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USA Today Sports Images

With All-Star Game in Washington, Bryce Harper looks back on baseball life, ahead to uncertain future

It's quite possible that, despite nearly a decade of being in the spotlight, gracing the cover of magazines and operating as a transcendent star in the sport of baseball, Bryce Harper's attention-drawing powers reached their apex this week in Washington as the 2018 All-Star Game took center stage at Nationals Park.

Harper has played in plenty showcase games before, he's participated in the Home Run Derby, he was the first overall pick in 2010. But this time the Midsummer Classic is in his professional baseball hometown and he is the primary ambassador for both the team and league. 

Oh, and this is also a pretty big year for his future. The 25-year-old is just months away from being one of the most sought after free agents in the history of the sport and perhaps soon the highest paid.

Harper took it all in stride on Monday as he held court in a club level ballroom at Nationals Park on South Capitol St. He knew the questions about his future were coming and he had answers for every single one of them.

Some of those questions included:

Do you ever have guys on other teams try to recruit you?

Has it ever crossed your mind how odd it would be to play somewhere else?

Do you have a relationship with [Yankees star] Aaron Judge?

One reporter didn't even finish his question before Harper sniffed it out.

When you shaved your beard [on June 19]... 

Harper: ..."it was because the Yankees were in town, right. You got it," he said sarcastically. "My beard was getting too long. My wife wanted me to trim it and it was a good idea."

Harper has by most accounts become closed off in recent years. His personality has been withdrawn. He famously began his first spring training press conference earlier this year with a written statement and a warning that any questions about his free agent future would result in him walking out of the room.

At least for a day, Harper was his old and congenial self. Though, he did explain why his personality has changed with the media in recent years.

"I think I've gotten older. I'm not going to say the same things at 16 that I do at 25," he said. "There were things that people did in college that they don't want people to know about. There are things that I've said in the media at 16 or 17 that I guess I was real about. I can't take them back and I don't want to."

Harper has been able to operate throughout the first half of the season while saying very little of substance to the media. The fact his batting average has dipped to just .214 has given him extra reason to put up walls.

As Harper addressed the media, he didn't offer any trademark one-liners, but he did get introspective about his life as a baseball player and his role as the face of the Washington Nationals.

He spoke glowingly about the franchise and the city, about how much he enjoys seeing the same faces every day, from his teammates to those in the front office to stadium employees and security guards. He shared his appreciation for the fans and area kids who look up to him.

The All-Star Game taking place in D.C. offered Harper a chance to reminisce. As Harper looked ahead to the Home Run Derby, he rattled off the most memorable homers he has seen at Nationals Park. 

He mentioned Jayson Werth's walkoff homer in Game 4 of the 2012 NL Division Series. He brought up the time Michael Morse hit one to the top of the Red Porch in left-center and the many times Adam Dunn cleared the third deck in right field.

Harper was asked about his the pressure of playing host and the duress of struggling in a contract year. He told a story from his days at the College of Southern Nevada that put it all into perspective.

"I got absolutely dominated for two weeks prior to our season opening before fall ball. I'm sitting there at 16 years old, I just got back from Team USA," he recalled.

"I got punched out like nine or 10 times in probably a matter of about 12 at-bats against my own team... I sat down and was like 'you know what, I don't want to do this. I want to go back to high school. I want to enjoy those moments and do that.' But I knew that I couldn't do that. I sat down and they said 'you can't come back, you tested out.' I said 'okay, you've gotta cowboy up.' I needed to do what I needed to do. A week later, we started our fall ball season and I went deep in my first at-bat at Cashman Field. The rest is history, I guess you could say."

If Harper had indeed been able to go back to high school, his draft status would have changed. He never would have been drafted first overall by the Nationals in 2010.

Harper feels the pressure of playing in junior college ball with his draft status on the line, playing against guys who were four or five years older than him, was the toughest thing he has done in baseball. It prepared him for all of these moments, just like the media scrutiny did over the years.

"It was only what, [eight] years ago? It's those moments that make you who you are," he said. "I'm 25 years and old and I play this game of baseball every day. What pressure do I have to feel?... It's the game that I love to play. I'm getting chills [right now]. There's nothing greater than running out there wearing No. 34 and being Bryce Harper and loving the game that I play."

Harper remained patient and upbeat for the over 30 minutes that he addressed the media. He was soaking it all in and trying to embrace the attention he was receiving.

But it was one of those questions from above that provided a dose of reality to set in. When asked if it would be strange to play for another team, he reminded the reporters present of what could very well happen this winter.

"It's always a possibility [I leave]. I think that everybody knew that at the beginning of the year, that this could possibly be my last year in D.C. Everybody knows that. There's no elephant in the room. Everybody knows that it's a possibility, but I'm not really focused on that," he said.

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