Nationals

UCLA hosts USC with Pac-12 South title on line

UCLA hosts USC with Pac-12 South title on line

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) Although UCLA isn't exactly grateful for its humiliating 50-0 loss to Southern California last year, the Bruins are awfully eager to show the Trojans how they've grown since then.

After their biggest loss to their Los Angeles rivals since 1930, the Bruins began an impressive revitalization that has left UCLA improbably looking down on the Trojans heading into Saturday's rematch. For the first time in more than a decade, No. 17 UCLA (8-2, 5-2 Pac-12) has more victories and a higher ranking than No. 21 USC (7-3, 5-3) heading into their annual meeting.

UCLA coach Jim Mora wasn't around last year, and he won't have his players thinking about how low they dropped - not when they've got a chance to reach new heights by ending a five-game skid against USC.

``Honestly, I've totally forgotten last year,'' UCLA linebacker Dalton Hilliard said. ``Everything has changed. We're a totally different team now. Being a competitor, you have to swallow your pride and get back to work on this year, this game.''

The teams are meeting for a prize much more interesting than the Victory Bell: The winner represents the Pac-12 South in the league championship game in two weeks. The Bruins got that honor last year despite their thrashing from postseason-banned USC, which finished two games ahead of UCLA in the division standings.

Revenge, redemption, dominance, postseason glory: Every hackneyed element is in place for a memorable edition of the crosstown showdown. While students and alumni debate the meeting's place in history - or the appropriateness of USC's drum major driving a sword into the Rose Bowl turf, a traditional move that's been nixed this year - the players on both sides are focused on Saturday's more tangible stakes.

``Most guys grew up knowing the tradition between the two schools, and we knew a lot of those guys over there growing up,'' said USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who has never lost to UCLA. ``We're so close in distance that it's bound to happen, but you can't let anybody distract you from your job and what you have to do for your teammates.''

Led by freshman quarterback Brett Hundley, the Bruins are rolling into the Rose Bowl after four straight wins. Mora has revitalized UCLA football to a degree that was tough to imagine immediately after last season's 50-0 defeat, which cost Rick Neuheisel his job two days later.

USC coach Lane Kiffin isn't enjoying this season nearly as much. The preseason No. 1 team has lost two of three despite a wealth of talent, and Kiffin acknowledged this week that the Trojans have badly underachieved.

Yet Kiffin and the Trojans don't see the Bruins' rise as a threat. They see it as a welcome challenge, realizing a rivalry just isn't a rivalry unless both teams are competitive.

``We haven't really seen the UCLA you've seen in the past, when these two teams just battled it out,'' USC senior defensive lineman Wes Horton said. ``It's huge this year. We don't want to see UCLA walking around in their baby blue and gold, talking about how they beat USC. We have a high standard for this game.''

Despite the Trojans' failures, they've still got a path back to the Rose Bowl if they could finish the season with wins over three ranked teams: UCLA, Notre Dame and likely Oregon. USC hasn't mentioned that prospect very much this week, but the players are aware their season can be saved.

``A game like this can really get you motivated to do well,'' USC receiver Marqise Lee said. ``We don't need to worry about what we're playing for. We just need to worry about UCLA, because UCLA is way better than they were last year. You also know half of the guys over there, so it's extra motivation to go against people you've known your whole life.''

Indeed, both teams are constructed largely from the rich cache of football talent found annually in the Los Angeles area and beyond, leading to high school teammates playing against each other - or those with even closer bonds. Safety T.J. McDonald, USC's leading tackler, will play against UCLA safety Tevin McDonald, the Bruins' second-leading tackler and T.J.'s little brother.

Their father, former Trojans defensive back Tim McDonald, won't wear blue and gold, but Horton's father, Myke, won't wear cardinal and gold after playing for UCLA in the 1970s.

``I just don't like UCLA, even though he went there,'' Wes Horton said of his father, who went on to become one of the American Gladiators on the syndicated game show. ``I've been here five years, so I know what it's all about. All the old-timers are going to be watching to see how we handle a really good UCLA team. ... I don't think I could take losing to them right before I went out of here.''

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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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