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After punches to gut, gut-check time for Nats

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After punches to gut, gut-check time for Nats

Any ballclub that has visions of serious contention is going to have to prove its mettle at various points of the season. It's one thing to play well when everything's falling into place. It's quite another to play well when things are collapsing all around you.

The Nationals are about to face one of those challenges. Considering the injuries they've sustained and the red flags that have been popping up on the field in recent days, there's ample reason to question whether they're capable of hanging on.

Jayson Werth's broken wrist was bad enough. Then Wilson Ramos tore the ACL in his right knee. Combined with the extended losses of Michael Morse, Drew Storen and Brad Lidge, it's a minor miracle the Nationals found themselves in position to sweep the Reds yesterday afternoon.

Yet there they were taking the field for the bottom of the ninth at the end of an interminable day of rain delays, up 6-5 and on the verge of heading home on a four-game winning streak.

And then Henry Rodriguez threw the first of his 15 balls in a 28-pitch inning. Before anyone knew what hit them, Rodriguez left a 2-2 fastball over the plate to Joey Votto and watched in horror as the Reds' 200 million man crushed it to center field for a walk-off grand slam.

And just like that, all those good vibes the Nationals seemed to have stored up for weeks disappeared into thin air. Just like that, they went from a gutsy ballclub that managed to overcome injuries with brilliant pitching and clutch hitting to a broken-down, offensively challenged team with a serious question mark at the back end of their bullpen.

Oh yeah, they also fell out of first place in the NL East for the first time in 33 days.

Is that a fair assessment of Davey Johnson's club? No, not really. The outcome of one pitch may alter the outside perception surrounding a team, but it doesn't truly change who they are.

The Nationals returned home late last night the same club that left town a week ago, aside from the loss of Ramos. But that doesn't mean they haven't reached a critical juncture in their season.

The Nats have every reason to be down on themselves after the events of the last 36 hours. And if ever doubts were going to start trickling their way into players' heads, now would be the time.

But they also have every reason to believe they can continue to enjoy the success they've experienced over the last six weeks. Banged-up lineup or not, this team still has a rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler at its disposal. And that rotation should keep this team in the hunt all summer long.

Which isn't to say there aren't some major obstacles for the Nationals to overcome. They aren't getting any of the prominent injured players back for a while, so they're going to have to find another way to manufacture runs. Several slumping regulars finally showed signs of progress this weekend -- most notably Danny Espinosa -- but this team still squanders far too many golden scoring opportunities.

And even if the lineup does manage to scratch out a few runs in support of its rotation, there's still that pesky ninth inning lurking in the shadows. As much as some would prefer to see Johnson insert someone else into the closer's role, the 69-year-old manager is most likely going to stick with Rodriguez.

The young right-hander has experienced just about every possible high and every possible low in his brief stint as Storen's fill-in closer. There is no middle ground with him, only dizzying highs or terrifying lows.

There's only so much the Nationals can do to try to prevent Rodriguez from experiencing those lows. Ultimately, it's going to be on him to learn how to maintain his composure on the mound, how to continue to thrive even after putting a man on base. We're about to find out what Henry Rodriguez is made of.

We're also going to find out what the Nationals as a whole are made of. Few would fault them for complaining about all the injuries, using that as a perfectly viable excuse when they lose. But they have, to date, exhibited a grit and determination not previously seen in these parts.

Perhaps Ian Desmond put it best eight days ago after Werth broke his wrist.

"I've obviously never been on a championship team, but I'm definitely a fan of baseball," the shortstop said. "And it seems like championship teams overcome things like this."

They do. But whether the Nationals have what it takes to overcome it all remains to be seen.

One way or another, we're about to find out.

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Tom Verducci gives more specifics on Bryce Harper's 2016 injury

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Tom Verducci gives more specifics on Bryce Harper's 2016 injury

Entering 2016, Bryce Harper was ready to take over the world. After putting forth one of the most impressive offensive seasons in recent memory in 2015, he was rewarded by being named the youngest unanimous MVP in the history of baseball. The following season, he was prepared to take another step forward.

Instead, he slashed .243/.373/.441 with 24 home runs, and questions abounded about why he was struggling.

Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, one of baseball’s most accomplished reporters, wrote a story late in the season about how Harper had suffered a shoulder injury, according to a source. The Nationals vehemently denied these reports at the time, claiming that their doctors were not aware of any medical issues with Harper’s shoulder. Mike Rizzo said he asked Harper directly if he was hurt and was told no.

At this year’s Winter Meetings, Verducci spoke with NBC Sports Washington, and he doubled down on his reporting.

“2016, of course, that’s when he injured his shoulder. It was a slide in Milwaukee, about one-third of the way into the season, was never quite the same.”

Whereas in 2016 Verducci simply referred to “a source,” it appears this information came from Harper directly.

“As he told me,” Verducci says, “He could not lift weights upper-body wise through the rest of that season, he lost weight, didn’t have the same kind of power. He was compromised even throwing on defense, he had to compromise by playing much more shallow.”

“The numbers in ‘16 really are a function of the injury.”

One concern Nats fans have about signing Harper to a major deal is how his numbers in the post-MVP years have failed to match 2015. According to Baseball-Reference, his combined Wins Above Replacement total from 2016-18 is 7.5. His bWAR in 2015 alone was 10.0. Still, Harper never had an OPS+ below 114 in that stretch. Even his “down” seasons would still be considered quality years for most big league hitters.

Harper is also just now entering his prime, however, so presumably many of his best seasons are still to come. For one MLB insider, at least, there’s no real cause for concern about a long term deal as long as Harper can stay healthy.

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The case for the Phillies as the frontrunner for Bryce Harper, according to Tim Kurkjian

The case for the Phillies as the frontrunner for Bryce Harper, according to Tim Kurkjian

Well, this is not what Nationals fans want to hear. 

There is no bigger buzz at MLB's Winter Meetings in Las Vegas than where free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign. Tim Kurkjian, one of the most respected baseball analysts, believes that Harper will stay in the NL East, but sign with the Philadelphia Phillies, not with the Nationals. 

"I think the most logical landing spot for Bryce Harper is the Phillies," Kurkjian said. "The Phillies have a lot of money and they are willing to spend it. They've made that abundently clear."

The Nationals offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million extension on the last day of the 2018 regular season. As expected, he declined.

Aside from that ability to offer the 26-year-old a very large contract, Kurkjian thinks that Philadelphia makes perfect sense in Harper for purely baseball reasons. Phillies manager Gabe Kapler is also fascinated by what Harper would bring to the table.

"They also have a tremendous need [in the outfield]. They played really well for three or four months last year, but the last two months were not good," Kurkjian said. "That club needs a middle of the order hitter, and they need a star hitter to build around, and Bryce Harper fits that category."

The Phillies have also been rumored to have interest in Machado, but after a recent trade, they may shift their focus more towards Harper.

"[The Phillies] already traded for Jean Segura, a pretty good hitting shortstop," Kurkjian said. "Which means they should, at least to me, be less engaged on Manny Machado and more engaged on Bryce Harper."

Segura hit .304 for the Seattle Mariners in 2018 and was selected to the AL All-Star team.

Of course, Kurkjian is only speculating at this point, as no one will know where Harper ends up until he inks pen to the paper. Each day, there is a new story.

"This story doesn't change by the day, it changes by the hour," Kurkjian said. "But at this hour, I will say, the Phillies look to me to be the best fit for Bryce Harper."

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