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After tough 2016, Bryce Harper looks dominant in spring training

After tough 2016, Bryce Harper looks dominant in spring training

WEST PALM BEACH , Fla. — Nationals manager Dusty Baker discerns a difference in Bryce Harper at the plate this spring compared with the guy who struggled mightily for much of last season.

It's not his current home run binge -- that's simply a byproduct of Harper's success, and a pleasant one at that.

"He's not missing pitches," Baker said. "The last couple days, he's not missing pitches and he's not fouling balls off. When you're not doing well, a lot of times you're fouling balls off that you should putting play, whether it's a line-drive home run or a popup or something."

Harper had homered in three straight games for Washington before going 0 for 1 against Detroit on Monday. Five of his eight spring hits have been homers and he's added a double for good measure.

Harper also drew a four-pitch walk from Tigers ace Justin Verlander in a 3-3, 10-inning tie. The four-time All-Star outfielder is hitting .313 in exhibition play and began the day tied with San Diego's Jabari Blash for the spring training lead in home runs.

"He looks good. He looks real good," Baker said.

RELATED: A closer look at Max Scherzer's health concerns

Harper only hit two homers last spring after winning the 2015 NL MVP award. Once he left Florida, though, Harper turned it on, swatting nine homers by the end of April while hitting .286.

"Without Bryce last year, there's no way we'd have gotten off to the start that we had last year," Baker said.

That surge didn't last. Harper never hit more than four homers in any given month the remainder of the way and only mashed five after the All-Star break. His .226 average in the second half dropped Harper's season average to .243, easily the lowest of his five-year major league career. He finished with 24 homers and 86 RBIs for the NL East champions.

The previous season, Harper hit .330 with 42 home runs and 99 RBIs.

Harper's futility fueled speculation that he was playing through an injury, but he maintained publicly that there was nothing physically wrong with him.

"To me, he was (swinging) underneath and missing a lot of balls, fouling them off," Baker said.

Teammates are hoping that Harper's spring foreshadows a resurgence at the plate.

"As far as health-wise, the way his body looks -- and I think that's the most important thing -- he looks great," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

A strong spring often indicates the return of much-needed confidence for a player coming off a down year.

That might not be the case for Harper.

"Confidence ain't his problem," Baker said. "Confidence might be some other guys' problems, but I think he was probably born confident."

MORE NATS: Washington signs John Lannan to minor league deal

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What to make of the Strasburg-Scherzer shouting match in the Nationals' dugout

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USA Today Sports

What to make of the Strasburg-Scherzer shouting match in the Nationals' dugout

Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer had a heated exchange in the Nationals dugout Friday night.

It was another not-so-great moment in an otherwise unspectacular season for the Nats so far.

Things like this often appear worse than they are based on what we can see, not hear, on television. In any case, it has fans and pundits talking about a perceived off-the-field issue instead of the actual game. There's nothing "good" about this, but there are important factors that are "bad" and ones that are "not bad."

Davey Martinez, Strasburg and Scherzer already said this has been settled and wasn't a big deal in the first place, but for a manager who's already faced some scrutiny this year for how he manages his pitchers, having two of them go at it in the dugout isn't ideal.

It also doesn't present the best optics for a team that came out of the All-Star Break 5.5 games back of the division-leading Philadelphia Phillies. The Nationals need to build some momentum heading into the dog days of summer, and after a lackluster first half, this isn't how anybody would want to start the second half.

This was also Strasburg's first start back from a month-long stint on the disabled list. Ryan Zimmerman just rejoined the club as well. Things are shaping up to make for a solid second-half run, but all this does is detract from that.

The Nationals also just hosted the first All-Star Game in Washington since 1969. Having something like this happen in the dugout where everybody can see it takes away from some of that good publicity.

But there are also positives, or at least non-negatives, to take from this. Scherzer has always been ultracompetitive, and as the best pitcher on the staff, he needs to harness that into leadership. With Strasburg coming off a rough inning, Scherzer may have thought he needed a little tough love from a veteran. There's nothing wrong with that. Strasburg, to his credit, has never been one to focus too much on himself, so if there's anyone who can take something like this constructively, it'd be him.

This isn't Jonathan Paplebon fighting Bryce Harper for not running out a pop fly the day after the Nats were eliminated from playoff contention. These are two veteran guys who play the same position who are both competitive and want to win. It's akin to an older brother pushing his younger brother to do better. Strasburg even hinted at the family aspect after the game.

In the end, there's really nothing to see here. Frustration is part of the game. Talking it out is a part of remedying the frustration.

What really matters is tracking down the Braves and the Phillies. The Nationals can get started on that Sunday in the second game of a rain-shortened two-game series against the Braves.

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Saturday's Nationals game rained out, to be postponed

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Saturday's Nationals game rained out, to be postponed

Following a dicey matchup between the Nats and Braves Friday night which featured a heated argument between Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals are getting a much-needed opportunity to regroup.

The Washington Nationals' official Twitter account announced that Saturday evening's matchup will be postponed due to inclement weather just after 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon.

The Nationals had planned to host "JMU Night" at the ballpark as a part of their "College Day" series, and due to more forecasted inclement weather Sunday, the Nationals decided to call the game off sooner rather than later.

The Nationals have yet to announce when the game will be made up.

If Sunday's game is played as scheduled, Max Scherzer will start.

This post will be updated when more information regarding a makeup date has been announced.

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