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Bryce Harper blasts Opening Day HR into franchise history books vs. Marlins

Bryce Harper blasts Opening Day HR into franchise history books vs. Marlins

WASHINGTON — Bryce Harper loves the moment. He loves the spotlight.

Aside from the postseason and All-Star Game, there are few moments in professional baseball bigger than Opening Day, and on Monday, Harper rose to the occasion once again.

In the bottom of the sixth inning with the Nationals trailing the Marlins 2-0, Harper stepped into the batter's box to face David Phelps, who replaced starter Edinson Volquez after five innings.

Harper didn't wait long to put his stamp on the game, blasting a Phelps' pitch deep to right field for the Nationals' first run, RBI and home run of the season.

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The home run was Harper's fifth on Opening Day. In 2013, Harper became the youngest player to ever hit two home runs on Opening Day, doing so against the Marlins. He also hit an Opening Day home run in 2015 and 2016, meaning Harper has now hit home runs on three consecutive Opening Days, becoming the first person in franchise history to do so.

Harper is also the first player in the live ball era to hit five Opening Day home runs before his 25th birthday — which isn't until October.

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2019 MLB Postseason Predictions: Where the Nationals stand

2019 MLB Postseason Predictions: Where the Nationals stand

A week after the Midsummer Classic, the Nationals' comeback June looks less and less like a fluke as Washington continues its push to the postseason and the NL East Wild Card race.

In the 2019 MLB Postseason fight, the Dodgers (62-33) of the NL West are predicted to finish the regular season as the top team in the league, while each wild card race remains fairly close. Right now, the NL Central Cubs (50-43) and NL East Braves (57-37) round out the current National League leaders, while the Nationals (49-43) and Phillies (48-45) are the two wild card teams. 

Washington, 1.5 games ahead in the wild card race, revived its playoff chances after a slow start to the season. The Nationals' comeback June propelled them back into a wild card position. But the NL wild card race is far from set, as the Brewers (48-46) are 0.5 games back from the Phillies (and the Cardinals (46-45) are 1.0 games behind). 

 Here are the MLB playoff standings if the season ended Monday:

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Division Leaders
Houston Astros (West)
New York Yankees (East)
Minnesota Twins (Central)

Wild Card
Tampa Bay Rays (55-40, +1.5 Wild Card Games Behind)
Oakland A's (53-41, - WCGB)

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Division Leaders
Chicago Cubs (Central)
Los Angeles Dodgers (West)
Atlanta Braves (East)

Wild Card
Washington Nationals (49-43, +1.5 WCGB)
Philadelphia Phillies (48-45, - WCGB)

2019 MLB POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS
(As of July 15)

All three projections for the playoffs have the Dodgers finishing at the top of the league, though Baseball Reference has Los Angeles winning a whopping 110 games––at least seven more wins than either FiveThirtyEight or FanGraphs projects. 

Baseball Reference predicts the Nationals and Diamondbacks will be the NL Wild Cards, with the Athletics and the Rays as the AL Wild Cards. FanGraphs also has the Nationals making the playoffs as a wild card, while FiveThirtyEight lists the Nationals as having a 56% chance of making the playoffs at all. 

FanGraphs is the only site that lists the Nationals' chance at winning the World Series as above 2.5% (5.8%), while it also gives Washington an 82% shot at making the playoffs overall (and a 63.7% chance to win the wild card). 

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Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Davey Martinez had no hesitation in his answer or decision on Friday in Philadelphia. First game out of the break, facing a team right next to the Nationals in the standings, a 4-0 lead. Closer Sean Doolittle was coming in to end it, though it was a non-save situation and he is being used at an extreme level.

“Here’s my thoughts: It took me about three seconds,” Martinez said Friday. “Playing at Citizens [Bank] Park. Four runs. That ain’t much here. Those guys can hit. Doolittle’s coming in the game. It’s a big moment. And, he’s my guy. To me, that game right there, it’s huge coming off a four-day break.”

So, Doolittle made his 40th appearance of the season. Saturday brought his 41st appearance. He did not pitch Sunday, a day game after a late night.

Trends are emerging through his high usage rate. Doolittle’s velocity is down for the fourth consecutive season. The dip is slight year over year, from 93.9 mph average fastball velocity to 93.6. His velocity was distinctly down in Philadelphia over the weekend despite four days off. Doolittle threw 12 fastballs Friday, 10 of which were slower than his average fastball velocity this season. He threw 19 fastballs Saturday; 13 were below his average velocity (two others matched it). 

“I’m not exactly sure why it’s down,” Doolittle said Saturday. “I know from past experience, not to panic if I see the 91, 92. I feel pretty good -- everybody gets a little tired around this point of the season, but if I stay in my mechanics and don’t try to overthrow, I can still get that life and deception on my fastball. I can still, like [Saturday], I can still navigate innings and get guys out. These last two nights I’ve been really pleased with how I’ve been able to manage my energy level without maybe my best fastball.”

He is on pace for a career-high 72 appearances and 1,214 pitches. The latter would exceed his career mark of 1,019 by almost 200 pitches. One of the most telling numbers around Doolittle is his games finished vs. saves. He leads the league with 37 games finished but has just 20 saves, which is tied for fourth with three others. National League saves leader Kirby Yates has finished 35 games, but has 30 saves. Kenley Jansen: 33 games finished, 23 saves. Will Smith: 35 games finished, 23 saves. No other closer has appeared in more non-save situations.

Doolittle’s velocity also dropped earlier in the season before a mechanical adjustment kicked it back up to the 94- and 95-mph range for a spell. He did turn loose a 95-mph fastball Saturday. He half-joked about it.

“See it’s in there,” Doolittle said. “I just got to pick and choose, I guess, when to use it.”

His manager is using a more straight-ahead approach. Doolittle is out there, so he is using him. A lot.

And all this is more for recognition of the situation as opposed to blame assessment, When the bullpen was at its worst, Doolittle was summoned at times because his teammates were in the process of blowing a game or couldn’t be trusted in the first place. The Nationals were also rapidly losing ground, so Martinez had to be sure he was sure whenever possible. But, also, there have been times when Doolittle’s appearance in a non-save situation appeared unnecessary.

Piled together, the Nationals have an ongoing conundrum: they need to manage Doolittle’s appearances while in the middle of a push up the standings and without a definitive backup. Fernando Rodney has helped. An acquisition before the trade deadline could help further. And the coming week we’ll clarify if two games in Philadelphia were a blip or more foreboding.

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