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Can dramatic win be a momentum changer?

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Can dramatic win be a momentum changer?

Jonathan Papelbon was holding court inside the Nationals’ clubhouse Friday night, the room thumping like it hadn’t in a long time after a 5-2, 10-inning victory over the Braves — with an even bigger roar about to be come moments later when the Marlins walked off the Mets in Miami — when the veteran closer was asked if a game like this can carry over and serve as a true momentum swing.

“One hundred percent,” said Papelbon, who has experienced his share of pennant race moments over the last decade. “You know, this time of year is all about momentum. And if we can keep that and carry that throughout the rest of the season, we should be pretty good. I like our chances.”

Make no mistake, the Nationals’ chances still aren’t great. Even with Friday’s wild turn of events, they trail the Mets by 5 games with 28 to play. Their odds of winning the NL East, according to Fangraphs, sits at 20.5 percent (with an additional 1.9 percent chance of a wild card berth).

But in order to pull off a comeback of that magnitude, a ballclub needs to do something dramatic along the way, something that serves as a turning point in a pennant race. We don’t know yet whether this night will qualify. But it’s certainly the kind of night that could do it.

“Like I’ve been saying, we come in here every single day with the attitude to try and win ballgames, and that’s what we did tonight,” Bryce Harper said. “We fought to the end. … It just says a lot about this club and how we’re a family going to fight to the end until the last day.”

The manner in which the Nationals won this game, needing Matt den Dekker’s RBI single with two outs in the ninth to tie it and then Michael Taylor’s moonshot of a 3-run homer in the 10th to end it, was perhaps just as significant as the simple fact they won the game at all. Truth be told, a loss like that to a Braves club that has celebrated victory only once in its last 18 tries, would’ve rivaled any other loss over the last month in terms of disappointment.

The Nationals appeared destined for disappointment after squandering several opportunities to add on anything beyond Harper’s first-inning homer off Julio Teheran. They stranded the bases loaded in the third, then again in the sixth. And then they looked like they were going to waste Yunel Escobar’s leadoff double in the ninth when, after Ian Desmond’s sacrifice bunt moved the runner to third, Wilson Ramos struck out on four pitches and left the game in den Dekker’s hands.

The 28-year-old outfielder — traded by the Mets for Jerry Blevins during the last week of spring training — hasn’t spent much time in D.C. this season, but he has shown a knack for delivering hits at the right moment. Entering Friday night, den Dekker was 4-for-10 as a pinch-hitter, with a home run on his resume. He technically wasn’t a pinch-hitter this time, because he had entered the game in the top of the inning as part of a double-switch designed to put Papelbon in position to pitch two innings. But he hadn’t stepped to the plate at all until that moment, facing hard-throwing Braves closer Arodys Vizcaino.

“I was just trying to take a short stroke on it and not do too much,” den Dekker said. “A guy throwing that hard, you can’t really get too big. You gotta stay short and stay through the middle, and that’s what I did.”

Indeed, den Dekker lined Vizcaino’s 1-0, 98-mph fastball over the shortstop’s head, bringing home the tying run and altering the storyline of this game. Not to mention spoiling the evening for Mets fans who used to root for him.

“Hopefully they weren’t happy,” den Dekker said with a smile.

After Papelbon tossed his second scoreless inning of the night, the Nationals came up to bat again in the 10th with a chance to win it. And they immediately put themselves in position to do it, with Harper lining an opposite-field single off left-hander Matt Marksberry — the 14th time he has reached base in his last 18 plate appearances — and Ryan Zimmerman advancing him to third with his own single off right-hander Brandon Cunniff.

The pitcher’s spot now due up, Matt Williams was down to only a couple remaining choices on his bench: Dan Uggla, Pedro Severino or Taylor, who had been held out of the lineup for the third straight night after his bruised right knee acted up again. Williams was trying to avoid using Taylor at all, but the rookie outfielder had been sending not-so-subtle signals to his manager.

“I want to play,” Taylor said. “I was standing at the bat rack the whole game, trying to get in the game. … I’m just standing close, like stretching and trying to get his attention and things like that.”

So Williams relented, and Taylor stepped to the plate to a growing crescendo from the crowd. Two pitches later, he left everyone in the park jumping for joy when he launched Cunniff’s 1-0 slider high into the night.

The ball hung in the air for what felt like an eternity. Everybody knew it was deep enough to score the winning run from third. But not until it landed amid a sea of hands in the Red Porch seats beyond the left-center field wall did everybody — including Taylor — know it was a home run.

“I didn’t realize; it went so high,” Taylor said. “Off the bat it felt pretty good, so I thought it had a chance. And then I saw it hanging up a little bit coming around first and was happy it went out.”

This was merely the latest big moment for Taylor, who now has 14 homers (fourth on the roster) and 58 RBI (third on the team), not to mention a .345 batting average with runners in scoring position. All this as a rookie thrust into more regular playing time than anybody anticipated.

“He’s truly a great player,” Harper said. “I think everybody knows he’s going to be an unbelievable player, the older he gets and the more he plays. I’m excited for him and the way he’s going about it right now.”

As he crossed the plate, Taylor was mobbed by teammates, doused with a bucket full of filth and serenaded by fans. The mild-mannered rookie could only smile, soaking in the moment, while everyone else went nuts.

“It was awesome,” right-hander Tanner Roark said. “I don’t have words for it.”

Whether this was merely a nice blip in an otherwise disappointing season or the start of something special down the stretch remains to be seen. The Nationals, though, do know what they could be in for the rest of the way.

“These games from here on out are going to be playoff-type games and playoff-type atmospheres,” Papelbon said, then taking a light-hearted jab at those in the stands. “I got a little bone to pick with some of the fans here tonight. I saw a few of them sitting down. I’m not going to lie. We need to stand on up in those situations. So let’s get that going, you know what I mean? Because this is playoff baseball.”

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Which Washington Nationals might show up on 2019 MLB awards ballots?

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Which Washington Nationals might show up on 2019 MLB awards ballots?

Despite their struggles in 2018, the Washington Nationals nearly came away with two major awards this season. Juan Soto, despite having the most impressive offensive season for a teenager in baseball history, finished a distant second behind Ronald Acuna in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Max Scherzer, despite becoming just the 17th pitcher ever to strike out 300 batters in a single season, fell to Jacob deGrom in the NL Cy Young race.  

So, who’s most likely to take home some hardware a year from now? Of course, any National could theoretically win a Gold Glove or a Silver Slugger, but let’s focus on the big ones, which player is most likely to win, and who his biggest competition will likely be. We’ll go from most likely to the biggest longshots.

1. Max Scherzer, NL Cy Young

He may have fallen short this season, but Scherzer is pretty clearly still the National with the best chance of winning a major award next season. Sure, he’s already 34, and it’s not easy to predict when a pitcher will break down, but this is an arm that has defied conventional ideas of “wearing down.”

Scherzer’s biggest competition is the reigning winner deGrom, a potentially healthy Clayton Kershaw, a potentially healthy Noah Syndergaard, and Aaron Nola. Beyond them, a potentially healthy Stephen Strasburg could also find himself in the conversation. Noticing a pattern here? With so many injury-prone aces, health will almost certainly play a major role in this race.

Scherzer has won two of the last three Cy Youngs, and he undeniably pitched at a Cy Young-level in 2018 as well. The question is who else steps up in 2019 to challenge him?

2. Victor Robles, NL Rookie of the Year

Rookie of the Year awards are tricky. At the top of ballots, you often see the most highly-touted prospects in baseball. Acuna, Corey Seager, Kris Bryant, Jose Fernandez, and Bryce Harper all won in the National League in recent years. But you also have surprise rookies who come out of nowhere, either because it wasn’t expected that they’d be ready so soon (like Soto) or because they weren’t seen as top talents before their respective breakouts (like Aaron Judge).

Still, Robles’ pedigree and the potential opening in the outfield with Harper in free agency means the stars could be aligning for an awards push. Robles is one of the most talented prospects in baseball, and he’s proven himself enough in the minors to show he belongs. The only thing missing has been the opportunity, which is now right in front of him.

His competition likely will come down to a trio of young shortstops: Fernando Tatis, Jr., Nick Senzel, and Brendan Rodgers. Tatis is the most talented, but is younger and coming off an injury last season. Rodgers doesn’t have that one flashy elite skill to catch the eyes of voters. Senzel, however, already looks like a .300 hitter, and on a surprisingly decent Reds offense will probably be Robles’ biggest competitor.

3. Anthony Rendon, NL Most Valuable Player

No offense to Rendon, who has led the Nats in Wins Above Replacement in each of the past two seasons, but this is probably the choice that gives me the least confidence. He’s really, really good, but is he MVP-worthy?

The nice part about playing the National League is that there’s no Mike Trout or Mookie Betts to dominate MVP voting year in and year out. The downside is that means there are as many as a dozen hitters in any given season to compete with, plus pitchers like Kershaw and Scherzer who are strong enough to take votes away as well. Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman, and Buster Posey are all stalwarts who will grab the attention of voters, not to mention the inevitable youngster who will pop up unexpectedly.

Rendon is well-rounded, underrated, and a truly valuable star worth keeping in Washington for many years to come, but his talents aren’t flashy enough to draw the attention of voters, there’s no strong narrative surrounding him winning, and while he plays on a good team, he’s not generally looked at as the most important piece on the roster. This one probably isn’t happening.

4. Dave Martinez, NL Manager of the Year

Those fans who weren’t exactly thrilled with Martinez’s performance in the dugout during Year 1 are probably going to laugh at the prospect of him winning Manager of the Year, but allow me to make the case.

Manager of the Year is never about the actual best manager in baseball. Frankly, there are far too many unknowns for writers to ever really identify who the best manager is. And managers of elite teams rarely get the credit they deserve. The guys who win are typically skippers of teams expected to be bad entering the season but end up making a surprise run to the playoffs. Think the Braves and A’s in 2018.

If the Nats bounce back and return to the playoffs in 2019, national writers will notice. Plus, if Harper leaves this offseason, the narrative will be there for Martinez to receive a ton of credit. It may not be accurate, but with this particular award, perception matters more than reality.

The Nats making the postseason again is a very realistic scenario, and if it happens, Martinez should at least get national consideration for the award.

5. Bryce Harper, NL Most Valuable Player (as a National)

Ahhhh, the fun one. Or, maybe, the tricky one.

Obviously, if Harper was guaranteed to return to the Nationals, he’d be much higher on this list, probably the top choice. Based on his pedigree and name brand, he’d at least be the clear favorite from the Nats roster to win MVP. And if the choice was simply that he’d win with any franchise, then he’d be higher as well, but knowing (or rather, not knowing) what we know right now? That makes this a tough one to place.

While I’d probably guess that he’s not coming back to Washington (it’s hard to imagine the team going too much higher than their already-rejected $300 million offer), it’s still definitely a possibility. And, if he does, we’ve already seen what an MVP season from Harper looks like. Strange as it is to believe, he’s only just now entering the age at which most MLB players hit their primes. The best may be yet to come for Bryce, so it comes down to whether or not you think he’s coming back.

If yes? This is the new number one. If not? Well, that’s why he’s a longshot.

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It’s time to fix baseball’s postseason award shows

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It’s time to fix baseball’s postseason award shows

The awards have been distributed, which means it’s time for a fix.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America can do better. Major League Baseball can do better.

This week was rough for the awards. Not the part where fake calls for transparency are actually just social media mob vehicles to bag on voters. The part where Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr. were not available to to talk about being two of the sport’s bright, young stars. Where the two Yankees youngsters up for the AL Rookie of the Year Award were unsure if they were being spoken to. When a Cy Young candidate couldn’t get his Wi-Fi to cooperate while on vacation. The date, the format, the pizazz needs to change. It’s a on a long list of things baseball needs to get up to speed on.

Look at the NHL Awards. Held annually in Las Vegas with a prominent sponsor, as much shine as can be is drummed up. A flood of premier stars attend. It reads well in person. It displays well on the television. It feels and looks modern. It also helps the media by assuring access that can be planned for. 

It’s the right way.

Baseball can start by moving up when the awards take place. We are members of a short-term memory society. Push the awards into the first week of November. That gives it plenty of space before the news cycle can be caught again at the general manager meetings and winter meetings that are to come. Use the close of the World Series as a catapult. Snag the time when most players are resting before offseason workouts begin in earnest.

Elongating the news cycle, the way the NFL magically has with its draft, only works if each segment is in demand. Giving the Manager of the Year Award its own night is unnecessary. Instead, fold it into the evening of awards. 

The NHL announced a three-year extension on its Las Vegas awards party in April. That after 10 years of developing the ceremony into a slick presentation. Obviously, it’s working. 

The Cup makes an appearance. Celebrities join in. The Las Vegas environment is embraced. Fashion is allowed. The muting of personality so long afflicting baseball can be countered for a day in an equivalent setup.

Major League Baseball took an incremental step, as it tends to do, Thursday when it joined with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association to announce “Revised rules on player footwear.” The press release delivered an all-caps headline followed by “Agreement Affords Additional Flexibility for Colors and Design”.

Here’s what changed: Instead of Bryce Harper’s shoes having to be a solid variation of a team color, limited variations are now allowed.

“Players may wear shoes displaying any of the following colors, in any proportion: (i) black, white, and gray; (ii) any colors displayed on the Player’s uniform (and certain variations thereof); and (iii) any additional colors designated by the Player’s Club.”

Of course, teams still have to clear the designs coming from shoe companies. 

In a statement, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said, “Major League Baseball and its Clubs recognize the desire of Players to have more flexibility in this area and are pleased to announce the loosening of regulations that will permit more personalized and stylized footwear.  We believe that this agreement strikes the appropriate balance between the shared goal of permitting Players to express their individuality while maintaining reasonable restrictions on shoe colors and designs.”

It’s as exciting as it sounds. At least it’s something.

Christian Yelich and Mookie Betts were named the MVPs of their respective leagues Thursday. Betts just turned 26 (he’s a mere nine days older than Harper). Yelich is also 26 (about to turn 27). Did you see that photo of them on stage in their suits? No. There was no stage. There’s limited recognition for either. Betts is a World Series champion, three-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner and playing in one of the league’s prominent markets. He is the first American League player to win an MVP award, a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger and a World Series title in the same season. Mike Schmidt is the only other player to do so. Betts should be a sports superstar. He’s not.

A revamped awards show won’t cure Betts’ comparative lack of stature. It won’t make Yelich known the way good, but not star, NBA players are known. 

But any improvement will help. And it’s time to get started.
 

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