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Confident once again, Nats lineup on fire

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Confident once again, Nats lineup on fire

ATLANTA — On Tuesday evening, the Nationals fielded a starting lineup that included only one hitter with a batting average better than .250 and five with a batting average worse than .205. This was a source of concern for some who were worried such a putrid April at the plate could be a sign of a summer-long problem.

And then the Nationals went out and scored 13 runs during an historic, come-from-behind victory over the Braves. And then they went back out and scored 13 more runs Wednesday night in another historic performance.

And so now, in the wake of 13-12 and 13-4 victories at Turner Field, the narrative has been flipped onto its head. The supposedly offensively challenged Nationals suddenly can’t be stopped.

“We definitely needed to wake our bats up the past two games,” center fielder Denard Span said. “It’s fun when guys are putting good swings on the ball. The whole cliche: ‘Hitting is contagious.’ I think last night was a good win for us and it carried over to today.”

We won’t know for several more days, probably even weeks, whether Tuesday’s rally from eight runs down — the largest comeback in club history — was a legitimate turning point in the season for the Nationals. But if nothing else, we can probably say it played a crucial role in giving members of this slumping lineup renewed confidence, which was on full display during Wednesday’s blowout win.

How rare were these back-to-back offensive displays? So rare they had never before happened in franchise history. Nope, neither the Expos nor the Nationals had ever scored 13 runs in consecutive games during their 47 years of existence.

It had happened in the history of Washington baseball, but not in a long time, not since the Senators beat the St. Louis Browns 15-7 and 13-1 on May 4-5, 1952.

“We’ve got all the confidence in the world in everybody that goes up to the plate that they’re going to get the job done, no matter what,” right fielder Bryce Harper said. “And if the guy doesn’t get it done in front of him, it’s a matter of time. We’re having some fun right now.”

Harper used the word “confidence” four times during a 90-second session with reporters after the game. There seems to be a connection between that word and the success of this team, both on an individual and collective level.

“It’s a big part of it,” manager Matt Williams said. “This game is a lot mental. And if you’re not swinging it good and you don’t feel good at the plate, you tend to press a little bit. You tend to get outside of yourself and try to do things you’re not necessarily capable of doing. So, it plays a big role for us. For any team.”

That confidence only increases when teammates up and down the lineup are producing as well. On Tuesday, seven different Nationals batters recorded at least one hit, while six drove in at least one run. On Wednesday, eight different batters recorded at least one hit, while six drove in at least one run.

The contributions came from everywhere. Span homered for the second straight night. Jayson Werth snapped out of an 0-for-14 slump with an RBI single. Wilson Ramos had three hits, drove in a run and scampered around the bases to score twice. Danny Espinosa had four hits and two RBI to raise his season batting average to .277. Dan Uggla again victimized his former team, driving in two more runs to give him eight for the series.

But the biggest hit of all came from, of all people, Jordan Zimmermann.

At the plate with the bases loaded and two out in the top of the fourth of what at the time was a 3-2 Atlanta lead, Zimmermann calmly took three straight balls from left-hander Alex Wood, then two strikes, then fouled off a pitch, then smoked a base hit to left-center, bringing everybody around to score and giving the Nationals the lead for good.

Zimmermann, whose career high for RBI in a full season is four, was the recipient of a few playful jabs as he returned to the dugout. “[Expletive] the DH!” someone supposedly told him.

“Somebody might have said that,” the right-hander said, then throwing his own jab at rotation mate Max Scherzer, who sprained his thumb while at the plate last week. “I like hitting. I’m just not as fragile as some guys on this team.”

The Nationals could afford to joke around Wednesday night. Only 26 hours later, they appeared too tightly wound, on the verge of collapse.

Not anymore. Twenty-six hours and 26 runs later, this group was all smiles.

“We’re a great team,” Harper said. “It was a matter of time before we got going. I think we have a lot of confidence in everybody on this club, and we’re gonna have some fun.”

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Bryce Harper will compete in Home Run Derby, but only on one condition

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USA Today Sports

Bryce Harper will compete in Home Run Derby, but only on one condition

It’s happening.

When the 2018 All-Star Weekend comes to Washington, D.C. in the middle of July, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper will compete in the 2018 Home Run Derby, but only on one condition: He has to be a member of the 2018 National League All-Star Team.

Though Harper is having a down year, only hitting .213 thus far, he leads the NL in home runs with 19.

In the June 18 update of All-Star game voting, Harper sat second among all outfielders with just north of 1,000,000 votes.

That means he’s not only going to make the All-Star team, but he’ll likely start in the outfield.

Harper, a five-time All-Star, competed in the Home Run Derby once before. He was the runner-up to Yoenis Cespedes in 2013, losing by just one long ball, 9-8.

The 2018 Home Run Derby will take place on July 16 at Nationals Park.

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It's time to start paying attention to Trea Turner's sneaky-great season

It's time to start paying attention to Trea Turner's sneaky-great season

Remember when the Nationals put Trea Turner in centerfield so they could keep Danny Espinosa at shortstop?

Two years later it's Turner who leads all N.L. shortstops in fWAR, as you surely know if you follow the Nationals on literally any social media platform. 

So while Juan Soto and Bryce Harper continue to dominate all of The Takes, it's Turner who's been the Nats' best position player this season. 

We'll start with some basics: 

Did you know that Trea Turner leads all N.L. shortstops in fWAR? He's currently sitting at 2.4 WAR, above the likes of Brandon Crawford, Addison Russell, and Trevor Story, to name a few. (We'll ignore the fact that the top six shortstops in the A.L. all have a better fWAR.) He's a top-10 shortstop in baseball during one of the strongest eras in the position's history.

Even after a dreadfully slow start, Turner's still on pace to have the best season of his career. He posted a WAR of 2.9 last year and -- barring injury -- will realistically eclipse that by the All-Star game. 

At the plate, two stats jump off the page in regards to explaining Turner's stellar season. 

First, Turner is drawing a *bunch* of walks. His current BB% clip (10.6 percent) would be far and away the best of his career and up four percentage points from last year. It's a factor that helps explain - partially, at least - why his on-base percentage has risen and his BABIP has dropped. More walks mean fewer swings, fewer swings mean less contact, less contact means lower BABIP, etc. It's not the whole picture, but it's a big part of it. 

Secondly, Turner is making impressive contact on pitches out of the strike zone. FanGraphs calculates out-of-zone contact using a statistic titled O-Contact, which is a blessing considering some of the titles they choose to give their other stats. 

The average O-Contact across MLB in 2018 is 64.7 percent. Trea Turner's career O-Contact is 62.4 percent (although realistically it's closer to the high-50's - a small-sample-size from his abbreviated first season mucks up the number a bit). 

This season, Turner's posted an O-Contact of 69.3 percent. Not only is that 10 percentage points higher than his O-Contact from last season, but a top-50 clip in all of baseball. He's one spot ahead of Mike Trout!  Put both of these together with some encouraging Statcast numbers (rise in HardHit%, already matched his total 'barrels' from last season) and you can see why Turner's been thriving at the plate. 

Defensively, he's improved across the board as well. His UZR and DRS - considered the two most reliable fielding statistics, if such a thing exists - are both up from last year. He has the 10th-best UZR of all major league shortstops and ranks 1st in DRS. 

Last season, he finished 17th in both UZR and DRS (of all shortstops with at least 800 innings; Turner didn't log enough innings to be considered a qualified fielder). He ended the season with both numbers in the negative. 

You may be skeptical of defensive stats, which is fine. But if nothing else, the fact that Turner is turning literal negative stats into positive ones is encouraging. 

Lastly, Turner continues to be an elite baserunner. At this point in his career, his speed is arguably his best tool:

You'll note that purple dot allllllllllll the way on the right. That's Turner! Now, let's take a look at how his speed compares across all positions:

Essentially, Turner is faster than like, 98 percent of baseball. In fact, by Sprint Speed, he's the 6th-fastest player in the game. He also ranks 2nd across all of baseball in FanGraphs "Baserunning" measurements, only behind fellow teammate and mindbogglingly good baserunner Michael A. Taylor. 

So, Trea Turner an elite baserunner (maybe the best if you combine his raw speed with his baserunning stats), a top-5 shortstop in the field, and an All-Star at the plate. 

Juan Soto's been great and Bryce Harper is still extremely talented, but this year, Trea Turner has been the Nationals' best player. 

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