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Delayed dominance for Strasburg

Delayed dominance for Strasburg

As an out-of-nowhere cloudburst doused Nationals Park and a crowd of 33,388 during a 51-minute delay in the top of the third inning Tuesday night, Stephen Strasburg did whatever he could to stay loose and ready to retake the mound should the skies part and this showdown with the Braves resume.

On the advice of pitching coach Steve McCatty, Strasburg went to the batting tunnel below the Nationals' dugout and threw about 15 pitches. Then he retreated to the clubhouse for a break. Then he returned to the tunnel for another 15 throws. Then back to the clubhouse for another break before finally both teams were summoned to the field for the resumption of play.

"It's my first time really dealing with the rain delay or anything," he said. "Cat kind of coached me through it."

The way he responded to the interruption, perhaps Strasburg should try to incorporate that new routine into all of his starts. He actually got better as the night went on, tossing six dominant innings to lead the Nationals to a 4-1 victory and a 7-game lead over its lone remaining challenger for the NL East crown.

"He was totally locked-in tonight," catcher Jesus Flores said, adding: "He was really even better after the delay for me. It was really fun to catch him tonight."

And really fun for that boisterous crowd to watch and cheer for every time he recorded a big out in perhaps the biggest game he's ever pitched (with all due respect to that NCAA regional he started for San Diego State in 2009).

Facing a desperate Atlanta club trying to not lose all hope of the division title before the calendar even shifts to September, Strasburg rose to the occasion. He struck out 10, including six of the 12 batters he faced after the delay. He located every one of his pitches with pinpoint accuracy, had left-handed hitters flailing helplessly at 91 mph change-ups in dirt and right-handed batters flinching on curveballs that wound up in the strike zone.

"He knows what he wants to do," manager Davey Johnson said. "And he's had enough experience up here against good-hitting ballclubs that he knows exactly the sequence he wants to go in and where he wants to go with it."

Strasburg needed to be that precise most of his evening, because the Nationals held a slim, 1-0 margin through the top of the fifth, Ian Desmond's solo homer representing the lone tally to that point. It wasn't until Flores launched a three-run blast in the bottom of the fifth that the lead was extended to four runs and offered Strasburg some cushion.

With his starter's pitch count at 81, plus however many more tosses he threw in the cage during the delay, Johnson could have turned to his bullpen right then and there. Not that the 69-year-old skipper had any visions of doing that.

"I think the whole stadium -- if I'd have hooked him after five after he punched out the side -- they'd have been, or you guys would have been, wanting to string me up," Johnson said.

As it turned out, Strasburg gave up a run in the sixth after a double, a single and a sacrifice fly. But just when it appeared he might be in actual trouble, the right-hander was bailed out by his batterymate, who gunned down Jason Heyward trying to advance to second base on a pitch in the dirt.

Strasburg, an intense competitor but not one who typically shows his emotions on the field, offered up two fist pumps and then pointed and yelled at Flores to acknowledge the key play.

"I think it reminded me a lot of my debut out there, having the sellout crowd," Strasburg said of the overall environment. "It's great to be pitching for something. And I think you ask any of the guys in here, we're all in it together and we're giving it everything we have every day."

Three relievers (Drew Storen, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard) finished off the game for Strasburg, handing him his 15th win of the season and showing plenty of emotion themselves as they completed each of their innings down the stretch.

"It was huge," Clippard said of Strasburg's outing one night after a 13-inning marathon. "We needed six or seven from him tonight. ... He was unbelievable tonight. He's one of the best pitchers in the game, and that's what he showed tonight, especially in a big game like this."

Strasburg (now 4-0 with a 1.50 ERA in August) will have the opportunity to pitch in a few more big games over the next couple of weeks, but he won't get the chance to pitch in the even bigger games that will come in late-September and perhaps beyond.

His innings total now up to 145 13, he's inching ever closer to the day when general manager Mike Rizzo informs him he's done for 2012.

Strasburg has no idea when that day will be. The Nationals are purposely not spelling out their precise plan so he doesn't start thinking about it.

So he just keeps taking the ball every fifth day, hoping to do whatever he can to help get the Nationals a step closer to their ultimate goal, blocking out all the hysteria around him.

"It's funny, nobody talks to me personally about it," he said. "So obviously I can either scour the internet or watch all the stuff being said on TV, or I can just keep pitching and watch the Golf Channel, I guess."

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

bryce-harper-usat.jpg
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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