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A grand conclusion to a wild Nats win

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A grand conclusion to a wild Nats win

PHOENIX — Michael Taylor strode to the plate in the top of the ninth Wednesday afternoon, the bases loaded with Nationals in a tight ballgame, and every one of the 19,026 souls at Chase Field had to have the same reaction.

Of course it would happen like this. Really, could you have expected anything else?

Only two innings earlier, Taylor was underneath the first-base stands, stretching his legs for what he assumed could be a potential pinch-running opportunity at some point. Except out on the field, Bryce Harper was livid with Rob Drake, going face-to-face with the plate umpire and his refusal to appeal to third base on a check-swing call that ended the top of the seventh.

Harper quickly got the heave-ho from Drake, as did manager Matt Williams, who raced out of the dugout to stand up for his young star. And so it was that Taylor found himself taking over in right field for the bottom of the inning, now serving as the Nationals’ cleanup hitter for the first time in his career.

And wouldn’t you know he would then find himself at the plate in the ninth, the bases full, the Nats trailing by a run, then proceed to launch the first grand slam of his career, a towering blast to center field that delivered a dramatic, 9-6 victory over the Diamondbacks?

“Of course I want to be up there in that situation,” Harper said. “But, Mike … I guess I owe him a steak dinner.”

It was a stunning, yet fitting, way to cap a bizarre series in the desert, one that featured a blowout win by each club, then a wild, back-and-forth affair in the finale. In the end, the Nationals emerged with their 12th win in 15 games, their fifth consecutive series victory.

“I think we got fortunate in that one,” Williams said. “They had a lot of opportunity. We allowed them a lot of opportunity. We were able to get the last swing. … But we were fortunate to win that one.”

The pivotal moment appeared to come during Harper’s seventh-inning at-bat, during what was then a 5-5 game. Harper tried to check his swing on a 2-2 pitch outside from lefty Oliver Perez, but Drake rung him up, insisting he hadn’t held up his swing. Harper immediately argued, telling the plate umpire he should’ve appealed to Gabe Morales at third base, as is typically custom on such check-swings.

Drake’s response, according to Harper: “You’re really gonna act like that?”

That only fired up Harper more, leading to a face-to-face argument and the fourth ejection of his career (first since 2013).

“I didn’t like that comment from him,” Harper said. “I don’t like getting talked down to by an umpire. I respect the umpires as much as I can, but to tell me I’m going to act like that, I gave him a piece of my mind.”

By the time Williams sprinted from the dugout, it was too late to save Harper from getting booted from the game but possibly not too late to save the young star from something worse. That, though, led to Williams’ ejection as well, his third since becoming Nationals manager last year.

“I’m going out there to protect Bryce,” Williams said. “If he gets kicked out of the game, he gets kicked out. But I don’t want anything further than that.”

Once Harper and Williams retreated to the clubhouse to watch the rest of the game out of public view, Taylor took over in right field and bench coach Randy Knorr took over as manager. Knorr needed his bullpen to keep the game tied, but after a couple of escape acts, Aaron Barrett couldn’t finish the job, surrendering a 2-out RBI single to Yasmany Tomas in the bottom of the eighth, giving Arizona a 6-5 lead and leaving the Nationals three outs from defeat.

They still had one more rally in them, though, beginning with Denard Span’s 1-out single off embattled Diamondbacks closer Addison Reed. Yunel Escobar followed with another single, then Jayson Werth battled to draw a walk and load the bases for the Nats’ cleanup hitter … who was not named Harper anymore but instead was the 23-year-old Taylor.

More than a few in the park had a hunch things would play out exactly like that.

“Oh yeah, that always crosses your mind, especially when you got a guy hitting 3-4-5 for you,” Werth said. “You want him in there at the end of the game, but luckily it worked out for us. Mikey got him off the hook.”

Indeed he did. Taylor blasted Reed’s 1-0 fastball at the knees to center field, reaching a cut-out in the giant batter’s eye high above the 407-foot mark. It was his first career at-bat with the bases loaded, and it produced the ultimate result.

“I was trying not to be too aggressive and chase something out of the zone,” Taylor said. “I kind of had my one spot, and if he threw it there, I was going to take a hack at it.”

After circling the bases, Taylor was greeted by an excitable group of teammates, who pounded him in celebration. The guy who really wanted to thank him, of course, wasn’t allowed to be in the dugout anymore.

Harper, though, will show his appreciation for his teammate with that steak dinner. Even though Taylor had a hunch Harper would’ve one-upped him had he been the one at the plate late Wednesday afternoon instead.

“Yeah, he probably would’ve hit it about 500 feet,” Taylor said with a smile.

MORE NATIONALS: Ninth-inning grand slam lifts Nationals over Arizona

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3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

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USA TODAY

3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

Nationals fans are teetering on the edge. 

On one hand, the Nats are 3.5 games out of first place after a 10-week span full of injuries and underperformance. The team just acquired All-Star closer Kelvin Herrera, and their 19-year-old left fielder looks like an All-Star already. 

On the other hand, doom is imminent. The Monstars stole Bryce Harper's abilities at some point over the last three weeks, Steven Strasburg can't stay healthy, and the offense is pushing everyone's patience to the limit. 

So who's overperforming? Who's underperforming? Who's out there just trying their very best? LET'S LIST. 

Three Up

1. Juan Soto

Our large young son Juan continues to impress. He's now hitting .325/.411/.602 with a 1.013 OPS in 95 plate appearances over 25 games. That means we're mercifully starting to leave the 'fluky start' narrative behind. He's been the best hitter on the Nationals by a wide margain since he got called up - although that's perhaps more of an indicitment on the rest of the lineup than it is on Soto. Still, in less than a month he's probably earned the starting left field spot for the rest of the summer. Not bad. 

2. Justin Miller

Miller is 31, on his third team in four years, and owns a career ERA north of 4.50. Despite all of this, Miller's been the best reliever in baseball since coming up for the Nats. Of relief pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched (we hear your sample size comment and are not going to acknolwdge it), no one has a better FIP than Miller (0.64). He's striking out over half of the batters he sees and has yet to walk a single person this year. All the elite relief pitchers are already at 30-40 innings pitched, so Miller has a while to go before these stats mean a whole lot. If he stays even 75 percent as good as he's started, the Nats' bullpen looks scary. 

3. Michael A. Taylor

Have yourself a week or two, Michael A.! The centerfielder is slashing .500/.556/.583 over the last 14 days, the first of many "Maybe He Put It Together?!" runs we'll see from him this year. He also has six stolen bases during that span, more than anyone else on the team. His plate discipline has been better over the last two weeks, with a BB% a shade over 11 percent - only behind Juan Soto for highest on the team. Juan Soto, man. 

Three Down

1. Bryce Harper

A couple things here. We'll start with the admission that Bryce Harper is obviously not having a superb year. We've already briefly touched on why looking at only his batting average is a lazy way of judging his season, and we stand by that. With that said - Harper's had a bad season. The last month has been particularly painful. There's no way of dressing up a .189/.278/.400 slashline over the last 30 days. Still, his contact has been as great as his luck terrible - there's a positive regression coming, we promise. 

2. Pedro Severino 

And you think Harper's been slumping?? Over the same 30 days, Severino has hit .098/.179/.115 with a .294 OPS. He's essentially daring the Nats to put together a trade package for JT Realmuto at this point. He has six hits over his last 68 plate appearances and five of them are singles. 

3. Shawn Kelley

Kelley owns a 6.09 FIP and a 4.32 ERA over the last month (10 games, 8.1 innings pitched). He's walking close to nine percent of the hitters he's faced during that time. He has a 12.5 HR/FB over the last month. With the trade for Kelvin Herrera and the sudden emergence of Justin Miller, Kelley's role going forward isn't quite clear anymore. 

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National League All-Star Game Roster Projection: How it will all break down

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USA Today Sports

National League All-Star Game Roster Projection: How it will all break down

In less than a month, the 2018 MLB All-Star game will take place at Nationals Park.

There are plenty of details that still need ironing out, but none are more important than the 64 players that will be taking the field at the Midsummer Classic.

Surely the Washington Nationals are hoping that many of their hometown stars will make the cut.

So, lets clear the air. How are the MLB All-Star rosters created? Well it is a combination of the fan vote, the player ballots, and the MLB Commissioners Office. No, it is not a 33-33-33 split, but rather a political (yet fair) process. Here is how it shakes out for there to be 32 players on each team:

  • Fan vote: eight position players in NL/ nine in AL (DH); plus final vote for each league
  • Player’s ballots: next 16 players in NL; 17 players in AL (five starting pitchers, three relievers must be chosen)
  • MLB Commissioner’s Office: seven NL players (four pitchers, three position players) and five AL players (four pitchers, one position player)

Keep in mind, the MLB Commissioner’s Office merely is just there to ensure that there is one representative from all 30 MLB teams. Additionally, the player’s ballots are generally in-line with statistics and name recognition.

So let’s see how this shakes out for the National League All-Star Game roster. This factors in the latest fan vote returns:

National League All-Star Roster Projection:

C – Buster Posey, Giants (Fan Vote), Wilson Contreras, Cubs (Player Ballot)
1B – Freddie Freeman, Braves (Fan Vote), Jose Martinez, Cardinals (Player Ballot), Justin Bour, Marlins (Commissioner’s Office)
2B – Ozzie Albies, Braves (Fan Vote), Scooter Gennett, Reds (Player Ballot)
3B – Nolan Arenado, Rockies (Fan Vote), Kris Bryant, Cubs (Player Ballot)
SS – Brandon Crawford, Giants (Fan Vote), Chris Taylor, Dodgers (Player Ballot)
OF – Nick Markakis, Braves (Fan Vote), Bryce Harper, Nationals (Fan Vote), Matt Kemp (Fan Vote), Albert Almora Jr., Cubs (Player Ballot), Charlie Blackmon, Rockies (Player Ballot), Corey Dickerson, Pirates (Player Ballot), David Peralta, Diamondbacks (Commissioner’s Office), Christian Yelich (Commissioner’s Office)

SP – Max Scherzer, Nationals (Player Ballot), Sean Newcomb, Braves (Player Ballot), Jon Lester, Cubs (Player Ballot), Aaron Nola, Phillies (Player Ballot), Jacob deGrom, Mets (Player Ballot), Mike Foltynewicz, Braves (Commissioner’s Office)

RP – Brad Hand, Padres (Player Ballot), Sean Doolittle, Nationals (Player Ballot), Josh Hader Brewers (Player Ballot), Wade Davis, Rockies (Commissioner’s Office), Kenley Jansen (Commissioner’s Office), Jeremy Jeffress (Commissioner’s Office)

Manager: Dave Roberts, Dodgers

After this, there will be one more player chosen by another fan vote. The MLB Commissioner’s Office, along with the manager, choses five players to be selected in the penultimate vote. 

This puts three Nationals on the All-Star team with the Braves leading the charge with five selections.

Now of course nothing ever goes to plan, but heck its baseball, not everyone will be happy.

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