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Harper enjoys an MVP-kind of day

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Harper enjoys an MVP-kind of day

The chant began after Bryce Harper had rounded the bases in he bottom of the seventh, his 41st homer of the season having already landed in the second deck down the right-field to give the Nationals a 5-2 lead over the Marlins they would not relinquish.

“M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!”

With two weeks remaining in the regular season, Harper can’t do much more to make his case for the first Most Valuable Player award in club history, the first official MVP award in Washington baseball history. The numbers, at this point, are historic, certainly impressive enough to overshadow the fact they were produced by somebody who most likely won’t have played for a playoff participant this season.

But afternoons like the one Harper put together Saturday sure don’t hurt his cause, either.

The home run — a 2-run shot off Marlins reliever Kyle Barraclough — was the highlight-reel moment, yet another towering blast from a slugger who has hit more than his share of those this year. But the at-bat that most impressed others within the clubhouse came two innings earlier, when Harper battled through a 10-pitch showdown with left-hander Brad Hand before lining a sacrifice fly to right that brought home the game-tying run.

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“That’s an important moment,” manager Matt Williams said. “It’s one thing to try to hit a homer there. It’s another thing to grind an at-bat and simply get one [run]. That will allow him to have success throughout his career, if he can have at-bats like that.”

The at-bat included, in no particular order: 10 pitches, five foul balls (all with two strikes), a new set of batting gloves (that he wound up not using), two uses of the rosin bag and a new bat after the first broke on one of the foul balls.

“I was trying to put the bat on the ball,” Harper said. “Trying to definitely make something happen. Didn’t care what he was going to throw up there. I was just trying to battle and do the best I could to get something in the air, or get something through a hole.”

The end result was a sacrifice fly, accounting for Harper’s 93rd RBI of the season. The home run later raised that total to 95 and put him on the cusp of a truly phenomenal offensive performance in 2015.

If Harper can maintain his current batting average, hit four more homers and drive in five more runs, he’ll become only the ninth player in MLB history to finish a season at .340 with 45 homers and 100 RBI.

Add one more element to the equation — on-base percentage — and Harper joins an even more-exclusive club. If he can maintain his current OBP of .467, while also hitting .340 with 45 homers and 100 RBI, he’d stand alongside only five others who have accomplished that: Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Jimmy Foxx.

“The biggest thing I see is he’s not chasing any pitches,” right-hander Jordan Zimmermann said. “Last year and the year before that, he was chasing stuff out of the zone. Now he’s a lot more patient and knows that they’re not gonna give him strikes and he’s gonna take his walks when he can. He’s been awesome all year.”

Zimmermann was asked if he ever considers how he’d try to pitch to Harper.

“I think there’s not too many ways of getting him out the way he’s swinging,” the two-time All-Star said. “I’d definitely attack him. I’m not gonna pitch around him. I’d go after him and give him my best bolt.”

Trouble is, Harper continues to make anyone who attempts to attack him regret that decision, thanks to at-bats like the one he put together in the fifth inning Saturday. Hand used everything he had trying to retire Harper. In the end, he could only hold the likely 2015 NL MVP to a game-tying sacrifice fly.

“That’s the evolution of his game,” Williams said. “Grind at-bats. Bases loaded. The lefty-on-lefty matchup. Staying on balls. Doing what he can to put that ball in play. Those are the steps he’s made this year and will continue to make that will allow him to do the things he wants to do on the field.”

MORE NATIONALS: Scherzer's fiery exchange with Williams highlights extra-inning win

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Can slumping Nationals, Gio Gonzalez end losing streak Monday vs. Padres?

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Can slumping Nationals, Gio Gonzalez end losing streak Monday vs. Padres?

When the Washington Nationals visited San Diego on May 7-9, they won the first two games of a three-game series to move within 1 1/2 games of the National League West lead.

At the time, the Nationals were on a bit of a run and the Padres were reeling with a 13-24 record.

Two weeks after that series, the Padres and Nationals meet again in Washington, D.C (7:05 p.m. ET, Monday). And the fortunes of the two teams have changed a bit.

Since winning that series finale at Petco Park to avoid being swept by the Nationals, the Padres have gone 7-4 and are riding a three-game winning streak.

The Nationals have gone 4-4 and just lost a third straight game to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday in Washington to slip four games off the lead in their division.

The Nationals are the home team this time for a three-game series that opens Monday night with a matchup of left-handers -- Gio Gonzalez (4-2, 2.36 ERA) going for Washington with Robbie Erlin (1-2, 3.46) making a spot start for San Diego.

On paper, the pairing clearly favors the hosts.

Erlin, 27, has met the Nationals twice in his career. Both games were at Nationals Park. Erlin is 0-2 in the matchups with a 16.39 ERA.

In Erlin's two previous outings in the nation's capital, Erlin has given up 17 runs, 19 hits and six walks with six strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings. The Nationals have hit .413 against Erlin, who has a 2.68 WHIP against Washington.

This will be only the second start of the season for Erlin, who returned this year after having Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery midway through 2016.

Thirteen of Erlin's 14 appearances this season have been out of the bullpen. His one previous start was April 16 against the Dodgers. He gave up six runs (five earned), seven hits and two walks with four strikeouts in three innings.

Erlin is filling the vacancy created when rookie left-hander Joey Lucchesi went on the disabled list with a slightly strained glute. The Padres are hoping Lucchesi will miss only one start, although it looks like it could now be two or three.

Gonzalez is no stranger to the Padres. He started the May 9 game that the Nationals lost 2-1. Gonzalez allowed one run, five hits and three walks in six innings. Afterward, he said he struggled with his command.

Gonzalez was not involved in that decision. During his career, he has made seven starts against the Padres and has a 3-2 record with a 3.21 ERA, a 1.357 WHIP and a .253 opponents' batting average. Against the Padres, Gonzalez has given up 19 runs (15 earned), 41 hits and 16 walks with 41 strikeouts in 42 innings.

When the Nationals were in San Diego, first baseman-left fielder Matt Adams went 3-for-8 with a double, two homers, six RBIs and three runs scored -- although he got the third game off.

Since leaving San Diego, Adams has hit only .143. Washington's Bryce Harper is hitting .125 in the last eight games with a homer and three RBIs.

Another key player in the first Padres-Nationals series was Howie Kendrick, who was 5-for-12 with a double and two runs scored. But Kendrick has been lost with a ruptured Achilles tendon and on Saturday the Nationals promoted a 19-year-old prospect from Double-A.

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Soto makes debut in Nationals loss to Dodgers

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Soto makes debut in Nationals loss to Dodgers

WASHINGTON  -- Kike Hernandez and Yasiel Puig each hit two-run homers, and the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Washington Nationals 7-2 on Sunday to complete a three-game sweep.

Hernandez's blast off Stephen Strasburg in the fifth inning put the Dodgers up 3-2. Yasmani Grandal also homered off Strasburg (5-4), who allowed three runs and five hits over 6 2/3 innings with seven strikeouts.

Alex Wood (1-4) pitched six innings, allowing just three hits and two earned runs. Wood came out to start the seventh, but returned to the clubhouse after showing some discomfort during his warm-up tosses.

Trea Turner homered for Washington, which swept Arizona last weekend and then went five days without playing a full game because of rain before getting swept by the Dodgers.

Los Angeles, after losing six consecutive games, has now won four straight overall and five of six over Washington this season.

Washington's Juan Soto, at 19 the youngest active player in the majors, made his debut in the eighth as a pinch-hitter and struck out against Erik Goeddel.

The Dodgers added two runs in the ninth. Josh Fields recorded the final four outs for his second save of the season.

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