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Harper keeps contributing to first-place Nats

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Harper keeps contributing to first-place Nats

There's no player inside the Nationals clubhouse who holds himself to a higher standard than Bryce Harper. That's what happens when you spend most of your 19 years under an intense spotlight and and do things to this point no ballplayer has ever done.

So it's not surprising Harper is kind of down on himself these days as he battles through the first prolonged slump of his life. Not only is he not leading his team in every offensive category, but he's actually being benched every once in a while by a manager who is simply trying to get the most out of the 25 players on his roster.

Stop, though, and consider how much Harper has already accomplished in less than four months in the big leagues. He's hit 12 homers (the latest coming Sunday during a 5-2 victory over the Mets). He's totaled 34 extra-base hits. He's scored 65 runs. He's stolen 13 bases.

Most importantly, he's been a significant contributor on a first-place club, and he's done it at the age of 19.

"He wouldn't be here if we didn't think he could help us win," teammate Ryan Zimmerman said. "Just like everyone when they come up, whether they're 19 or 29, you're going to have struggles where you go up and down. It takes a while for the league to learn you, and then it takes a while for you to learn the league. So it kind of goes back and forth until you get consistent.

"But Harp comes here every day. He's ready to work and he attacks his weaknesses, is I think the best way to put it. He's not afraid to go out there and fail and learn from it. He's been a big part of this team."

He certainly was this weekend, playing a key role in both of the Nationals' victories over the Mets.

Harper's fourth-inning single Friday night helped set the stage for Michael Morse's grand slam. One inning later, he crushed a pitch from Johan Santana into the bleachers for a two-run homer.

Benched by manager Davey Johnson Saturday night -- against his will -- Harper returned to the lineup Sunday with a vengeance. He roped an RBI triple to right-center in the third, then belted another homer off the facade of the second-deck in the fifth.

"I think he was trying to send a message to me: 'Don't bench me,'" Johnson said with a laugh.

Harper was reluctant afterward to delve into any details about his hot weekend or what, if anything, he did differently to turn things around after a 32-game stretch in which he hit .171.

"Nothing," he insisted. "Still the same swing. The same since I've been 5 years old. Look at the video."

Harper probably isn't content with his overall numbers -- he needed this 2-for-4 performance to raise his batting average to .251 -- but he tries to remember the big picture.

"I'm never satisfied with my work," he said. "I'm never satisfied with anything I do. We're in first place, and that's the biggest thing I care about. My numbers could be really crappy, but we're in first place. That's all that matters."

Harper may not be satisfied, but he might not realize he's still accomplishing things few, if any, teenagers have ever accomplished in this sport. He's now one of only five players to hit at least 12 home runs in his age-19 season, joining two Hall of Famers (Mel Ott, Mickey Mantle), one future Hall of Famer (Ken Griffey Jr.) and a former phenom whose career tragically derailed because of injury (Tony Conigliaro).

And none of those others hit six triples to go along with their 12 homers at age 19, making Harper the first to pull off that feat.

"The kid's got all the talent in the world," said Danny Espinosa, who also homered Sunday. "As long as he doesn't press, and as long as he's not trying to force things to happen, he'll be fine. Everyone sees the amount of talent he has."

The 2012 Nationals as a team are loaded with talent, and because of it they own baseball's best record at 75-46, a 5-game lead on the Braves in the NL East and an 8 12-game lead for the NL's final wild-card slot.

They also now boast one of only three 16-game winners in the majors, with Gio Gonzalez on Sunday joining Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto and Tampa Bay's David Price. Gonzalez is the first pitcher in the Nationals' eight seasons of existence to reach the 16-win plateau.

"This is definitely an accomplishment we all did together," the left-hander said. "This wasn't definitely all by myself. This was 1-through-9, every single game, and they played their hearts out for me. This is a thank you to the bullpen, a thank you to the team."

That team-first mantra has been evident throughout the Nationals' clubhouse all season. There have been plenty of impressive individual accomplishments, but they all seem to take a back seat to the only stat most of these players care about: their won-loss record.

Starting with a supremely talented, 19-year-old outfielder.

"Harp just likes to come out and play the game the right way," Zimmerman said. "And at the end of the day, if he did something to help the team win, great. If not, we won, and he'll learn from it and come out tomorrow."

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Nationals on periphery in Las Vegas

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USA Today Sports

Nationals on periphery in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS -- Marlins Man walked into a modest eatery Sunday here in Las Vegas to look over the options. His bright orange jersey stood out among the cowboy hats and zombie-like Sunday exodus inside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

While another Las Vegas weekend closed, sending an army of roller bags across the casino floor toward the exit and airport, baseball started to creep into the home of the 2018 Winter Meetings. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo wandered across the marble floor. Media members from cities across the country became situated. Television stations raised their studios and radio talkers began to ramble. Everyone is wondering if the show in Vegas will be filled with drama or just another stall along the way to the offseason’s biggest news.

We know Rizzo turned in his homework early. Patrick Corbin’s money and introduction arrived late last week. Corbin, presumably, is the Nationals’ largest offseason expenditure. Surprising comments from Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner to 106.7 The Fan on Friday made that seem to be the case. He described Bryce Harper as all but gone, speaking wistfully, if not definitively.

Which means Rizzo is here for smaller shopping and the rest of baseball waits on Harper and Manny Machado.

A look through the Nationals shows few remaining gaps. Rizzo publicly contends he feels all right about starting the season with a Wilmer Difo/Howie Kendrick platoon at second base. The outfield is clear without Harper. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde will fight for the final rotation spot. Two new catchers have arrived. The bullpen was upgraded. Rizzo didn’t wait and watch what other teams were doing.

“We like the club we have at present,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington last week. “But, we’re never satisfied. There’s tweaks and combinations we can go after. We’ll be looking for values out there. What works for us, how do we construct the periphery of the roster. You can never have enough pitching and we’re always on the look for good starting and relief pitching. That could be something we attack either via the free agent market or trade market.”

One thing the market remains full of is left-handed relievers. The Nationals currently have three. One of which is Sammy Solis.

Washington decided to tender him a contract and the sides reached a one-year deal. There was consideration not to tender him a contract, which would have ended Solis’ time with Nationals. Instead, he’s back despite two back-to-back poor seasons following a strong 2016. Last season was a wreck. Solis finished with a 6.41 ERA. The other two lefties, Sean Doolittle and Matt Grace, were excellent. So, are the Nationals in the market for one more left-handed reliever to be sure?

“We’ve got right now on the roster three really competent left-handed pitchers,” Rizzo said, “in Doolittle, Grace who had a magnificent season last year and Sammy Solis, who we feel is a bounceback candidate. We feel good about the left-handed spot. We feel good about our bullpen as a whole.”

The Nationals were mid-pack last season in relievers’ ERA in both the National League and Major League Baseball. Their bullpen does appear close to done: Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Koda Glover, Grace, Solis, Justin Miller and Wander Suero are eight quick spots down there.

One upside here for Rizzo is he can wait. He doesn’t need to jump at the flush reliever market, which includes several decent left-handed options, because of the team’s prompt signings. A discount may arrive later. A factor to remember in regard to Solis is the Nationals would only be on the hook for 1/6th of his salary if they cut him in spring training. That’s a small penalty if someone in West Palm Beach appears more capable.

Washington also needs a left-handed bat off the bench that can play first base. Matt Adams, Justin Bour and Lucas Duda are names that could fill that slot. None will rattle the meetings.

This is life on the periphery, as Rizzo puts it. Will they talk to a lot of agents here? Yes. Will they consider an upgrade at second base? Of course. Are they part of the gigantic Harper and Machado storylines unlikely to conclude in Las Vegas but en route to dominate the conversation? Not really. At least not if Lerner’s public declaration is filled with flat facts. They offered Harper, he can do better elsewhere, and now life is quieter, even in Las Vegas.

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Nationals double-down on starting pitching by signing Patrick Corbin

Nationals double-down on starting pitching by signing Patrick Corbin

NATIONALS PARK -- A small break in the midst of the hoopla brought together $525 million in starting pitcher salary when Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin said hello for the first time Friday.

Scherzer and Strasburg sat in the front row during Corbin’s press conference. Scherzer shuffled a few seats down from his original landing spot to make more space. New catcher Yan Gomes filled in to his left, Ryan Zimmerman next to him and Strasburg on his side. 

Those top three in the rotation represent Mike Rizzo’s steadfast belief. Winning in the major leagues starts with foundational pitching. Every year. All year. And in the playoffs. 

“I think bullpenning in the playoffs is much different than bullpenning in the regular season,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington.

“The marathon that is the 162 is, I think, dependent and driven on starting pitching. Our philosophy is, how we built what we built so far is pitching, athleticism and defense. I think being strong up the middle and being able to catch the ball as you pitch it not only improves your pitching staff but limits the outs of the other team. Pitching has always been important to us. Starting pitching I think is our key and will continue to be so and developing them and signing them is important to us.”

The Nationals view Corbin as an ascending player. Three consecutive years of ERA reduction, helped by a new breaking pitch that is sort of a curveball, vaulted Corbin to a 3.15 ERA last season and a six-year, $140 million deal with a contender this offseason. That contender is the Nationals, who have more than a half-a-billion dollars tethered to three pitchers, who will be together a minimum of the next three years.

“The payroll's the payroll,” Rizzo said. “We all have budget restrictions and payroll restrictions. We've allocated a lot of resources to our front of the rotation and I think that elite starters, middle-lineup bats and back-end relievers is where I think you spend your money and you try to get values along the periphery of your roster.”

Corbin’s second off-speed pitch pushed him toward elite status. He talked with former Arizona slugger Paul Goldschmidt about what gave him trouble. He watched Clayton Kershaw round off and drastically drop speeds with his curveball. Both made Corbin think another layer would benefit him after years of mediocre results with his changeup, which has been shelved.

Enter the curveball. In essence, it’s just a slower slider. The speed gap -- about nine mph -- couples with an arm angle and release point that directly mimics his slider. He doesn’t even change the grip. Corbin just twists his wrist ever so slightly to slow the pitch and change its shape to the plate, providing a heftier vertical break.

“The slider has always been my pitch coming up from the minor leagues,” Corbin told NBC Sports Washington.

“It was a grip that my father showed me when I was really young. It’s kind of neat I was able to keep that up to this point in time. I have a great feel for it. Able to change speeds and location on the slider. Then adding a slower breaking ball helped just keeping some hitters off-balance.”

The length of the deal gave him assurance and critics pause. The Nationals believe Corbin’s 2018 uptick is closer to who he is as opposed to the prior two years following Tommy John surgery when he struggled.

Corbin was impressed with multiple things from the Nationals: that someone from the ownership level came to dinner with them (principal owner Mark Lerner); that they were willing to annually invest to be competitive; and, despite being an upstate New York native, Washington appealed to him and his wife, Jen, as place to be for several years.

Corbin’s presence takes a rotation that plummeted to 13th in starter ERA among National League teams last season and puts it back toward the top. Tanner Roark will slot in behind the uber-rich trio. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde are among the contenders for the final spot. Rizzo took the organization’s cash and dumped it into his annual priority. He hopes it pays them back. 

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