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Harper on Williams' firing, Papelbon & chances for new contract

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Harper on Williams' firing, Papelbon & chances for new contract

It has been quite the offseason for Bryce Harper, who in addition to winning the National League MVP award has dyed his hair blonde, been a presenter at the NASCAR Awards, and now has a rap song by Wale inspired by his historic 2015 campaign due out this week.

These days, Harper is showing up just about everywhere. But Sunday was the first time this winter the Nats beat corps got to catch up with the superstar right fielder. That allowed us to get his take on many things that have changed with the Nats, including their hiring of manager Dusty Baker.

"I'm definitely excited," Harper said. "Having a guy at the head of the throne in Dusty Baker, who has been in a lot of clubhouses and has had a lot of superstar players and things like that. He's been around the game for a long, long time. He played for some great teams, as well."

Though Harper is happy to have Baker in store, he made it clear throughout 2015 that he enjoyed Matt Williams as his manager. He often spoke of how Williams helped his development as a player and even defended him towards the end of the season when his job was in jeopardy.

"I think that was just what the organization wanted. Anything the organization wants to do, I'm all for it," Harper said of Williams' dismissal.

"I tip my cap to what Matt did for me. Being able to learn from a guy like that, a guy that hit over 50 homers in one year and then however many in his career, he's been unbelievable. He was awesome to be able to talk to every single day hitting-wise. I've talked to him a couple times this offseason and I've wished him the best of luck. I'll see him down the road, definitely."

Part of Williams' demise involved his mishandling of the fight between Harper and Jonathan Papelbon. Harper was asked about the closer and their relationship on Sunday.

"Last year is behind us. I'm not even worried about last year. It was a terrible year for what we are about. We need to go into this year with the right mentality," he said. 

Harper has already turned the page toward next year. He currently weighs 210 pounds, but plans on reporting at 205. Carrying a lighter frame, he believes, is better for preventing injuries. And, of course, it worked pretty well for him in 2015.

Harper had one of the best seasons of all time last year, but hopes to improve and get even better. One area he thinks that is possible is with baserunning. Since stealing 18 bases as a rookie, he has notched only 19 total steals in the three years since, including six last year.

"If I'm allowed to," Harper said of wanting to steal more often. "I know I can score from first, I've done that a couple times. I did that a couple times this year. But I'd like to be able to score from second or third. Hopefully I can get a little better on the basepaths and hopefully Davey [Lopes] and Dusty, I can see where that lies. If it means we're going to score some more runs, then that's huge for us."

The Nationals have been close to signing several of the top free agents this offseason. They have pursued Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name two, but have fallen short.

Harper has been keeping up with all of it and believes in the Nats' front office, despite the fact they've missed out on a few players this winter.

"We've done a pretty good job of going out trying to get guys. We just haven't been fortunate enough to have those guys come to play for us. We've put money on the table and done things we've needed to do, but we just haven't been fortunate enough to have those guys come in and play for us. 

"We've got work to do this offseason, as [Mike] Rizzo has said. And like I said, I've got Rizzo's back no matter what. He does a great job through the minor leagues all the way to the big leagues. We've got [Lucas] Giolito in the minors, we've got [Erick] Fedde. We've got some guys who are almost ready coming up. Giolito throws a billion miles per hour. Whatever they do with him, I'd like to have him on our staff or even in the bullpen. That'd be something I'd think about. We're young, but we're good. If that's Micheal Taylor or Trea Turner, I believe in this organization. Rizzo is still not done and hopefully we make a splash here and there and see what we can do."

When it comes to the future, the million dollar question is whether Harper will sign a long-term extension with the Nationals. His contract runs through the 2018 season, but beyond that there is uncertainty.

When asked about the potential for a new deal, Harper wouldn't get into specifics.

"I think that will play out when it does. I'm just worried about this year and the next couple of years. I'm very fortunate to be able to be a National and play this game every single day. I love these fans and I love this organization. It will play out in the next couple of years."

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Trea Turner goes 4 for 4 to help Nationals beat Orioles

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USA TODAY Sports

Trea Turner goes 4 for 4 to help Nationals beat Orioles

WASHINGTON -- Presented with identical opportunities to ring up a big inning, the Washington Nationals took full advantage and Baltimore Orioles squandered the chance.

That goes a long way toward explaining why the Nationals are a contender and the Orioles own the worst record in the big leagues.

Trea Turner went 4 for 4 with a homer , Anthony Rendon drove in three runs and Washington extended its recent domination of the Orioles with a 9-7 victory Tuesday night.

The game was essentially decided in the fifth inning, which began with Baltimore leading 4-1.

In the top half, the Orioles loaded the bases with no outs and scored only one run -- when Manny Machado hit into a 4-6-3 double play.

Washington loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom half and batted around, scoring four runs on four hits and a pair of walks. Adam Eaton contributed a two-run single, Rendon hit a sacrifice fly and Bryce Harper chased starter David Hess with an RBI double.

"They did a lot better job cashing in their bases loaded, nobody out situation than we did," Orioles manager Buck Showalter conceded.

For the game, Baltimore was 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position. The Nationals were 5 for 10.

"This team is starting to become relentless," manager Dave Martinez said. "They kept pounding and pounding and pounding, had a couple of big innings there and scored some runs."

The Nationals trailed 6-5 before getting six hits in a four-run seventh. Rendon delivered a two-run double off Tanner Scott (0-1) that made it 7-6, and Turner capped his four-hit night with a double.

Both teams noted that more than a couple of Washington's hits were bloopers and seeing-eye grounders, but the Nationals certainly weren't about to apologize.

"I feel like all year we've been hitting balls right at people," Turner said, "so it's nice to get a bunch of those in one game and come out with a win."

Washington has won six straight over its neighboring interleague rival, including four games this season by a combined 20-8.

Pitching in his second big league game, Nationals starter Jefry Rodriguez gave up five runs, four hits and four walks in five innings.

Justin Miller (5-0) pitched two innings of relief, newcomer Kelvin Herrera worked a perfect eighth and Sean Doolittle gave up a solo home run to Joey Rickard while earning his 19th save.

Jace Peterson and Trey Mancini each hit two-run homers for the Orioles, who have lost 16 of 19.

This one can be blamed on an all-too-telling fifth inning.

"It's just one of those things where if they got hits they seemed to have found holes," Showalter said. "They hit some balls hard, too."

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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 as clear anymore. 

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