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Harper on Williams: 'I love him as a manager'

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Harper on Williams: 'I love him as a manager'

PHILADELPHIA — Bryce Harper offered full-throated support for Matt Williams on Tuesday night, crediting the Nationals manager for helping him through an MVP-worthy season and stumping for his return in 2016.

“Truly, I love him as a manager,” Harper said following the Nationals’ 4-0 victory over the Phillies. “Flat-out, I absolutely do. And if I didn’t, everybody would know. Absolutely everybody would know. Because I’m not shy to say things.”

Though club officials haven’t publicly discussed it, Williams’ fate hangs in the balance over the final 2 1/2 weeks of what has been a disappointing season for a Nationals team that was overwhelmingly favored to win the NL East but currently finds itself 8 1/2 games behind the Mets. The club’s struggles are a byproduct of numerous factors — an injury-depleted lineup, an underachieving rotation, a poorly constructed bullpen — but Williams also has come under scrutiny for his in-game decisions and lack of emotion on a public stage.

Harper’s endorsement doesn’t necessarily carry any weight — general manager Mike Rizzo has said in the past he doesn’t pick managers based on players’ opinions — but it did reveal the close relationship that has developed over the last two years between the young slugger and the former big-league third baseman.

Williams and Harper discuss hitting approaches on a regular basis, and the two convened just before Harper stepped to the plate for his eighth-inning at-bat Tuesday night against Adam Loewen. Harper asked Williams how he should approach the Phillies left-hander.

“Just sit back on it and try to roll,” Harper said Williams told him.

“Alright,” Harper replied. “Hopefully I’ll hit a homer.”

He did just that, taking Loewen’s 1-1 fastball the other way and over the left-field fence for his second homer of the game, his 39th of the season. As he returned to the dugout after circling the bases, Harper came up behind Williams and gave his manager a bear hug as the two exchanged smiles and a laugh.

“He does everything he can to help me,” Harper said. “He’s unbelievable with the mind game and being able to talk about hitting, being able to have a guy like that in my corner, to go up to him and really ask him what he thinks, how he’d approach the at-bat.”

The Harper-Williams relationship has developed considerably over the last two years. Much was made when Williams benched the young star for failing to run out a groundball early last season, but the bond between the two has been strong ever since.

Harper can’t necessarily relate to that many other current or former players, given how much he has accomplished at such a young age (his current 1.134 OPS would be best in the majors since Barry Bonds’ 1.422 mark in 2004). But in Williams he has a manager who both hit for power in his career — he was on pace to break Roger Maris’ 61-homer record before the strike prematurely ended the 1994 season — while also playing alongside one of the greatest hitters in baseball history in Bonds.

“Being able to play for a guy like that, that I can actually talk to about at-bats, approach at-bat to at-bat, and just being able to have the fire and the intensity that he has, the way he approaches every single day,” Harper said. “He wants us to be perfect, and I love that. I played for a guy like that in high school. And my dad’s exactly like that, also. Coming in every single day and having that push to win ballgames, playing for a guy like that is fun. I love Matt, being able to see what he thinks about hitting and things like that, it’s a lot of fun.”

MORE NATIONALS: Harper hits 39th homer, Strasburg dominates against Phillies

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Murphy's big hit helps Nats beat Mets 6-1

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Murphy's big hit helps Nats beat Mets 6-1

Daniel Murphy and Trea Turner each hit a two-run single in Washington's five-run seventh inning, helping the Nationals beat the New York Mets 6-1 on Sunday.

Matt Adams added two hits and scored a run as Washington salvaged a split of its four-game set against New York. A preseason favorite to win the NL East and contend for a World Series championship, the disappointing Nationals hit the All-Star break with a 48-48 record, good for third in the division.

Jeremy Hellickson (4-1) pitched six crisp innings in his second straight win. The veteran right-hander allowed one run and two hits, struck out six and walked two.

Jose Reyes drove in Michael Conforto with a fielder's choice in the second, tying it at 1, but Washington grabbed control in the seventh.

Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon opened the inning with walks against Anthony Swarzak (0-2). Tim Peterson then came in and surrendered singles to Adams and Murphy, who came off the bench to hit for Michael A. Taylor.

Jerry Blevins replaced Peterson with two out and runners on second and third. But he hit Wilmer Difo and Adam Eaton before Turner's single gave Washington a 6-1 lead.

New York wasted a solid start by Corey Oswalt, who allowed two hits in five innings. The Mets got off to a fast start this year, but hit the break last in the division with a 39-55 record, a percentage point behind fourth-place Miami.

WAITING

A steady drizzle delayed the start by 47 minutes.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: RHP Stephen Strasburg (right shoulder inflammation) pitched 5 2/3 innings in a rehab start for Class A Potomac. He allowed three runs, struck out seven and walked one. Strasburg has been on the disabled list since June 10.

Mets: Yoenis Cespedes is scheduled to play five simulated innings in left field at the team's facility in Florida on Monday. Mets manager Mickey Callaway said the 32-year-old outfielder, who has been sidelined by a right hip flexor and strained quadriceps, could return as the designated hitter next weekend against the Yankees If he is able to play on consecutive days.

MAKING MOVES

The Nationals recalled right-hander Trevor Gott from Triple-A Syracuse. Right-hander Austin Voth, who took the loss in his big league debut Saturday, was sent back to Syracuse.

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Taking a look at the numbers behind the Nationals' three All-Stars

Taking a look at the numbers behind the Nationals' three All-Stars

With a win on Sunday afternoon, the Nationals come into the All-Star break at 48-48. 

That's not great! It's certainly an underperformance given all the expectations, but the season hasn't been without some stellar individual performances . 

Take, for starters, Max Scherzer. Scherzer's on pace to have an even better year than his 2017 Cy Young-winning effort, which is mind-boggling. 

An even-more-refined command is what's made him better this season, as his walk rate is down below seven percent again after creeping up to 7.1 last year. It hasn't affected his strikeout rate, either, which has stayed steady at 34 percent. If the season ended today, it'd be the 4th straight year where he set a career-best in that department. 

Of all starting pitchers, he ranks second in WHIP, and K/BB percent. He has the third-lowest average against (.178) and third-best strikeout percentage (34.5). He's got a top-10 ERA and FIP as well. He's been the best pitcher in baseball this season, and will probably be in the conversation for N.L. MVP as well. 

If only the Nats could just go from Scherzer to Doolittle. The closer stopped walking people, too, and already has 22 saves after ending last year with 24. Had he not been put on the D.L. with a toe injury about a week before the All-Star game, he more than likely would have set his career high in saves before the break. 

He's currently on pace to post the second-best year of his career when it comes to strikeouts, too. He's getting Ks 37.1 percent of the time, which would be the highest since he posted a 37.7 in 2014. Same goes for his K/9. He also has a top-10 ERA and FIP. He's been one of the few relief pitchers that have been consistently reliable through the first half, and the Nats will need his toe to get real healthy real quick. 

And lastly there's Bryce Harper, who you've surely heard is not having an All-Star caliber season. His batting average is hovering around .200, he's striking out more than he has in four years, and he's getting eaten alive by the shift. He's also on pace to have one of his best power-hitting seasons ever and finish with close to 40 home runs, so even his bad years still find a way to be impressive. 

Harper also benefits from being one of the faces of baseball playing in front of his home fans. He's one of the most popular players in the league, and All-Star games find a way to get those people in. An All-Star game in D.C. without him would be objectively less enjoyable, so it was in everyone's interest to have him there. Stars just get the calls sometimes. 

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