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Harper's career day puts him in elite company in baseball history

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Harper's career day puts him in elite company in baseball history

Bryce Harper entered the major leagues in 2012 with a legend that preceded him, expectations of greatness and the potential to someday be one of the best hitters in baseball. The thought was that one day he would be capable of special things, special games that would earn him a place in baseball's long and decorated history.

Wednesday at Nationals Park was one of those days, as the 22-year-old outfielder became the 10th-youngest player ever to hit three home runs in one game. He accomplished that feat in a span of just three at-bats spread across five innings, giving him a shot at four homers, a milestone rarer than a perfect game.

Harper had never hit three homers in one game before in the majors, but he had at several levels on his way through the amateur and professional ranks. He hit for the cycle and blasted four home runs in a game at the College of Southern Nevada. Both of those feats he did twice. He also hit three home runs in the minors during a rehab assignment with Double-A Harrisburg last June.

Most predicted Harper would have games like this at some point in the majors, Harper himself included.

"That's how I should be, plain and simple. That's how I should be. That's how I expect myself to play," he said.

"If it's hitting homers or hitting doubles or anything, that's what I need to do. That's what I expect out of myself. Of course, you're not going to do that every single day. You're not going to hit three homers, or whatever, and drive in five. But that's the type of player I need to be."

All three of Harper's homers came off of Marlins starter Tom Koehler. The first was a solo shot to left field in the second inning, an opposite field flyball that bounced off the back wall of the visitors bullpen. The second landed in the second deck in right field, a two-run bomb in the third inning. The third homer also landed in the second deck, another solo smash in the bottom of the fifth.

The final home run earned Harper a standing ovation and curtain call from the 31,417 in attendance at Nationals Park. Harper obliged, though he later joked that he wished the crowd would have held off on the gesture.

"I didn't want to go up there because I wanted to get one more," he said. "I wish they would have waited because I think I got up too early. I went up there and said 'thank you' for that. I wish they would have waited unless I would have got four."

Starter Max Scherzer - who earned the win in the Nats' 7-5 victory - was fired up after the game about Harper's performance.

“I didn’t see any of his home runs. I was actually in the tunnel underneath trying to stay cool. But I definitely heard all three," he said. "Definitely on the second and third ones when I heard it I just looked at the security guard and said ‘see ya!’ It’s in the upper deck. I didn’t even have to watch it to know where they were hit.”

Harper had a chance for a fourth home run in the seventh inning against Marlins reliever Sam Dyson. There was one out and runners on the corners. Harper finished the at-bat with a groundout to second, one that was soft enough to score Ian Desmond from third. That gave Harper his fifth RBI of the afternoon.

Harper became the youngest player to have three home runs and five RBI in one game since Al Kaline of the Detroit Tigers did so on April 17, 1955. The last player younger than him to have three home runs was Joe Lahoud of the Red Sox on June 11, 1969.

Harper is now tied for second in the NL with eight homers, that to go along with his MLB-best 26 walks. At 22 years old, he is starting to round into form as one of the most complete offensive players in the game.

Manager Matt Williams has seen that transition and thinks Harper is developing into much more than just a good player.

"I think that the biggest way that you become a leader of your team is doing stuff like he did today," Williams explained. "So is the way he’s led thus far is he’s taking his walks. He’s providing opportunity for anybody else that hits behind him. He’s also doing what he did today. He’s playing exceptional defense. All of those things are qualities of a true leader without having opened his mouth. That’s the ultimate leader."

With plenty of help from Harper, the Nationals are now winners of three consecutive series and seven of their last nine games. Harper also expected the team to come around after a slow start to the year and believes they will continue to get even better.

"We've been playing well," he said. "People can talk about 'oh, they started slow, or they started this or they started that. They're not hitting, they're not doing this, they're not doing that.' It's all hearsay. We're a great team. We're going to come at you and play hard and play the game the right way. We got a great staff and a great lineup. We're missing a couple of guys, but once we get them back, it's going to be stupid."

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Nationals players were critical of Dave Martinez's decision-making in the first half

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Nationals players were critical of Dave Martinez's decision-making in the first half

Baseball fans love the long ball. They love the flashy plays. They love the no-hit bids and the rare perfect game. All of these things dominate headlines and capture our attention. 

The often overlooked bullpen of a club, however, almost always serves as the glue holding everything together. Relief pitching is derived of unsung heroes who are asked to perform on short notice and in sticky, high-pressure situations. 

Head skipper of the Washington Nationals, Dave Martinez, is being criticized for his handling of the bullpen during the first half of the season. 

By now it's well-documented that the Nats played their first 96 games at .500 leaving the club in third place in a division the team has walked all over back-to-back years. 

Sure, one can chalk it up to injuries, lack of roster changes or an inexperienced first-year manager working through kinks. But, there's a reason this team expects to compete for a pennant year in and year out: depth. The buzz around Martinez's decision-making continues to point toward his inability to dish out relief pitching assignments to the player's liking.  

Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, Sammy Solis and Matt Grace once made up the team's relief staff in May. Between disabled-list periods for Kintzler and Madson, and Sammy Solis being sent down to Class AAA Syracuse, the staff took a beating in the month of June. 

Nats relievers aren't necessarily upset about overuse, but more so because of a lack of communication between player and manager. 

At times during the first half of the season, relief pitchers felt overworked and that their wishes were not being acknowledged nor granted by Martinez. 

Sean Doolittle was quick to point out that the addition of Kelvin Herrera, who joined the team on June 18, sparked a change in Martinez's approach. 

“Over the last maybe month or so, maybe since we got Herrera, he’s gone around to the relievers and been a lot more proactive with that communication,” Doolittle said.

On a more tricky note, trust has also been targeted as an area needing improvement. 

When a starter gets in a jam or doesn't seem like he is 100%, Martinez often calls on reinforcements to begin the warming up process. Guys have noticed a pattern in which relief pitchers who initially warm up are often not the ones who start the following inning. 

From a relief pitcher's perspective, this is a sign of Martinez's distrust. Dramatic or not, there was a glaring disconnect throughout the first half of play. 

“With a veteran group, I think we all expect to come into a team and say we’ve all been there; we just want things to go boom, boom, boom and be a piece of cake. But we also all know it’s not like that,” Shawn Kelley said.

Handling his veteran rotation in the second half of the season should become easier for Martinez as Stephen Strasburg is expected to start Friday. The right-hander was placed on the disabled list June 10 with right shoulder inflammation. 

Strasburg pitched 5 2/3 innings in a rehab start for Class A Potomac on Sunday, allowing three runs while striking out seven and walking one. It was his second rehab start since going on the DL. He allowed one run in 3 1/3 innings for Potomac on July 11. Strasburg is 6-6 with a 3.46 ERA this season, striking out 

95 in 80 2/3 innings.

One thing that hasn't been criticized is Martinez's positive attitude. Players often rave about him as a person and how he brings a source of energy in the clubhouse. 

This was on full display during Monday night's Home Run Derby at Nationals Park. 

Moments after Bryce Harper won the Derby, Martinez was among the first to congratulate his All-Star slugger as he hoisted him in the air. 

As the second half of the season gets underway Friday, expect to see a manager who brings forth an openminded approach to his club while in pursuit of a deep October run. 

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Max Scherzer thoroughly enjoyed the All-Star experience in D.C.

Max Scherzer thoroughly enjoyed the All-Star experience in D.C.

All-Star Weekend is entertaining for fans and provides and much-needed break in the 162-game MLB season.

It’s not all just for fun, though. Following his start Tuesday night, Max Scherzer shared the benefits of being able to spend a few days sharing a locker room with players from across the league.

Being in the clubhouse, talking to veterans, talking to guys who have been here, getting to know everybody, getting the personalities, you can actually learn a lot from the other players in the league. They’re watching you, they’re watching your team and you get these conversations and it’s great. You’re talking about everybody and you find little things in the game that make them successful and what made you successful and see if you can get better.

Scherzer also didn’t hold back when talking about how great a job the city and his team did hosting the rest of the league. This is his sixth season as an All-Star, so he's speaking from quite a bit of experience.

It was awesome, what an atmosphere. I thought we were a great host team, all the other players in here loved the facilities and the treatment they received - D.C. did it right.

So according to Max Scherzer, the All-Star Game is great, but All-Star Weekend in D.C. is as good as it gets.

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