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Harper's MVP season deserves to be celebrated

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Harper's MVP season deserves to be celebrated

Neither the Nationals nor their fans are likely to remember 2015 with a whole lot of fondness. This was the season a World Series favorite failed to reach the playoffs, the season a lineup full of big names was ravaged by injuries, the season the best rotation in baseball never lived up to its billing, the season a volatile closer attacked his star teammate in the dugout, the season a manager lost a grip on his clubhouse and as a result lost his job.

All of that, of course, happened. And all of that should be remembered. But what should be remembered above all else was this simple fact: The best player in baseball produced one of the best individual seasons in baseball history, and he did all of it while wearing a Washington uniform.

And tonight, Bryce Harper will be honored for that accomplishment, overwhelmingly favored to be named the National League's Most Valuable Player, perhaps even by a unanimous vote of 30 members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

When Harper's name is called out at roughly 6:15 p.m. EST, none of the disappointments that defined the 2015 Nationals will matter. All that will matter is that a professional athlete representing Washington, D.C., will be recognized as the best in his league. That's no everyday occurrence in these parts, and so it deserves all the attention it will receive.

The Nationals as an organization certainly will pause to recognize Harper, affirming what those who watched him all year knew from the outset: He was special in 2015.

"That was the one thing I can say I was cognizant of the whole season," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "You could see, throughout the season, what this guy meant to this ballclub. And don't forget, this guy carried us throughout the whole season. The hitters around him were dropping like flies, and this guy was the cornerstone of an offense. Every team we played circled his name and said: 'This guy's not going to beat us.' And with that said, he beat a lot of teams. It was a remarkable season."

Remarkable not only in the context of 2015 but within the context of baseball history.

A degree in advanced analytics aren't required to fully appreciate Harper's performance this year. You need only evaluate the numbers he posted in three longstanding, tried-and-true stats: Batting average (.330), on-base percentage (.460), home runs (42).

In more than a century of major league baseball, only eight others reached all three totals in a single season: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Todd Helton, Jason Giambi, Barry Bonds. Harper became the ninth member of that ultra-exclusive club, which merely features five Hall of Famers, two of the most productive hitters of the last decade and the all-time home run champion.

Harper managed to accomplish this both because he managed to stay healthy for the first time in three seasons and because he managed to display remarkable patience at the plate from Game 1 through Game 162.

The young right fielder pointed to health throughout as the major contributing factor, understanding he couldn't have performed to this level while dealing with a knee injury in 2013 and a thumb injury in 2014.

"Staying healthy puts good numbers up," he said. "I went out there and grinded out every single day for my team and my fans. That's what I wanted to do. The Nationals gave me an opportunity to play this game and give it my all every single day. I'm very lucky to be part of a great team and do everything I could and do what I could every single day. I played 150 games. That was my goal all year long."

Good health allowed Harper to be the most patient hitter in baseball all season, perhaps the true hallmark of his historic performance.

Nobody in the sport got fewer pitches to hit. According to Baseball Info Solutions, only 38.5 percent of all pitches thrown to Harper were in the strike zone, the lowest rate in the sport. Not surprisingly, he drew a team-record 124 walks.

But he also managed to wallop what few pitches he did get over the plate, matching Colorado's Nolan Arenado for the NL lead with 42 homers and producing a .469 slugging percentage that hadn't been accomplished by any major leaguer in six years.

"It's incredible to see him go out there and play the game he plays," left-hander Gio Gonzalez said after one particularly impressive performance in early September. "It's almost like he's got the cheat codes to a baseball game."

Now the scariest part: Harper did all this at 22, and he did it without much consistent help around him in the Nationals lineup.

To a man, Nationals players, coaches and executives believe Harper can and will be even better in the future.

"He's still growing. He's still learning the game," right-hander Max Scherzer said during the All-Star break. "And that's what makes him exciting to watch, because he's going to continue to get better. He's not going to necessarily hit for a higher average. But he's going to understand the game more. As pitchers start to figure him out, he's going to have to do things differently. And that's a game he understands. We've talked about it. It's really exciting to see him grow in certain ways."

"He had a terrific season," Rizzo added. "I don't see it being the last terrific season he has. And this may not even be the best season he ever has."

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Lobaton’s sacrifice fly lifts Mets past Nationals in 12

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USA TODAY Sports

Lobaton’s sacrifice fly lifts Mets past Nationals in 12

Jose Lobaton hit a go-ahead sacrifice fly against his former team in the 12th inning and the New York Mets beat the Washington Nationals 5-4 on Thursday night.

Lobaton, who spent the previous four years in Washington before signing with the Mets in December, lofted a one-out fly ball off Jefry Rodriguez (3-3) with the bases loaded to score Amed Rosario.

Jacob Rhame (1-2) worked two scoreless innings, and Paul Sewald pitched the 12th for his second save.

Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper was ejected in the 12th for arguing home plate umpire D.J. Reyburn’s called third strike.

Washington starter Max Scherzer pitched seven innings, allowing three runs while striking out 13. He has 290 strikeouts this year, the most for a National since the franchise relocated from Montreal before the 2005 season. Scherzer set the previous mark of 284 in 2016.

However, he never held a lead Thursday. Michael Conforto smashed a two-run homer to left in the third, his 27th of the season. It was also his fourth home run in 23 career at-bats against Scherzer.

Four pitches later, Jay Bruce crushed his ninth home run of the season. It was the sixth time this season New York has hit back-to-back homers.

Washington’s Trea Turner led off the sixth with an infield single. Two batters later, Anthony Rendon golfed Jason Vargas’ changeup to deep left for his 100th career home run to narrow the deficit to 3-2. Vargas allowed two runs and struck out eight over 5 2/3 innings.

Jeff McNeil led off the eighth with a triple and scored two batters later when Bruce punched a single to right past a drawn-in infield. But the Nationals responded with Rendon’s run-scoring groundout and Juan Soto’s RBI double off Robert Gsellman in the bottom half of the inning.

Mets manager Mickey Callaway was ejected in the 10th inning for arguing after Reyburn ruled McNeil had offered on a bunt attempt.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets: INF Wilmer Flores will miss the rest of the season with soreness in both knees. Callaway said Flores has early onset arthritis in both knees and will receive injections to alleviate the pain. “It’s not like surgery is recommended at this time,” Callaway said. “I think rest and a couple injections is supposed to knock this out pretty good.”

UP NEXT

Mets: RHP Jacob deGrom (8-9, 1.78 ERA), who is 5-1 with a 2.76 ERA lifetime at Nationals Park, gets the nod for New York as the four-game series continues.

Nationals: RHP Joe Ross (0-0, 3.60) makes his second start since undergoing Tommy John surgery last year.

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Anthony Rendon reaches home run milestone

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USA Today Sports

Anthony Rendon reaches home run milestone

For a guy whose nickname reflects how many doubles he hits, Anthony Rendon has quite the power as well.

Rendon, referred to as "Tony Two Bags" by the Washington Nationals' faithful, hit his 100th career home run on Thursday night. 

The home run came off New York Mets pitcher Jason Vargas, who has been magnificent in his two starts against the Nationals this season. Vargas had not allowed a run against the Nationals in 2018 until Rendon took him deep.

The home run was Rendon's 22nd of the season. This is the third consecutive year that Rendon has posted 20 or more home runs, and the fourth time in the 28-year-old's career that he has reached that milestone.

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