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Injury disrupts Nats' big weekend

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Injury disrupts Nats' big weekend

This was the night they should have been talking about Bryce Harper's hustle, culminating in the first steal of home plate by a teenager in nearly five decades.

This was the night they should have been talking about Cole Hamels openly admitting he hit Harper with a first-inning fastball on purpose, and about Jordan Zimmermann later drilling his counterpart in the leg (though insisting afterward he didn't do it on purpose).

This was the night they should have been talking about a true rivalry developing between a Nationals franchise suddenly asserting itself as a force to be reckoned with and a Phillies franchise that suddenly realizes the former doormats of the NL East are a legit threat.

But at the end of the night, all of that -- not to mention the outcome of this game, a 9-3 Philadelphia rout -- was pushed into the shadows, overtaken by the grim sight of Jayson Werth walking off the field holding his broken left wrist in place, plus the realization the Nationals are going to have to overcome yet another major injury.

"All of a sudden, we seem to be getting a little more healthy," manager Davey Johnson said. "And then boom, one of our main guys goes down."

Werth's injury -- for now diagnosed as a broken wrist, requiring a minimum of six weeks' recovery time, with a more detailed examination by a specialist to take place Monday -- came a mere 48 hours before the Nationals expect to get both Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche back on the field. It throws a wrench into Johnson's long-term plans, and it leaves the Nationals trying to hang onto first place despite the fact they've yet to field their full projected lineup once this season.

"We were looking forward to this next series, this next week, and being together again," said LaRoche, who has missed four games with a sore oblique muscle. "Obviously we're short another big bat and big part of this team for a while. So, time for everybody to step it up and help make up for that as much as we can."

Werth, who hurt himself trying to make a sliding catch of Placido Polanco's sinking liner in the sixth inning, will likely be replaced in right field by Harper. With the 19-year-old phenom moving across the outfield, Johnson will probably turn to Roger Bernadina and Xavier Nady in left field.

It won't be as easy to replace Werth's clubhouse presence and leadership.

"I think Jayson's obviously a really good player, but the things he does day-in and day-out that you guys and the fans don't get to see is obviously just as important," said Zimmerman, who missed the last two weeks with shoulder inflammation. "It stinks."

Just one example of Werth's behind-the-scenes impact: He was the one who first pointed out Hamels' slow pickoff move to Harper, planting the seed in the rookie's mind that he might have an opportunity to steal home at some point.

"Me and Werth have gone in there and looked at some pitchers throughout this series and last series and L.A.," Harper said. "Having him teach me some things on the basepaths, and really take advantage of some things pitchers do, is really great."

Harper's surprise swipe of the plate in the bottom of the first -- shortly after Hamels drilled him in the back with a fastball, and shortly after Harper bolted from first to third base on a routine single to left -- made for an electric moment on a night already filled with electricity.

The crowd of 33,058 roared with approval as a national television audience learned what Washington fans have come to realize over the last week: Harper is so much more than a physically gifted power hitter; he excels at everything on the field, including the mental game.

"This kid proved everything he needed to prove to me tonight," shortstop Ian Desmond said.

That included maintaining his composure after the initial plunking, a pitch even Hamels acknowledged was thrown on purpose.

"I was trying to hit him. I'm not going to deny it," Hamels told reporters inside the Phillies clubhouse. "You know what, it's something that I grew up watching. That's what happened. So I'm just trying to continue the old baseball -- I think some people kind of get away from it."

Told what Hamels had said, Harper let out a small laugh and proceeded to compliment the veteran left-hander.

"He's a great guy, great pitcher and knows how to pitch," the rookie said. "He's an All-Star. It's all good."

Unlike his counterpart, Zimmermann didn't acknowledge any intent in his hitting of Hamels in the leg during a third-inning bunt attempt. The young right-hander insisted he was in no way retaliating, simply trying to prevent Hamels from getting the bunt down, and he didn't even realize plate umpire Andy Fletcher issued warnings to both benches until much later.

"I mean, he was bunting, and I'm going to take an out when I can get an out," Zimmermann said. "I was trying to go away and just cut a fastball really, really bad and unfortunately hit him in the knee."

All of this, of course, was lost in the shuffle by night's end, not to mention Zimmermann's fourth-inning hiccup when he served up a two-run homer to Hunter Pence, and not to mention Ryan Perry's complete meltdown during a six-run ninth inning that turned this game into a rout.

The Werth injury cast a pall over the entire game and left the Nationals clubhouse feeling like a morgue.

Once the initial sting, though, wore off, players began to realize the significance of this entire weekend. Despite the lopsided loss in the finale, the Nationals won the first two games in impressive fashion. And they know when they wake up Monday morning, they'll still be alone in first place in the NL East ... with the Phillies still alone in last place.

And they know they've still got (at least) 15 games to play against the five-time division champs, 15 games that should take on some added meaning given the events of this weekend.

"I was actually a little surprised," Desmond said. "Usually, it seems that the Phillies aren't that hyped up to come play us. I think they realized that they needed to step up a little bit, and that's nice. It's nice to have that feeling of: 'Hey, they're intense over there.' Usually when we play them, they're not. And I think they realize we've got a good ballclub, and they needed to kind of take it up a notch."

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Which Washington Nationals might show up on 2019 MLB awards ballots?

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Which Washington Nationals might show up on 2019 MLB awards ballots?

Despite their struggles in 2018, the Washington Nationals nearly came away with two major awards this season. Juan Soto, despite having the most impressive offensive season for a teenager in baseball history, finished a distant second behind Ronald Acuna in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Max Scherzer, despite becoming just the 17th pitcher ever to strike out 300 batters in a single season, fell to Jacob deGrom in the NL Cy Young race.  

So, who’s most likely to take home some hardware a year from now? Of course, any National could theoretically win a Gold Glove or a Silver Slugger, but let’s focus on the big ones, which player is most likely to win, and who his biggest competition will likely be. We’ll go from most likely to the biggest longshots.

1. Max Scherzer, NL Cy Young

He may have fallen short this season, but Scherzer is pretty clearly still the National with the best chance of winning a major award next season. Sure, he’s already 34, and it’s not easy to predict when a pitcher will break down, but this is an arm that has defied conventional ideas of “wearing down.”

Scherzer’s biggest competition is the reigning winner deGrom, a potentially healthy Clayton Kershaw, a potentially healthy Noah Syndergaard, and Aaron Nola. Beyond them, a potentially healthy Stephen Strasburg could also find himself in the conversation. Noticing a pattern here? With so many injury-prone aces, health will almost certainly play a major role in this race.

Scherzer has won two of the last three Cy Youngs, and he undeniably pitched at a Cy Young-level in 2018 as well. The question is who else steps up in 2019 to challenge him?

2. Victor Robles, NL Rookie of the Year

Rookie of the Year awards are tricky. At the top of ballots, you often see the most highly-touted prospects in baseball. Acuna, Corey Seager, Kris Bryant, Jose Fernandez, and Bryce Harper all won in the National League in recent years. But you also have surprise rookies who come out of nowhere, either because it wasn’t expected that they’d be ready so soon (like Soto) or because they weren’t seen as top talents before their respective breakouts (like Aaron Judge).

Still, Robles’ pedigree and the potential opening in the outfield with Harper in free agency means the stars could be aligning for an awards push. Robles is one of the most talented prospects in baseball, and he’s proven himself enough in the minors to show he belongs. The only thing missing has been the opportunity, which is now right in front of him.

His competition likely will come down to a trio of young shortstops: Fernando Tatis, Jr., Nick Senzel, and Brendan Rodgers. Tatis is the most talented, but is younger and coming off an injury last season. Rodgers doesn’t have that one flashy elite skill to catch the eyes of voters. Senzel, however, already looks like a .300 hitter, and on a surprisingly decent Reds offense will probably be Robles’ biggest competitor.

3. Anthony Rendon, NL Most Valuable Player

No offense to Rendon, who has led the Nats in Wins Above Replacement in each of the past two seasons, but this is probably the choice that gives me the least confidence. He’s really, really good, but is he MVP-worthy?

The nice part about playing the National League is that there’s no Mike Trout or Mookie Betts to dominate MVP voting year in and year out. The downside is that means there are as many as a dozen hitters in any given season to compete with, plus pitchers like Kershaw and Scherzer who are strong enough to take votes away as well. Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman, and Buster Posey are all stalwarts who will grab the attention of voters, not to mention the inevitable youngster who will pop up unexpectedly.

Rendon is well-rounded, underrated, and a truly valuable star worth keeping in Washington for many years to come, but his talents aren’t flashy enough to draw the attention of voters, there’s no strong narrative surrounding him winning, and while he plays on a good team, he’s not generally looked at as the most important piece on the roster. This one probably isn’t happening.

4. Dave Martinez, NL Manager of the Year

Those fans who weren’t exactly thrilled with Martinez’s performance in the dugout during Year 1 are probably going to laugh at the prospect of him winning Manager of the Year, but allow me to make the case.

Manager of the Year is never about the actual best manager in baseball. Frankly, there are far too many unknowns for writers to ever really identify who the best manager is. And managers of elite teams rarely get the credit they deserve. The guys who win are typically skippers of teams expected to be bad entering the season but end up making a surprise run to the playoffs. Think the Braves and A’s in 2018.

If the Nats bounce back and return to the playoffs in 2019, national writers will notice. Plus, if Harper leaves this offseason, the narrative will be there for Martinez to receive a ton of credit. It may not be accurate, but with this particular award, perception matters more than reality.

The Nats making the postseason again is a very realistic scenario, and if it happens, Martinez should at least get national consideration for the award.

5. Bryce Harper, NL Most Valuable Player (as a National)

Ahhhh, the fun one. Or, maybe, the tricky one.

Obviously, if Harper was guaranteed to return to the Nationals, he’d be much higher on this list, probably the top choice. Based on his pedigree and name brand, he’d at least be the clear favorite from the Nats roster to win MVP. And if the choice was simply that he’d win with any franchise, then he’d be higher as well, but knowing (or rather, not knowing) what we know right now? That makes this a tough one to place.

While I’d probably guess that he’s not coming back to Washington (it’s hard to imagine the team going too much higher than their already-rejected $300 million offer), it’s still definitely a possibility. And, if he does, we’ve already seen what an MVP season from Harper looks like. Strange as it is to believe, he’s only just now entering the age at which most MLB players hit their primes. The best may be yet to come for Bryce, so it comes down to whether or not you think he’s coming back.

If yes? This is the new number one. If not? Well, that’s why he’s a longshot.

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It’s time to fix baseball’s postseason award shows

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It’s time to fix baseball’s postseason award shows

The awards have been distributed, which means it’s time for a fix.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America can do better. Major League Baseball can do better.

This week was rough for the awards. Not the part where fake calls for transparency are actually just social media mob vehicles to bag on voters. The part where Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr. were not available to to talk about being two of the sport’s bright, young stars. Where the two Yankees youngsters up for the AL Rookie of the Year Award were unsure if they were being spoken to. When a Cy Young candidate couldn’t get his Wi-Fi to cooperate while on vacation. The date, the format, the pizazz needs to change. It’s a on a long list of things baseball needs to get up to speed on.

Look at the NHL Awards. Held annually in Las Vegas with a prominent sponsor, as much shine as can be is drummed up. A flood of premier stars attend. It reads well in person. It displays well on the television. It feels and looks modern. It also helps the media by assuring access that can be planned for. 

It’s the right way.

Baseball can start by moving up when the awards take place. We are members of a short-term memory society. Push the awards into the first week of November. That gives it plenty of space before the news cycle can be caught again at the general manager meetings and winter meetings that are to come. Use the close of the World Series as a catapult. Snag the time when most players are resting before offseason workouts begin in earnest.

Elongating the news cycle, the way the NFL magically has with its draft, only works if each segment is in demand. Giving the Manager of the Year Award its own night is unnecessary. Instead, fold it into the evening of awards. 

The NHL announced a three-year extension on its Las Vegas awards party in April. That after 10 years of developing the ceremony into a slick presentation. Obviously, it’s working. 

The Cup makes an appearance. Celebrities join in. The Las Vegas environment is embraced. Fashion is allowed. The muting of personality so long afflicting baseball can be countered for a day in an equivalent setup.

Major League Baseball took an incremental step, as it tends to do, Thursday when it joined with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association to announce “Revised rules on player footwear.” The press release delivered an all-caps headline followed by “Agreement Affords Additional Flexibility for Colors and Design”.

Here’s what changed: Instead of Bryce Harper’s shoes having to be a solid variation of a team color, limited variations are now allowed.

“Players may wear shoes displaying any of the following colors, in any proportion: (i) black, white, and gray; (ii) any colors displayed on the Player’s uniform (and certain variations thereof); and (iii) any additional colors designated by the Player’s Club.”

Of course, teams still have to clear the designs coming from shoe companies. 

In a statement, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said, “Major League Baseball and its Clubs recognize the desire of Players to have more flexibility in this area and are pleased to announce the loosening of regulations that will permit more personalized and stylized footwear.  We believe that this agreement strikes the appropriate balance between the shared goal of permitting Players to express their individuality while maintaining reasonable restrictions on shoe colors and designs.”

It’s as exciting as it sounds. At least it’s something.

Christian Yelich and Mookie Betts were named the MVPs of their respective leagues Thursday. Betts just turned 26 (he’s a mere nine days older than Harper). Yelich is also 26 (about to turn 27). Did you see that photo of them on stage in their suits? No. There was no stage. There’s limited recognition for either. Betts is a World Series champion, three-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner and playing in one of the league’s prominent markets. He is the first American League player to win an MVP award, a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger and a World Series title in the same season. Mike Schmidt is the only other player to do so. Betts should be a sports superstar. He’s not.

A revamped awards show won’t cure Betts’ comparative lack of stature. It won’t make Yelich known the way good, but not star, NBA players are known. 

But any improvement will help. And it’s time to get started.
 

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