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Instinctive Harper helps Nats win again

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Instinctive Harper helps Nats win again

With each passing day, we get more and more of a picture of Bryce Harper as a big leaguer. And what we learn is that the Nationals new left fielder, 19 years old or not, is more than a mere athletic specimen.

Yes, he has the god-given ability to hit or throw a baseball with enough authority to make a stadium full of fans gasp. But he also has the instincts and the awareness to do a lot of subtle things plenty of guys with far more experience have yet to master.

"He's a baseball player," teammate Jayson Werth said, using a seemingly generic term in the most complimentary sense. "When you're a baseball player, you can be 15 or you can be 50. If you know how to play the game, you can play. ... He's a good player, no question about it. He's definitely going to be a force in our lineup for a long time."

He already is. As Harper showed once again Thursday night during the Nationals' 2-1 victory over the Diamondbacks, his quick ascension to the major leagues was made possible not only by his physical tools but by his innate sense for the game.

The kid's latest moment of heroics: An RBI double down the left-field line in the bottom of the sixth, scoring Ian Desmond with the run that put the Nationals ahead for good and rewarded Ross Detwiler for his 6 13 innings of one-run ball.

It was a bit more complicated than that, though. Facing a tough right-hander in Ian Kennedy (a 21-game winner last year) with one out in a tie ballgame and the infield drawn in, Harper avoided the temptation to swing from his heels and drive the ball over the Anacostia River. Instead, he shortened up and took what Kennedy gave him, first sending an outside fastball foul down the third-base line, then dumping another outside fastball into left field for the game-winning hit.

"I was just trying to think middle of the field," Harper said. "He has a good change-up, so I wasn't trying to get too excited and pull off of something. I was just trying to think middle the whole time and got a pitch I could handle and got it going."

It was Harper's fourth double in five games, spanning 16 big-league at-bats. And it came in his first appearance as a No. 3 hitter at this level, a move manager Davey Johnson made prior to the game after easing the rookie in as his No. 7 hitter for several days.

"I don't care if his name is Harper or whatever, or how old he is," Johnson said. "If you're swinging the bat good, we're trying to put out guys who are swinging the bat best in order to do the most damage."

Harper wasn't done with his double. He immediately showed off those instincts by advancing on Jayson Werth's grounder to third base, waiting for Arizona's Ryan Roberts to make the throw before taking off for the bag.

The crowd of 19,636 roared with approval, and players in both dugouts couldn't help but appreciate the teenager's approach to the game.

"He plays really hard," Kennedy said. "That's all you can really ask for out of someone with his status, where he's at, being crowned, I don't know, the savior or whatever signs are out there, or in ESPN The Magazine. It's all you can ask for. He does play really hard."

Harper, of course, wasn't alone in making this victory possible. It required another stellar start from Detwiler, who didn't allow a hit until the fifth and for the fourth time in five outings this season was charged with zero or one earned run.

"Gutty performance against a good-hitting ballclub coming back after a tough loss," Johnson said. "He was my star of the game."

The key to Detwiler's success in this one: His early command. A whopping 23 of his first 27 pitches were strikes, setting the tone for the night.

"Absolutely," the lefty said. "The only way they're going to chase balls later is if you throw strikes early in the game."

Not wanting to put Detwiler in a position to take the loss, Johnson pulled his starter with one out and a runner on second. Ryan Mattheus then proceeded to pitch out of the jam, striking out A.J. Pollack on a heavy, 94-mph sinker. Tyler Clippard retired the side in the eighth. And Henry Rodriguez (getting his first save opportunity since a Saturday night meltdown at Dodger Stadium) set down the Diamondbacks in order in the ninth.

Just like that, the Nationals had themselves another low-scoring, narrow victory. They're now 8-5 in one-run games. Incredibly, they've also won five games in which their lineup has produced five or fewer hits (they only had four in this victory).

"Pitching and defense wins championships. We'll go with that for now," Werth said. "And once we get healthy, maybe we'll go with something else. No matter how you do it, that's the most important thing. We're playing good, crisp, clean baseball, especially early in the season."

And they're getting a lot of help from a 19-year-old who plays the game like he's been a big leaguer for a lot more than five days.

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Max Scherzer to the Yankees? Probably not

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Max Scherzer to the Yankees? Probably not

Bryce Harper held a State of Bryce Harper press conference every spring. It occurred inside the cramped clubhouse in Viera, Florida, outside in the sunshine of a new facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, then, for the final time in 2018, in the bland press conference of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Harper threatened to walk out that day if asked about his pending free agency.

No matter the location, New York reporters showed. Year after year, they asked Harper about the prospect of playing for the Yankees -- he, apparently, was the only person to ever like Mickey Mantle -- in order to produce new churn about the possibility of Harper to New York. It happened so frequently, and irked him so much, Harper managed his time accordingly when a New York team was in Washington or he was in New York. He was not around during those times, if he could help it.

This is how it goes with the Yankees, a truth earned by decades of titles and lore, as the preeminent franchise in baseball. Big-name player A is attached to the Yankees by thread or whim because they are the Yankees. This process was kickstarted last weekend for Max Scherzer via a report which said New York would do “whatever it takes” to acquire Scherzer. Ignore it. He’s not being traded.

Scherzer crept back into the National League Cy Young race by pitching with a damaged face last week and showing supreme command his last six starts: 0.88 ERA, 41 innings pitched, 27 hits, .179 batting average against, 59 strikeouts, eight walks and 70 percent of his pitches thrown for strikes. He leads the National League in strikeouts and FIP. He’s third in walk-to-strikeout ratio, fourth in ERA, sixth in WHIP and 11th in batting average against. Like the Nationals, Scherzer recently turned into something to take further notice of.

And even if the recent team surge is a mirage, Scherzer is unlikely to be traded. He’s the black-and-blue face of the team. Multiple other parts -- an unextended Anthony Rendon, Howie Kendrick, Brian Dozier, Matt Adams, Yan Gomes, even Michael A. Taylor -- could be moved out for several prospects. Trading those players does not necessitate a rebuild or rule out Rendon’s return. Trading Scherzer with two years remaining on his deal means the spine of the team is removed when his contract cost is about to modestly recede as the competitive balance tax threshold goes up.

The lone wrinkle is Scherzer’s current service time status: At the close of 2019, he will hold 10 and five rights -- meaning he has been in the league at least 10 years and five with the same team -- enabling him to veto any trade. He can’t do that now. However, it’s hard to envision that has enough onus to send him anywhere this season.

So, believe the Yankees would want to acquire Scherzer. Then envision a line with 28 other teams, scoff and move on.

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Nationals navigate chaos in steps toward contention

Nationals navigate chaos in steps toward contention

WASHINGTON -- How’s this for a week? Five hours of rain delays, two postponements, Max Scherzer breaks his face, Max Scherzer dominates while on the mound with said broken face, a sweep, a rally, a bullpen blowup, a key roster piece dismissed, a Sunday extra-inning loss. 

Welcome to the last week at Nationals Park, where the local nine have gone from finding their bearings to hopping into the fray. Washington went 4-2 against Philadelphia and Atlanta during the rain-stalled week, and it was lamentable. A perfect 6-0 was possible. A more likely 5-1 was quite attainable. But, 4-2 will be acceptable, especially in light of the early-season wandering through the darkness. 

“Hey, we played two pretty good teams,” manager Davey Martinez said. “With everything said and done, we came out 6-4. We got a day off [Monday], which the boys need. We come back, we got Miami for three. So let's have that day off, come back, and play Tuesday.”

The National League East division has enjoyed convulsions even before the midpoint of the season. Atlanta stands 14 games over .500 and firmly in first. Philadelphia has caught all of the Nationals’ former ills -- injuries, bad bullpen pitching, poor base level play -- during its tumble. It has lost seven in a row, 16 of 22 and was swept by Miami over the weekend. New York fired its pitching coach, then went into Chicago and split a series from the first-place Cubs before manager Mickey Callaway swore at a reporter and a starting pitcher charged him. Philadelphia and New York start a four-game series Monday to determine which is more in disarray.

Washington, meanwhile, is 18-9 in its last 27. Baseball Reference says its odds to reach the playoffs went up 17.9 percent in the last seven days. The Nationals now have a 31 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to fivethirtyeight.com. Fangraphs paints a similar picture: It pegs Washington with a 28.8 percent chance to reach the postseason.

The season’s midpoint arrives Friday following three games in Miami. Washington will be in Detroit that night, taking on one of the league’s worst offenses, before another homestand opens against Miami. Woeful Kansas City follows. Those three clubs are math boosters. They could also deliver the final impetus for general manager Mike Rizzo to deploy a strategy he used last season: find early help to keep pushing.

June 18, 2018, Rizzo dealt for Kelvin Herrera to aid a not-quite-there bullpen which was at least an arm short. Herrera was pitching well when he arrived. The cost was three players, two of which remain in the minors, one of which is with the Royals this season. 

Herrera failed in Washington, but the strategy was sound. Rizzo did not wait to fix the clear gap in his club -- yes, this seems an annual adjustment -- by lagging until the trade deadline. He instead aggressively attempted to solve a problem in a manner which carries risk and reward. The risk is overpaying because the work is being done well ahead of the market deadline. The reward is an extended benefit by acquiring help six weeks before running out of time to do so.

The Nationals remain at least one arm short in the bullpen. Trevor Rosenthal was released Sunday morning. Kyle Barraclough continues to watch from the bullpen railing. His right arm no longer hurts. It’s also not ready to throw pitches at full force. He remains weeks away from a return. 

Until then, the Nationals have an open 40-man roster spot to tinker with. Among the numerous restrictions suffered because of Rosenthal’s failures was the inability to move a piece not on the 40-man easily up to the 25-man roster. His departure offers a clean entrance.

The last week provides ammunition for further moves. Even Martinez bent to the idea these recent seven days mattered. Two postponements stalled outcomes before Washington handled free-falling Philadelphia and tussled toe-to-toe with the Braves. Atlanta outscored the Nationals 20-16 in the three-game series. Three of those runs came because of a Rosenthal meltdown. In essence, it was a draw.

“We know we’re capable of keeping up with any of these guys,” Yan Gomes said. “We’ve said it since the beginning: Eighth inning, ninth inning comes around, we’re going to battle ‘til the end. We gave ourselves a chance to win [Sunday], it just didn’t come our way. But no shame, no hanging our heads. We’ve still got to look forward.”

Gomes went back to packing when he was done with reporters. Going on the road with all the equipment is a team which has proven its baby steps toward course correction were not a fluke. Three weeks of good play have been compiled. The two coming weeks offer another trampoline. Expect Rizzo to look for even more bounce.

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