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Nationals beat Phillies for MLB's best record

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Nationals beat Phillies for MLB's best record

The Washington Nationals -- who never posted a winning record, never reached the playoffs and never won a division title in their first seven seasons in the District -- didn't just knock down all those barriers in year eight. They managed to knock down an even bigger one: Posting the best record in the major leagues.

With a 5-1 victory over the Phillies during Wednesday's regular-season finale, the Nationals capped off a 98-64 season that wasn't surpassed by any other franchise in the big leagues and was good enough to secure home-field advantage as long as their playoff run extends.

No matter how much optimism surrounded the organization when it gathered in Viera, Fla., in late February for spring training, few could have dreamed this big.

"It's quite an accomplishment," Ryan Zimmerman, the only player to appear in a game in all eight of the Nationals seasons, said. "Obviously winning the division was a goal, and now we've done that, and we have a chance to go do some stuff in the playoffs. This is a great season, a great team, a good group of guys, and we accomplished a lot that we should be proud of. But we have a lot more to accomplish, hopefully."

They'll wipe the slate clean and begin that journey Sunday, on the road for Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the winner of Friday's winner-take-all Wild Card game between the Braves and Cardinals.

They'll enter the postseason as the No. 1 seed, a distinction that usually includes a target on their backs. But the Nationals are the only new faces among the five NL playoff participants, a group that includes the last two World Series champions (St. Louis and San Francisco) and two franchises with rich traditions that reached the postseason as recently as 2010 (Atlanta and Cincinnati).

And, as recent postseason history has shown, seeding rarely means much in October.

"I mean, once you get in, you're in, no matter how yet get there," said Jayson Werth, one of the few Nationals with significant playoff experience. "From there you need to be good, you need to be lucky, you've got to show up. It's not easy. Winning's not easy. Winning the whole thing is tough. It takes a lot. We're in good position. We've come this far and we're here. We've got a chance."

The Nationals gave themselves the best chance possible by winning Wednesday's finale and ensuring they would earn the top seed over the Reds. They did so by getting 6 23 strong innings from Edwin Jackson, who became the fifth member of the rotation to get 10 wins this year, and home runs from Zimmerman, Tyler Moore and Michael Morse, who earned a curtain call after his eighth-inning blast to right field sealed this victory.

Win No. 98 came against the club that had ruled the NL East the last five seasons but faded to an 81-81 finish this year, and it came with a helping of sour grapes from one of the Phillies' long-time leaders.

"They had a good year," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said of a Washington club that finished 17 games ahead of his Phillies. "They're a talented team. Just playing against them for a while, you know they're talented. You always knew if they put it together and found some pitching ... and they've had the opportunity to have some big draft picks, and those guys have made it up to the big leagues and it's all come together for them. So that's great for them. But with us being healthy, you know, they're still second place. But we weren't."

Six members of the Phillies' projected Opening Day lineup and rotation (Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Placido Polanco) missed a combined 309 games this season, a tough obstacle to overcome. Rollins, though, apparently forgot that five members of the Nationals' projected Opening Day lineup (Werth, Zimmerman, Morse, Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos) and their projected closer (Drew Storen) missed a combined 380 games.

"We've played well all year long, dealt with a lot of adversity," Desmond said.

Perhaps the Nationals-Phillies rivalry that perked up in May when Cole Hamels admitted he intentionally threw at rookie Bryce Harper will carry over into 2013. Before that, though, the Nationals have more pressing matters.

They'll take Thursday off, return to Nationals Park for a closed workout on Friday, then watch the Wild Card game (scheduled to begin at 5:07 p.m.) to learn the identity of their first-ever playoff opponent.

They all insisted they have no preference between the Braves and Cardinals. Above all else, they understand every team they play from this point forward presents a real challenge.

There are no gimmes in October. That's the reward for winning 98 of 162 games.

"This is what it's all about," Werth said. "This is what you play your whole life for, to get to this point, and we've got a chance to do something special here. We've got a good team and a good group of guys, and I think the city can be proud of that."

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

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USA TODAY Sports

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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