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Nats' Harper on Dusty: 'No other guy I'd want to be playing for'

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Nats' Harper on Dusty: 'No other guy I'd want to be playing for'

A coach's relationship with their best player is always an important one and all throughout this winter and spring there was talk about the dynamic between new Nationals manager Dusty Baker and his prized pupil Bryce Harper. There were so many storylines from their generational difference to the fact Baker has played with and managed superstars before like Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds.

It's early, and everyone's happy when you start a season 14-4, but it's already clear that Harper really, really enjoys playing for Dusty. Take Sunday for example, both in their interactions throughout the day and in what they said about each other after the Nats' 16-inning marathon win over the Twins.

Baker planned to give Harper the day off, but told him before Sunday's matinee he may use him for a pinch-hit situation if the game called for it. Baker, as he's shown a tendency to do, saw the future.

"I told him before the game I was going to save him toward the end of the game and only pinch-hit him because I told him about the time that I had put Barry Bonds on a day off on a double switch... he had a day off and we ended up going 18 innings, so I told [Harper] I didn’t want that to happen to him," Baker said.

Harper only got one at-bat, but he did a lot with it. Harper absolutely crushed a 3-2 pitch from Kevin Jepsen in the bottom of the ninth over the center field fence to tie the game at 4-4 and send it to extra innings. 

Yeah, Baker predicted that, too.

"He came up to me in the beginning of the game and said if we have an opportunity to pinch hit you and you can hit a homer that would be great," Harper said.

It was a surreal moment before Harper's at-bat, at the beginning of the inning as Jepsen warmed up by firing in practice pitches to catcher John Ryan Murphy. Michael Taylor was due up, but there was no sight of him. Harper was waiting in the tunnel with his bat in his hand, only to emerge once Jepsen was done warming.

The crowd had a slow-build towards pandemonium as they noticed the reigning MVP exiting through the dugout steps ready to save the day.

"I told him that, before the game started," Baker said. "I told him: ‘Wait for a time so the fans can go crazy and you can be the hero, and then I’ll take you out.’ I’m not always right, but I was right today.”

Baseball can be a beautifully unpredictable sport, unless you're Baker, apparently. And Harper also sort of saw this coming.

“He believed that he was going to do it," Baker explained. "That’s what impressed me the most. Confidence is not his problem. You know what I mean? Anything he does, he doesn’t seem surprised, and I’m not surprised. But I’m extremely happy, and I’m sure he is, too.”

After Harper's homer, he returned to the dugout and gave Baker an MVP-sized hug. They then joined in with the rest of the team rooting on the Nats as they played through an exhausting 16-inning battle with Minnesota.

It was grueling, but they had fun with it. Harper and his teammates wore rally caps for innings on end before Chris Heisey's walkoff homer sealed the victory.

"It was fun. That's baseball, baseball at every single level," Harper said. "If you're in high school, college, little league; anything. I mean that's fun right there."

"And to be able to have the opportunity to play for Dusty, that desire and that mentality that he brings every single day to let us just have fun to let us enjoy this game, with all the rally caps and all the stuff were doing... He just lets us play and that's what the game is all about... that's where that comes from make baseball fun again, right there. And those are the things where you can go out on a daily basis enjoy the game, have fun and he lets us do that. There's no other guy I'd want to be playing for right now."

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2019 MLB Postseason Predictions: Where the Nationals stand

2019 MLB Postseason Predictions: Where the Nationals stand

A week after the Midsummer Classic, the Nationals' comeback June looks less and less like a fluke as Washington continues its push to the postseason and the NL East Wild Card race.

In the 2019 MLB Postseason fight, the Dodgers (62-33) of the NL West are predicted to finish the regular season as the top team in the league, while each wild card race remains fairly close. Right now, the NL Central Cubs (50-43) and NL East Braves (57-37) round out the current National League leaders, while the Nationals (49-43) and Phillies (48-45) are the two wild card teams. 

Washington, 1.5 games ahead in the wild card race, revived its playoff chances after a slow start to the season. The Nationals' comeback June propelled them back into a wild card position. But the NL wild card race is far from set, as the Brewers (48-46) are 0.5 games back from the Phillies (and the Cardinals (46-45) are 1.0 games behind). 

 Here are the MLB playoff standings if the season ended Monday:

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Division Leaders
Houston Astros (West)
New York Yankees (East)
Minnesota Twins (Central)

Wild Card
Tampa Bay Rays (55-40, +1.5 Wild Card Games Behind)
Oakland A's (53-41, - WCGB)

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Division Leaders
Chicago Cubs (Central)
Los Angeles Dodgers (West)
Atlanta Braves (East)

Wild Card
Washington Nationals (49-43, +1.5 WCGB)
Philadelphia Phillies (48-45, - WCGB)

2019 MLB POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS
(As of July 15)

All three projections for the playoffs have the Dodgers finishing at the top of the league, though Baseball Reference has Los Angeles winning a whopping 110 games––at least seven more wins than either FiveThirtyEight or FanGraphs projects. 

Baseball Reference predicts the Nationals and Diamondbacks will be the NL Wild Cards, with the Athletics and the Rays as the AL Wild Cards. FanGraphs also has the Nationals making the playoffs as a wild card, while FiveThirtyEight lists the Nationals as having a 56% chance of making the playoffs at all. 

FanGraphs is the only site that lists the Nationals' chance at winning the World Series as above 2.5% (5.8%), while it also gives Washington an 82% shot at making the playoffs overall (and a 63.7% chance to win the wild card). 

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Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Davey Martinez had no hesitation in his answer or decision on Friday in Philadelphia. First game out of the break, facing a team right next to the Nationals in the standings, a 4-0 lead. Closer Sean Doolittle was coming in to end it, though it was a non-save situation and he is being used at an extreme level.

“Here’s my thoughts: It took me about three seconds,” Martinez said Friday. “Playing at Citizens [Bank] Park. Four runs. That ain’t much here. Those guys can hit. Doolittle’s coming in the game. It’s a big moment. And, he’s my guy. To me, that game right there, it’s huge coming off a four-day break.”

So, Doolittle made his 40th appearance of the season. Saturday brought his 41st appearance. He did not pitch Sunday, a day game after a late night.

Trends are emerging through his high usage rate. Doolittle’s velocity is down for the fourth consecutive season. The dip is slight year over year, from 93.9 mph average fastball velocity to 93.6. His velocity was distinctly down in Philadelphia over the weekend despite four days off. Doolittle threw 12 fastballs Friday, 10 of which were slower than his average fastball velocity this season. He threw 19 fastballs Saturday; 13 were below his average velocity (two others matched it). 

“I’m not exactly sure why it’s down,” Doolittle said Saturday. “I know from past experience, not to panic if I see the 91, 92. I feel pretty good -- everybody gets a little tired around this point of the season, but if I stay in my mechanics and don’t try to overthrow, I can still get that life and deception on my fastball. I can still, like [Saturday], I can still navigate innings and get guys out. These last two nights I’ve been really pleased with how I’ve been able to manage my energy level without maybe my best fastball.”

He is on pace for a career-high 72 appearances and 1,214 pitches. The latter would exceed his career mark of 1,019 by almost 200 pitches. One of the most telling numbers around Doolittle is his games finished vs. saves. He leads the league with 37 games finished but has just 20 saves, which is tied for fourth with three others. National League saves leader Kirby Yates has finished 35 games, but has 30 saves. Kenley Jansen: 33 games finished, 23 saves. Will Smith: 35 games finished, 23 saves. No other closer has appeared in more non-save situations.

Doolittle’s velocity also dropped earlier in the season before a mechanical adjustment kicked it back up to the 94- and 95-mph range for a spell. He did turn loose a 95-mph fastball Saturday. He half-joked about it.

“See it’s in there,” Doolittle said. “I just got to pick and choose, I guess, when to use it.”

His manager is using a more straight-ahead approach. Doolittle is out there, so he is using him. A lot.

And all this is more for recognition of the situation as opposed to blame assessment, When the bullpen was at its worst, Doolittle was summoned at times because his teammates were in the process of blowing a game or couldn’t be trusted in the first place. The Nationals were also rapidly losing ground, so Martinez had to be sure he was sure whenever possible. But, also, there have been times when Doolittle’s appearance in a non-save situation appeared unnecessary.

Piled together, the Nationals have an ongoing conundrum: they need to manage Doolittle’s appearances while in the middle of a push up the standings and without a definitive backup. Fernando Rodney has helped. An acquisition before the trade deadline could help further. And the coming week we’ll clarify if two games in Philadelphia were a blip or more foreboding.

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