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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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Nationals Spring Training Preview: Outfielders locked into their roles

Nationals Spring Training Preview: Outfielders locked into their roles

When the Nationals host their first full-squad Spring Training workout Feb. 18, they’ll do so with a couple questions about who will crack the starting lineup on Opening Day.

None of those questions, however, will involve the outfield. Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Adam Eaton are all locked into their respective positions, making for a drama-free spring among the starting outfielders.

But that doesn’t mean each outfielder isn’t going into Grapefruit League play with something to prove. Here’s a snapshot of the Nationals’ outfield situation as they prepare for the trip down to West Palm Beach.

All ages listed are as of Opening Day.

Left Field – Juan Soto

Age: 21

2019 Stats: 150 games, .282/.401/.548, .949 OPS, 153 hits, 34 home runs, 110 RBIs, 110 runs scored, 108 walks, 132 strikeouts and 12 stolen bases

Contract: League minimum in 2020, arbitration eligible in 2022, free agent after 2024

Following the departure of Anthony Rendon via free agency, the onus is now on Juan Soto to step up and be the premier hitter in the middle of the Nationals’ lineup.

Soto has certainly shown that he’s willing to embrace being a star, racking up clutch hits in the playoffs and exuding confidence in interviews. The big question now is how he will respond to being pitching around without Rendon in front of him and no major offensive threat behind him.

“[Rendon] was a really good piece,” Soto said at the Nationals' annual WinterFest event. “But, like I said with [Bryce] Harper, it’s not just one player. It’s about team. The best team who wins. I feel really bad because he’s gone, but we’ve got to keep going.”

As a patient hitter who’s lauded for his eye for the strike zone, Soto certainly has the tools to embrace the Barry Bonds treatment. This will be a different approach then he’s been used to taking, though. Last year, Soto became the youngest player since intentional walks were first tracked in 1955 to draw over 100 walks in a season with fewer than five of them being intentional.

That number is certain to go up in 2020, as will the number of walks that won’t be logged as intentional but will include very few pitches to hit. Soto will be forced to remain selective without getting frustrated and swinging at pitches outside the zone. He's done that well up to this point, ranking 12th in the majors in swing rate on pitches outside the zone (23.4 percent, just behind the Los Angeles Dodgers' Max Muncy and ahead of Rendon) last season. But it’s a tough adjustment for any hitter, never mind one as young as Soto.

“I’ve been learning -- Howie Kendrick helped me a lot,” Soto said. “He always told me they don’t want to throw to you, just take, take, take until you see your pitch. That helped me a lot to get deep in my counts, then they are going to come right at me. I think that’s what helped me to get my pitch more. Because they’ve been really wild, and if I swing at that, they just keep going. So, just stop, wait for my pitch and get deep in the count.”

Center Field – Victor Robles

Age: 22

2019 Stats: 155 games, .255/.326/.419, .745 OPS, 139 hits, 17 home runs, 65 RBIs, 86 runs scored, 35 walks, 140 strikeouts and 28 stolen bases

Contract: League minimum in 2020, arbitration eligible in 2022, free agent after 2024

A Gold Glove finalist who stole nearly 30 bases and finished sixth in NL Rookie of the Year voting, Victor Robles enjoyed a successful first full season in the majors by several measures.

The next step in his development will be to improve his production at the plate, as only 14 qualified hitters had lower on-base and slugging percentages last season. If he can improve his plate discipline while adding some power, Robles has the potential to be an X-factor in the Nationals’ lineup.

“He’s got power, he got the ability to drive the ball in the gaps, he’s got speed on the basepaths,” hitting coach Kevin Long said at WinterFest. “He can fine-tune some things. I think his strike zone discipline can get better and I think he can learn from what pitchers did to him last year and make those adjustments accordingly.”

Robles swung at 30.6 percent of pitches outside the zone in 2019, only a shade above the league average. But he only made contact on 63.9 percent of those pitches (league average is 66 percent) while posting an overall swinging strike rate of 10.5 percent (league average is 9.5).

Yet the biggest thing to watch surrounding Robles this spring just might be his contract status. Given that he hasn’t hit the ceiling projected of him as a prospect, Robles could be a candidate for a contract extension that buys out his arbitration years and a year or two of free agency.

Soto is the obvious candidate that the team would want to lock up the most, but he’s a client of Scott Boras and has already shown that he can play at an MVP-caliber level. The cost would also be enormous if the Nationals wanted to re-sign him. Robles, on the other hand, hasn’t shown that kind of promise at the major-league level—yet.

It would be worth a conversation for Mike Rizzo to approach Robles and gauge his interest in signing a seven- or eight-year deal. Though reworking a contract with Robles would give him a substantial raise—and present a calculated risk for Washington—the Nationals could put themselves in a position in a year or two where Robles is far outplaying his salary with the added benefit of being locked into their lineup deep into his prime.

Right Field – Adam Eaton

Age: 31

2019 Stats: 151 games, .279/.365/.428, .792 OPS, 158 hits, 15 home runs, 49 RBIs, 103 runs scored, 65 walks, 106 strikeouts and 15 stolen bases

Contract: $9.5 million salary in 2020, $10.5 million team option with $1.5 million buyout for 2021

After starting his Nationals tenure with back-to-back, injury-plagued seasons, Adam Eaton showed he could stay healthy by playing his first full season since 2016.

The book has been written on Eaton: He’s a speedy outfielder who reaches base at a solid clip and stands there for the hitters behind him to drive in. The question at this stage of his career is whether he will change that narrative and add a new element to his game or remain the steady hitter he’s developed into.

Eaton certainly shouldn’t be relied on to hit for power. His 15 home runs last season marked a career-high. But perhaps he’ll be able to take a page out of Rendon’s book and drive balls into the gaps to generate more doubles and triples. Eaton has hit 25+ doubles four times in his career and led the American League in triples twice while a member of the Chicago White Sox.

On the surface, Eaton doesn’t seem like the type of hitter who could add that element to hit game. His average exit velocity of 86.6 mph ranks among the bottom third of major leaguers. But the right fielder isn’t nicknamed “Spanky” for nothing. He sprays his hits all over the field and set a career-best mark with just a 39.6 groundball percentage last season, so he’s putting the ball in the air.

A 35-double, 10-triple season would be a good benchmark for Eaton to aim for. His top-end speed has been limited because of his 2017 knee surgery, but if he can put the ball in the gaps while staying healthy and continuing to bridge the gap between Trea Turner at the leadoff spot and the heart of the Nationals’ order, their lineup immediately looks much more dynamic.

Fourth Outfielder – Michael A. Taylor

Age: 29

2019 Stats: 53 games, .250/.305/.364, .669 OPS, 22 hits, 1 home run, 3 RBIs, 10 runs scored, 7 walks, 34 strikeouts and 6 stolen bases

Contract: $3.325 million salary in 2020, arbitration eligible in 2021, free agent after 2021

After avoiding arbitration and agreeing to a salary north of $3 million for 2020, Michael Taylor is all but assured a roster spot heading into Spring Training. Taylor will resume his fourth-outfielder duties, subbing in late in games as a defensive replacement and filling in when the starters need a day off.

He’s had ample opportunities to prove himself as an everyday starter, but aside from an impressive 2017 campaign in which he hit 19 homers and posted an .806 OPS, Taylor hasn’t been able to hold down a starting job. That doesn’t mean he won’t play an important role on this club.

Taylor was a Gold Glove finalist in 2018 at center field and is right up there with Robles as the two best defensive players on the team. He can play all three outfield positions and will be the first name called should one of the starters be forced to miss some time.

Don’t be surprised if Taylor gets off to a hot start in Spring Training. He’s a bit of a Grapefruit League star, just ask his batting averages over the last five springs: .360, .258, .315, .453, .323. Yet Taylor has never been able to carry that over into the regular season, as his offensive success has always stayed behind in Florida. He'll work on cutting on his hefty strikeout rate as he has in years past, but perhaps that will finally come to fruition after he spent most of last season working on exactly that in AA-Harrisburg.

Fifth Outfielder – Andrew Stevenson

Age: 25

2019 Stats: 30 games, .367/.486/.467, .953 OPS, 11 hits, 0 home runs, 0 RBIs, 4 runs scored, 6 walks, 11 strikeouts and 0 stolen bases

Contract: League minimum in 2020, arbitration eligible in 2022, free agent after 2024

Perhaps the outfielder with the most to prove this spring, Andrew Stevenson isn’t a guarantee to break camp with the team when it heads back up to D.C. at the end of March.

His fate is well out of his hands, since several other bigger roster decisions will probably determine where he starts the season. The Nationals plan to employ a five-man bench, with one spot going to the back-up catcher, another reserved for Taylor, and one saved for whoever sits between Howie Kendrick, Starlin Castro and Eric Thames.

The first factor that could change things is the future of Ryan Zimmerman. If the team brings him back, as it’s expected to do, then that eliminates another bench spot. The other major question mark is third base, where Carter Kieboom and Asdrúbal Cabrera will battle it out in Spring Training. If Kieboom wins the job, then Cabrera shifts to a utility role and Stevenson is like playing in AA-Harrisburg or AAA-Fresno.

Even if Kieboom is deemed not ready and sent down to the minors, Stevenson would be pitted against Wilmer Difo for that final bench spot. Even then, Difo is out of options while Stevenson has one remaining, so Washington would likely send Stevenson down anyway to maintain roster flexibility.

The only way both Stevenson and Difo make the team is if Zimmerman doesn’t return and Cabrera wins the starting job at third. With the Nationals still likely to retain Zimmerman and Kieboom being given every opportunity to win the gig at third, the odds of that happening are slim.

Thames has played both corner outfield spots in his career and Taylor is the obvious candidate to fill in at center. So the Nationals don’t need a fifth outfielder on their 26-man roster. He proved his worth as an excellent pinch hitter last year, but Stevenson is still likely to join recent signees Carlos Tocci and Mac Williamson in the minor-league ranks as outfield depth for the season.

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The forgotten home run: Kurt Suzuki’s go-ahead blast in Game 2 of the World Series

The forgotten home run: Kurt Suzuki’s go-ahead blast in Game 2 of the World Series

The Nationals and Astros were in the midst of a pitching duel between two all-time greats.

Stephen Strasburg and Justin Verlander had each tossed six frames with just two runs allowed. Verlander took the mound for the top of the seventh to face the bottom of the Nationals’ lineup. 36-year-old catcher Kurt Suzuki stepped up the plate 1-for-2 with a single on the night.

On his 100th pitch, Verlander threw a 1-0 fastball over the heart of the plate and Suzuki got every bit of it. With a smooth uppercut, Suzuki sent a pitch 381 feat off the facing of the brick wall above the leftfield seats at Minute Maid Park. It silenced the crowd of 43,357 and gave Washington the momentum it so desperately needed.

It was a moment that could’ve lived in Nationals lore forever, had the team gone on to win a nail-biter. But the Nationals’ offense exploded, scoring nine more runs over the next three innings to blow out the Astros 12-3 in front of their home crowd. Adam Eaton and Michael Taylor joined the home run parade. Every starter not named Victor Robles ended up reaching base at least twice.

Three months later, Suzuki was at the Nationals’ annual WinterFest event at their home stadium. He sat down with NBC Sports Washington’s Nationals Talk crew and reflected on his big moment getting buried under the offensive onslaught his team brought upon Houston.

“Honestly, I was hoping we’d score a ton of runs because I didn’t want to play a nerve-wracking game,” Suzuki said. “I wanted it to be a nice, easy win, go right back into it and to tell you the truth, when I hit that home run it was just like—I was just so in shock that I was just like, ‘Oh, I just hit a home run. Cool, we’re winning. Like, what?’

“You weren’t just really like, ‘Ahh, this is so exciting.’ You’re just kind of in shock that I’ve hit a home run in the World Series and it gave us the lead in the seventh inning. It was pretty neat.”

CLICK BELOW TO LISTEN TO KURT SUZUKI'S FULL INTERVIEW ON THE NATIONALS TALK PODCAST

It may not be an iconic moment in Nationals history, but Suzuki’s home run brought the team one step closer to winning the World Series. It was without a doubt the biggest hit of his career.

"It feels great," Suzuki told reporters after the game. "I've waited 13 seasons for this moment to be able to play in the World Series. I kind of joked with a lot of the guys, Anthony [Rendon] in the training room, 'Now I've got energy now.' This is the last series of the season now, no matter what. We're playing for it now. If you can't get up for these games, I think you're in the wrong sport, you should retire or something, because this is it."

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