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Nats' last man delivers

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Nats' last man delivers

As the Nationals' designated backup catcher for the night, Wilson Ramos knew he could lounge around in the dugout, pop sunflower seeds into his mouth and goof around with teammates. But as this game progressed, as the Nationals and Phillies kept trading blows with neither side able to deliver the knockout punch, Ramos began to realize his services might actually be needed at some point.

Sure enough, as the bottom of the 11th arrived, manager Davey Johnson got Ramos' attention at the other end of the dugout and held up five fingers. Translation: If reach the No. 5 spot in our lineup in this inning, you're hitting for the pitcher.

And just like that, Ramos transformed from his lazy-night-off mindset to emergency pinch-hitter mode.

"In that moment, I just take my batting gloves and say: 'OK, I'm the man,'" he said. "Go out and hit the ball hard."

Which is exactly what he did. With the bases loaded and two outs in a 3-hour, 42-minute marathon, Ramos fell behind in the count 0-2, then took a ball, then fouled two more pitches off before drilling a slider from Phillies reliever Michael Schwimer over shortstop Jimmy Rollins' head. Steve Lombardozzi came racing home and then took off to join the celebration near first base as Ramos was mobbed by teammates upon delivering the base hit that gave the Nationals' a 4-3 victory over their hated division rivals.

"The at-bat didn't start out too good," Johnson said. "But it ended good."

A crowd of 34,377, lured by a team-sponsored promotion to take back their park from the Phillies fans who in the past have invaded South Capitol Street, let out a roar previously heard only a handful of times in this facility. Having waited through nearly four hours of baseball, watching as the home team threatened to push across the go-ahead run but was unable to do it despite 23 men on base, those fans were rewarded with one of the more-satisfying of the Nationals' NL East-leading 17 victories.

"It speaks about the character of this team," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We want to win. It was nice, obviously, to have the crowd behind us tonight. I'd give it 70-30 probably. But better than 20-80 the other way."

Truth be told, the Nationals couldn't have drawn up a much better script for the first game of a weekend series they've been hyping for months. With young stars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper both in the lineup for a surprising club that has spent the last 24 days in first place, there was plenty of anticipation in the stands when the game began.

That anticipation only built up over the course of 11 innings, experiencing some early downs when Strasburg served up two home runs but bouncing back up when role players Chad Tracy and Jesus Flores produced the three RBI necessary to keep this game alive.

Not that the Nationals didn't have plenty of opportunities to put the Phillies away earlier. They stranded 14 men on base, including two in the sixth and three in the eighth.

All the squandered chances left players frustrated and perhaps at times even defeated. Their manager, though, looked at the situation in a different light.

"Actually, at this point I really like it, because we're threatening," Johnson said. "A lot of times this year we've been awful quiet with the bats. I knew it's coming, and it was nice to see quality at-bats from some guys that haven't been doing it."

Reinvigorated by five scoreless innings from five different relievers -- Tom Gorzelanny, Craig Stammen, Henry Rodriguez, Tyler Clippard and Ryan Perry -- the Nationals came up to bat in the 11th, determined to push that final, winning run across.

They managed to do it all with two outs, the rally jump-started by Lombardozzi's single to right. That brought Harper to the plate with a chance to win the game with one swing, and the crowd rose in anticipation of a magical moment. Instead, everyone had to settle for another quality at-bat out of the 19-year-old, who fell behind 0-2 and then battled his way to his third walk of the night.

Jayson Werth also drew a free pass from Schwimer, loading the bases for Ramos and setting the stage for the catcher.

"I was the last guy on the bench," Ramos said. "And, you know, I just was thinking: 'Try to get the runners in.'"

He did, setting off a mad celebration that players were still trying to process nearly an hour later.

"I was freaking out," Lombardozzi said. "I threw my helmet and got to Ramos as fast as possible. I was saying to myself: 'Did I hit home plate? I hope I did.'"

He sure did. And because of it, the Nationals gave themselves -- and their fans -- a heart-stopping victory, and perhaps even more reason to believe this is merely the first step toward even bigger things.

"Right now, it's just a game," Desmond said. "It's just one game. We've got to go out and play 'em hard tomorrow, and we've got to play the rest of the games for the rest of the season hard. And hopefully there's meaningful baseball between both of us teams towards the end of the year."

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Dozier and Long a match made in launch angle heaven

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USA Today Sports

Dozier and Long a match made in launch angle heaven

Brian Dozier came to a realization following his rookie season in 2012. Why not hit the ball more often in the air and accentuate a strength? Instead of drilling to fix a weakness -- like opposite-field hitting or even ground ball rate -- choose to club away, in the air, to the pull side, as often as possible.

No en vogue terminology explained Dozier’s pursuit of six years ago. Omnipotent terms like “launch angle” remained shrouded and in development. Dozier didn’t need a phrase. He just needed to do what worked more often.

The idea took with career-altering results. Dozier hit 18 home runs, then 23, then 28, then 42. Pull-side fly balls turned him into an All-Star and commodity at second base. His new one-year deal with the Nationals brings him a hitting coach who is elated by the idea of hitting up and over.

Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long is the effervescent patriarch of launch angle. “We want to hit it over the shift,” Long will tell anyone willing to listen. Do damage, hit bombs, whatever slang term is preferred. Just hit the ball in the air. On the ground equals outs. In the air produces runs.

Melding a second baseman in search of a reboot after a down year with a hitting coach who is going to trumpet a cause the infielder already backed could be a powerful formula.

“When I changed my approach at the end of 2012 going into 2013, there was no launch angle, any of that stuff, but looking back at it now that’s kind of exactly what it was,” Dozier said Tuesday on a conference call. “We just didn’t have a name for it. “[It’s] recognizing your strength and doing everything you can to be really good at your strength rather than try to tweak weaknesses and stuff. And one of those strengths for me is hitting the ball in the air to left field, left-center field. Once I kind of got that part of it, I really enjoyed doing that. It’s going to be a fun year with a hitting coach that kind of sees the same thing, whether your strength is hitting the ball in the air or hitting the ball the other way, I believe in really honing into your strength and really running with that. Some guys’ strengths aren’t hitting the ball in the air, which is fine.”

The numbers coinciding with Dozier’s rise from eighth-round pick to among the league leaders in homers from 2014-2017 are stark. His fly ball rate increased year after year until peaking in 2016 at 47.7 percent, the same season he hit 42 home runs. His 120 OPS-plus in that span showed what kind of work he performed in Minnesota’s cool and spacious Target Field.

However, 2018 brought a significant recession when an April bone bruise in his left knee hindered him throughout the season. Tuesday, Dozier explained the importance of load bearing and stability from his front leg in order to execute his upward swing. Instead of landing on the front of his foot, the knee bruise pushed him back to his heel, opening his hips early. Grizzly results followed: 21 homers, a .215 average, sub-.700 OPS.

Dozier said Tuesday his knee is healed. Finally receiving a break from baseball following the World Series allowed him to recover. That’s also when he had to decide his future. Dozier wasn’t sure how the market would react to his down season following years of being one of the heaviest second base bats in baseball. He said he received multiple offers -- some providing more years and money than the Nationals’ one-year, $9 million deal he settled on -- before selecting Washington. Conversations with his ex-Minnesota teammate Kurt Suzuki, in his second stint with the Nationals, and former Washington outfielder Josh Willingham, who played with Dozier in Minnesota, too, helped sway his decision.

“It just seemed like a really good fit,” Dozier said.

That is applicable to this coming partnership between Dozier and Long. In the air, often and to the pull side. It’s a subtle pairing that could help Dozier return to the 30-home run mark, and the Nationals to receive inexpensive bop from an infield spot.

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Twists and turns keep coming in Harper sweepstakes

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Twists and turns keep coming in Harper sweepstakes

No better soap opera has graced Major League Baseball than Bryce Harper’s journey into free agency. Each spring training opened with questions about what would happen down the line for Harper, who turned from teenager to drinking age to his mid-20s fielding the same queries about his pending freedom. Harper promptly smacked those questions away at the start of spring training in 2018. That was when he delivered a threat to walk out if asked what had become a standard question on the first day he spoke each spring in Florida.

A snow-filled January Sunday in the DMV delivered another twist -- sort of. Bob Nightengale of USA Today, who has been adamant throughout the offseason Harper would sign with the Philadelphia Phillies, reported the Phillies are now the “clear-cut favorite” to sign Harper following a five-hour meeting Saturday in Las Vegas, though no offer has been made.

Nightengale went on to say the Nationals are, in essence, receding into the background.

What we know is Harper’s market is small. We also knew that from the start. Philadelphia’s spending following the 2017 offseason suggested it was in a mood to distribute cash. It took on Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana, the latter move shoving slugger Rhys Hoskins into the outfield, forcing an expensive square-peg, round-hole situation. But they chose to pay for it, hinting future expenditures were to come.

So, Philadelphia’s desire to chase Harper and/or Manny Machado this offseason makes baseline sense. A key to recall here is whether Harper would actually want to play for these teams who are pursuing him. That’s unclear and will remain so until he chooses one.

Strange in Sunday’s report is the suggestion Harper would have taken a discount to return to Washington.

“Nats officials privately say Harper no longer is in their plans, and unless Lerner changes his mind or Harper accepts a contract that pays him less than $25 million a year, they anticipate life without him.”

The team already offered an average annual value of $30 million over 10 years -- likely with a chunk of the money deferred. While that deal could have been rescinded, the logic of doing so then backtracking to $25 million doesn’t make sense. Why offer $30 million per, be declined, then come back with a push for $25 million?

These machinations were expected. No easy path toward a conclusion seemed imminent from the start, not with so much money on the line, so much grandeur at stake and such length of commitment necessary. Max Scherzer, having gone through this process following the 2014 season, had a prediction of what would come.

“Stay patient,” Scherzer told me of what he would advise Harper about the process. “There’s going to be, if I had to guess, there’s going to be a lot of -- lot of -- hoopla and negative press trying to tear you down. There will probably be a lot more teams saying, no, they don’t want to sign you than you ever could possibly believe.

“They will find every little thing to critique you over and you can’t let that affect you. You have to have a business mind. You have to stay patient. You have to know the value you create and basically stick to your guns. Just know it’s going to be a fight.”

Harper last played in Nationals Park 14 weeks ago. He closed the season Sept. 30 in Colorado. He’s since been prominent, an every-few-days presence in the news cycle, without uttering a word. He was perhaps most on display -- though not present -- when Scott Boras rambled through an hour-long visit with reporters in Las Vegas.

Pitchers, catchers, and all types are a month away from walking into spring training. That leaves a few more weeks for Harper maneuvering, and perhaps, finally, a decision. An easy path has not materialized. That’s the one thing in all of this known to be true.

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