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Nats win as Strasburg dominates in return to the mound

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Nats win as Strasburg dominates in return to the mound

GAME IN A NUTSHELL: The sight of Stephen Strasburg taking the mound this season has produced plenty of emotions, unfortunately far too many of them negative after four months of struggles, injuries and some downright bizarre outings. But by the end of this night, after Strasburg had thoroughly dominated the Rockies in his return from the disabled list, there is as much reason to be optimistic about the right-hander as there has been in a very long time.

Strasburg was brilliant in his first start since suffering an oblique strain on July 4. He tossed seven innings of 1-run ball, scattering three hits while striking out 12 and failing to walk anybody. He even notched three hits at the plate for the first time in his career. And when he departed after the seventh, a crowd of 37,115 rose to give him his loudest ovation of a trying season.

Strasburg was the recipient of plenty of of run support, with the Nationals scoring in the second, third, fifth and seventh innings, RBI coming from up and down the lineup. And thanks to the Mets actually losing a ballgame for the first time in nine days, the Nats ended the night down only 1 1/2 games in the NL East.

HITTING HIGHLIGHT: As they did Friday night, the Nationals got big hits from everybody in the heart of their lineup. And the biggest one came from Wilson Ramos. With two on and one out in the bottom of the second, Ramos stayed back on a breaking ball and roped it to deep right-center. By the time the Rockies retrieved it, both Clint Robinson and Ian Desmond had come around to score and Ramos had coasted into second base with a big double. Slowly but surely, the Nats catcher is coming of a long slump at the plate, and he's doing it with hits exactly like that: to center and right fields.

PITCHING HIGHLIGHT: If there were any fears about Strasburg in his first start in five weeks, he very quickly put those to rest. Despite allowing a leadoff double to Charlie Blackmon, he buckled right down and got out of the first inning with some electric pitches. And by night's end, he had authored one of the best starts of his career: 7 innings of 1-run, 3-hit ball, with 12 strikeout and zero walks. It's the sixth time Strasburg has recorded double-digit strikeouts without issuing a walk in his career. And he even went 3-for-3 at the plate after going 0-for-16 prior to this game. It was everything the Nats could have wanted in Strasburg's return, and it will only leave the right-hander with sky-high confidence moving forward.

KEY STAT: Ryan Zimmerman has driven in a run in each of his last six games. Zimmerman already holds the club record with an RBI in nine straight games in 2012.

UP NEXT: The series wraps up at 1:35 p.m. Sunday when Max Scherzer (11-8, 2.31) seeks his first win at Nationals Park since his June 20 no-hitter. Lefty Yohan Flande (2-1, 3.54) starts for the Rockies.

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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. Grisly 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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