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The playoffs are the payoff for the Nationals


The playoffs are the payoff for the Nationals

Fireworks shot off from the roof at Nationals Park at 10:02 p.m. Thursday evening. Within seconds, players were handed commemorative T-shirts and caps. A crowd of 30,359 roared with approval as everyone in uniform retreated down the dugout steps and into the home clubhouse.

There they were greeted and congratulated by 86-year-old Ted Lerner -- perhaps the only one in the building who was around the last time something like this occurred in this town -- and other members of ownership, and collectively they raised flutes of champagne and toasted their success after a 4-1 victory over the Dodgers clinched Washington's first playoff berth since 1933.

Someone asked Davey Johnson to say a few words, so the 69-year-old manager did. He conveyed, as he always does, exactly how he felt.

"What's this?" Johnson grumbled. "We ain't done yet."

No, the Nationals believe there are still more hurdles to cross in 2012, first and foremost winning the NL East division -- the magic number for that now stands at 8 -- then making a deep run through the postseason.

So there wasn't all that much celebration taking place on this night among those in uniform, even if technically they had accomplished something quite significant.

"This pretty much means that if we lose every game from here on out, we get to play one more game," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We're looking way bigger picture than that."

Nationals players and coaches may not have put much stock in win No. 91 out of 149, but they didn't stop fans and some team officials from rejoicing in a moment they had never experienced before.

"I don't want to downplay it, because it's a huge accomplishment for the organization," said Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals' first draft pick after arriving in town in 2005. "But I think the next one is the one where we'll do a little more celebrating."

That next one, should it occur, will most likely take place in another city, in another team's ballpark. Mathematically, the Nationals cannot clinch the division before the current homestand ends Monday. There's a much greater chance they will do it next week in either Philadelphia (they'd need to lead the Braves by at least seven games with six to play) or St. Louis (they'd need to lead by at least four games with three to play).

By the time the Nationals return home for the final regular-season series of the year against the Phillies, they certainly hope they've already wrapped things up and are making plans for the upcoming NL Division Series.

So this was an opportunity for Washington's fans to rejoice and salute their hometown ballclub in the flesh, and a chance to reflect on all the bad baseball they had watched over the years. Or all the years when there was no baseball at all to watch.

"They stuck with us the whole time, too," Zimmerman said. "I've met fans and seen people here for years when we would lose 100 games a year. For them to have a team, and for this city to have a baseball team to root for, is pretty special."

After narrowly missing an opportunity to clinch late Wednesday night after a dramatic rally from six runs down, Thursday's actual clinching victory was fairly matter-of-fact.

Ross Detwiler tossed six innings of one-run ball. The Nationals scored four early runs off Chris Capuano, with Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa delivering RBI doubles. And then the bullpen shut the door on any possibility of a Los Angeles comeback, with Christian Garcia, Ryan Mattheus and Drew Storen each tossing a scoreless inning to preserve the lead.

It wasn't until Storen got two strikes on Hanley Ramirez, the final batter of the game, that everyone seemed to begin to sense what was at stake. And when Storen blew a slider past Ramirez for his third consecutive strikeout in a perfect inning of relief, he realized what had just happened.

"I didn't even think about it until I saw it on the scoreboard afterwards," he said. "I was too concerned with the three guys coming up. I was just having fun. The crowd was real into it. If you're not out there having fun in that situation, then you shouldn't be out there."

The Nationals, though, were careful not to have too much fun. If not for the fireworks and the T-shirts and the scoreboard declaring "Nats Clinch," it was difficult to distinguish this win from any of the previous 90.

"I think there was some talk about not celebrating at all," said Jayson Werth, who was a part of plenty of clinchers in Philadelphia. "And I kind of talked them out of that. So that was good. Any time you get to the postseason, it's a huge accomplishment.

"There's a lot of teams that won't be playing in the postseason, and we should relish this moment. The organization and the town of Washington, D.C. should be proud."

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Bryce Harper will compete in Home Run Derby, but only on one condition

USA Today Sports

Bryce Harper will compete in Home Run Derby, but only on one condition

It’s happening.

When the 2018 All-Star Weekend comes to Washington, D.C. in the middle of July, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper will compete in the 2018 Home Run Derby, but only on one condition: He has to be a member of the 2018 National League All-Star Team.

Though Harper is having a down year, only hitting .213 thus far, he leads the NL in home runs with 19.

In the June 18 update of All-Star game voting, Harper sat second among all outfielders with just north of 1,000,000 votes.

That means he’s not only going to make the All-Star team, but he’ll likely start in the outfield.

Harper, a five-time All-Star, competed in the Home Run Derby once before. He was the runner-up to Yoenis Cespedes in 2013, losing by just one long ball, 9-8.

The 2018 Home Run Derby will take place on July 16 at Nationals Park.


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It's time to start paying attention to Trea Turner's sneaky-great season

It's time to start paying attention to Trea Turner's sneaky-great season

Remember when the Nationals put Trea Turner in centerfield so they could keep Danny Espinosa at shortstop?

Two years later it's Turner who leads all N.L. shortstops in fWAR, as you surely know if you follow the Nationals on literally any social media platform. 

So while Juan Soto and Bryce Harper continue to dominate all of The Takes, it's Turner who's been the Nats' best position player this season. 

We'll start with some basics: 

Did you know that Trea Turner leads all N.L. shortstops in fWAR? He's currently sitting at 2.4 WAR, above the likes of Brandon Crawford, Addison Russell, and Trevor Story, to name a few. (We'll ignore the fact that the top six shortstops in the A.L. all have a better fWAR.) He's a top-10 shortstop in baseball during one of the strongest eras in the position's history.

Even after a dreadfully slow start, Turner's still on pace to have the best season of his career. He posted a WAR of 2.9 last year and -- barring injury -- will realistically eclipse that by the All-Star game. 

At the plate, two stats jump off the page in regards to explaining Turner's stellar season. 

First, Turner is drawing a *bunch* of walks. His current BB% clip (10.6 percent) would be far and away the best of his career and up four percentage points from last year. It's a factor that helps explain - partially, at least - why his on-base percentage has risen and his BABIP has dropped. More walks mean fewer swings, fewer swings mean less contact, less contact means lower BABIP, etc. It's not the whole picture, but it's a big part of it. 

Secondly, Turner is making impressive contact on pitches out of the strike zone. FanGraphs calculates out-of-zone contact using a statistic titled O-Contact, which is a blessing considering some of the titles they choose to give their other stats. 

The average O-Contact across MLB in 2018 is 64.7 percent. Trea Turner's career O-Contact is 62.4 percent (although realistically it's closer to the high-50's - a small-sample-size from his abbreviated first season mucks up the number a bit). 

This season, Turner's posted an O-Contact of 69.3 percent. Not only is that 10 percentage points higher than his O-Contact from last season, but a top-50 clip in all of baseball. He's one spot ahead of Mike Trout!  Put both of these together with some encouraging Statcast numbers (rise in HardHit%, already matched his total 'barrels' from last season) and you can see why Turner's been thriving at the plate. 

Defensively, he's improved across the board as well. His UZR and DRS - considered the two most reliable fielding statistics, if such a thing exists - are both up from last year. He has the 10th-best UZR of all major league shortstops and ranks 1st in DRS. 

Last season, he finished 17th in both UZR and DRS (of all shortstops with at least 800 innings; Turner didn't log enough innings to be considered a qualified fielder). He ended the season with both numbers in the negative. 

You may be skeptical of defensive stats, which is fine. But if nothing else, the fact that Turner is turning literal negative stats into positive ones is encouraging. 

Lastly, Turner continues to be an elite baserunner. At this point in his career, his speed is arguably his best tool:

You'll note that purple dot allllllllllll the way on the right. That's Turner! Now, let's take a look at how his speed compares across all positions:

Essentially, Turner is faster than like, 98 percent of baseball. In fact, by Sprint Speed, he's the 6th-fastest player in the game. He also ranks 2nd across all of baseball in FanGraphs "Baserunning" measurements, only behind fellow teammate and mindbogglingly good baserunner Michael A. Taylor. 

So, Trea Turner an elite baserunner (maybe the best if you combine his raw speed with his baserunning stats), a top-5 shortstop in the field, and an All-Star at the plate. 

Juan Soto's been great and Bryce Harper is still extremely talented, but this year, Trea Turner has been the Nationals' best player.