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Rizzo on Harper's surge, Giolito's debut and more Nats topics

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Rizzo on Harper's surge, Giolito's debut and more Nats topics

Mike Rizzo spoke with reporters on Sunday morning before the Nationals were set to close their series with the Atlanta Braves and covered a wide range of subjects with his team ready to embark on a West Coast road trip.

Of course, with his 22-year-old right fielder having hit six homers in his last three games - including Saturday's walk-off - the name 'Bryce Harper' came up frequently. But Rizzo also talked about Lucas Giolito's 2015 debut, the status of Stephen Strasburg and how other specific players have done so far this season.

Here are the highlights:

What do you make of Harper's recent surge?

Mike Rizzo: We thought all along he was in a good place coming into this stretch. Throughout the season he's seen a lot of pitches and he's had good at-bats. He and Rick [Schu] have worked really hard on his approach and I think it's paying off.

How about his play defensively in right field?

MR: He's played extremely well in right field. Our thought process all along was that we thought he'd be a Gold Glove-caliber right fielder when he finally got comfortable at a single position. We moved him around a little bit early in his career, but I think he's found a home out there. I'm very pleased with where he's at defensively.

What is different about Harper's swing this season?

MR: It's quieter. We call it softer in his load and in his approach. I think it's allowing him to see the pitch out of the hand better and know the strike zone better. He's ahead in a lot of counts and that's the secret of any good hitter, to work yourself into good counts and get a pitch to drive. When he's seeing his pitch, he's making the most of it.

Has this past week made you adjust your 'ceiling' for Harper?

MR: Well, it's not like this guy came from nowhere to where he is today. This guy was one of the really good players in the game from the time he stepped into this clubhouse. He was a historic 18 year old, 19 year old, 20 year old. I think that we've said at times he's scratched the surface of his ability level. I think that as his experience level grows and as at-bats keep piling on, he's a guy that knows the league and knows his skillset and how he needs to succeed. He's a big part of it. When this guy's healthy he's been as good a player as anybody. He's maturing in that aspect, to take care of his body and to make sure that he stays healthy. He knows that when he's in the lineup, he makes it a better lineup.

The hidden ceiling that I have in my mind, I've never made public. He's going to be a good player we feel for a very long time.

What did you think of Lucas Giolito's 2015 debut?

MR: We had our farm director Mark Scialabba there. He said it was very good. He got a little tired in the third inning and elevated some pitches. But we've got some things to worry about in this organization and Lucas Giolito isn't one of them.

Is Stephen Strasburg okay after his recent injury?

MR: It really didn't alarm us much. Stephen knows his body very well and when he told me after he came out that it was nothing serious, I was pretty good with it. Then when he saw the doctors, it wasn't much fear that it was something worse. We felt good about it.

What is different about Max Scherzer from what you remembered in Arizona?

MR: The difference is he just competes so much. In every aspect, the preparation he puts in is just remarkable. I don't know if you guys notice it. He prepares from the time he leaves his start for his next start. The way his repertoire has come together. I think the big difference from then until now is the way he can pitch with that repertoire. The stuff was always there. This guy reads swings and reads hitters. He's a student of the game. He really employs the mental aspect to it along with the physical. What he's meant to this clubhouse can't be understated either. He's a mentor, he's a leader. When things are needed at their most and when they're needed from a leader, he steps up.

Surprised at how good the young relievers have been?

MR: It wouldn't constitute 'surprise' for me. We liked all those guys in the minor leagues and we saw them all in spring training. We felt that there was a place for them on the club at some time in their careers and we felt that for each of them, we needed to bring them in here and felt that they were ready physically to pitch in the bigs. We think that all of them have come as advertised. We think that it was a big part of what our process was in the offseason, to have depth with bullpen arms. We've turned into more of a power bullpen and that's kind of what we envisioned this thing to be in the beginning.

Good to see Danny Espinosa come around?

MR: It's been great. He's worked extremely hard. He's gone through a lot of trials and tribulations. He's a great worker, man. Nobody outworks him. His skillset is great. He bring a lot to the table. Defensively and with baserunning, speed and throwing arm. Now that he's had some success from the left side, it's really good to see him do that because he's worked so hard at it.

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Injury updates: Nothing new on Anthony Rendon or Casey Janssen, but Rizzo did say Nate McClouth is starting his hitting progression while rehabbing down in Viera, Fla. Rizzo expects him to return to the Nats at some point this year, but does not know when that will be.

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Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

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Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

ST. LOUIS -- Koda Glover rewarded his manager's faith.

Bryce Harper had three hits and drove in three runs, Glover earned the save in the first opportunity since Ryan Madson was placed on the disabled list, and the Washington Nationals snapped a four-game losing streak with a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday night.

The Nationals won for just the third time in their last 10 games and snapped the Cardinals' season-high, eight-game winning streak.

"We needed a win today," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "Get on that plane, have a nice happy flight and come back tomorrow and be at home and be ready."

Tanner Roark (8-12) gave up four runs, three earned, in six innings.

A beleaguered bullpen that had blown two leads to start the losing streak took care of the rest. Justin Miller pitched two scoreless innings before Glover closed it out.

"There's been a lot of changes (in the bullpen)," Miller said. "It's unfortunate, a couple of injuries and stuff like that, but I don't really look at it as I've got the seventh or eighth or anything like that. I'm just going out there just trying to do my job."

Glover took the loss in the series opener on Monday, giving up a game-ending homer to Paul DeJong.

"The first game of the series didn't go as I would have liked for it to have went," Glover said. "So to get put back in that situation or even a better situation to get a save, I'm happy with that outcome."

Harper drove in the game's first run with a double in the first and knocked in two more with a bases-loaded single in the fourth to give the Nationals a 4-1 lead.

A pair of errors helped the Nationals extend their lead to 5-1 in the fifth. St. Louis committed three errors in the game after committing just four total errors during the winning streak.

"A couple plays clearly we expect to make and will make and just didn't go our way for a little bit there," Cardinals interim manager Mike Shildt said. "To the guys' credit they regrouped, settled down, and started playing back to the baseball they know they can play."

The Nationals had opportunities to pad the lead, leaving the bases loaded in the third and fifth while stranding nine runners in the first five innings.

"When you have an opportunity to put teams away you've got to do that," Martinez said. "Especially with how hot the Cardinals are playing right now. They're going to come back."

The Cardinals got within one in the sixth. After DeJong and Kolten Wong came up with back-to-back, two-out RBI hits, Harrison Bader hit a slow grounder to third. Anthony Rendon's throw to first got away from Ryan Zimmerman for an error, allowing Wong to score from second to cut the Nationals' lead to 5-4.

Just two of the four runs Luke Weaver (6-11) allowed in his 3 2/3 innings were earned. He gave up seven hits, including two to Roark, who scored both times.

Tyson Ross allowed one unearned run in 3 1/3 innings of relief.

Bader homered in the third and Matt Carpenter walked twice to extend his on-base streak to a career-high 34 games.

TRAINING ROOM

Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson will have an MRI on his sore right wrist on Friday. RHP Joe Ross (right elbow surgery) threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings at Class A Potomac on Thursday and is hoping for a September return.

Cardinals: RHP Carlos Martinez (right shoulder strain) will begin a rehab Friday at Double-A Springfield. RHP Adam Wainwright (right elbow inflammation) threw two scoreless innings Thursday night at High-A Palm Beach.

UP NEXT

Nationals: RHP Max Scherzer (15-5, 2.19 ERA) will take the mound as the Nationals return home for a three-game series Friday night against the Miami Marlins and RHP Dan Straily (4-5, 4.42 ERA). Scherzer is 3-0 with a 3.43 ERA in three starts this season against the Marlins.

Cardinals: RHP Jack Flaherty (6-6, 3.22 ERA) kicks off a three-game series Friday night as the Cardinals host the Milwaukee Brewers and RHP Freddy Peralta (5-3, 4.47 ERA). Flaherty struck out a career-high 13 batters in his last start against the Brewers on June 22.

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

In April, it would have been unfathomable. In May, it would have been laughable. In June, it would have been improbable. In July, it started to look possible. In August, it might even have been likely. Now, it’s a complete toss-up.

Juan Soto is the worthiest National League Rookie of the Year. So is Ronald Acuña.

It’s one of the most exciting rookie races in recent memory, not simply for the otherworldly numbers each freshman sensation is putting up, but for just how good they are at such young ages. Juan Soto is a jaw-dropping 19. Acuña, by comparison, is the wizened veteran at the old age of... 20. 

The two are preternaturally talented, and their mature-beyond-their-years games have translated perfectly well to the big leagues. The question now is: which one will actually take home the hardware?

(Before we continue, I’ll note that Jack Flaherty, Brian Anderson, and Walker Buehler are all very talented young players who would at least be in the conversation in normal years).

The first step is to look at the numbers.

On the season Acuña is slashing .287/.347/.571, and his wRC+ is 144. He’s got 19 home runs and 8 stolen bases in just 68 games and his fWAR is 2.3. bWAR has him at 2.8

Soto’s slash line is currently .293/.420/.534, to go along with 15 home runs. His wRC+ is 153, and his fWAR is 2.7. His bWAR sits at 2.2.

Obviously, the numbers are terrific for both. Acuña has been up longer, but thanks to injury Soto has actually played 8 more games. Acuña has the edge in power, both in home runs and slugging percentage, plus he’s clearly the speedier player and better defender. If you’re looking for all-around game, he’s probably your man. Plus, for those who care about such things when voting on awards, the Braves are several games ahead of the Nats in the standings.

However, Soto’s performance has a couple things going for it. First of all, as impressive as it is that Acuña is taking the league by storm as a 20-year old, Soto is nearly a full year younger. It cannot be overemphasized how wild it is what Soto is doing as a teenager. He may very well be the greatest teenage batter in baseball history.

Secondly, Soto has been incredibly consistent. He’s basically been an All-Star level hitter since the day he was called up in May, whereas Acuña’s numbers, while very legitimate, are buoyed by his recent hot streak. He’s hit 8 home runs in 8 games, and of every hitter with at least 100 plate appearances since the All-Star Game, he has the highest wRC+ in that span. He’s had plenty of valleys to his peaks, though, and Soto has been a model of consistency. Of all hitters with at 200 at-bats this entire season, Soto ranks 7th over the entire season, That’s astounding.

Another point in Soto’s favor is just how historic his numbers are. Voters love a narrative, and as mentioned above, Soto is having literally the best offensive season a teenager has ever had. The highest wRC+ by a 19-year old in baseball history is Mel Ott with a 140 exactly 90 seasons ago. Soto is beating that by 13 so far.

The true separator, though, is Soto’s on-base percentage. His .420 mark is a comfortable 4th of all players with at least 300 plate appearances, behind elite batting eyes Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Joey Votto. And, once again, we’re talking about something historic.

Soto’s .420 on-base percentage, if it holds, will be the only OBP over .400 for a teenager with 200 plate appearances in Major League history. In fact, outside of Ott’s .397 in 1928, no other teenager has ever reached base at a .360 clip, let alone Soto’s astronomical .420.

Ultimately, I believe more in Acuña’s future, but I think Soto’s been the better player this season. Acuña is more well-rounded, but Soto’s elite batting eye has made him a top 10 hitter in baseball already. If Soto had been up on Opening Day and played at this level, he’d be on pace for a 5.5 WAR, which would top even Bryce Harper’s 2012 season.

As mentioned, though, voters love a narrative. If Acuña comes back from his injury and stays as hot as he’s been all August, it’ll be tough to ignore his performance during the Braves’ stretch run. This award is not over, but for now, Soto should be considered the favorite.

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