An eventful All-Star win for Nats

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An eventful All-Star win for Nats

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Sure, there was that routine flyball Bryce Harper never saw amid the Kansas City twilight, a botched play that will show up on All-Star blooper reels for decades to come.

"It didn't hit me in the head," Harper cracked. "So I think I'm doing OK."

He's doing more than OK. So what if the 19-year-old's first All-Star Game was less than his finest hour on a baseball field? Those few hiccups paled in comparison to his overall experience over a whirlwind 48 hours.

And considering teammates Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez did their part to help lead the National League to an 8-0 drubbing of the American League in the 83rd Midsummer Classic -- thus ensuring home-field advantage for the NL champion in this year's World Series -- there wasn't much anyone wearing a curly W cap could be upset about at the end of the night.

"That's huge for any team that's in there, and hopefully it's us," Harper said. "But we're a long ways away. We're in first place right now, but we've got a long season ahead of us. ... Hopefully we can keep it going in the second half, in the playoffs, and keep it going deep into October and November."

What would have been a ludicrous notion during any of the previous six All-Star Games was very much a factor during this exhibition at Kauffman Stadium. Thanks to Tuesday night's NL victory, Game 1 of the World Series cannot be held at Yankee Stadium. But it could be held at Nationals Park.

"No comment on that one," Gonzalez said with an impish grin. "I'm just going to smile about it and wave. That's it."

If the previously unthinkable does happen, the Nationals can thank a surprisingly explosive NL lineup that scored five runs off Justin Verlander in the top of the first and then added three more off Matt Harrison in the top of the fourth.

But they can also thank their co-aces, who each churned out a scoreless inning of relief to aid the over cause. Gonzalez and Strasburg aren't used to pitching out of the bullpen, and the sight of the two of them watching the game's first two innings from behind the right field fence was odd.

Once each hurler reached the mound, it was all business. Gonzalez cruised through the bottom of the third, retiring the side on 11 pitches and striking out Mike Napoli on a wicked curveball. Strasburg followed him in the bottom of the fourth, and though he surrendered a leadoff single to Robinson Cano and then issued a two-out walk to Jose Bautista, he emerged unscathed thanks to a double-play grounder off Josh Hamilton's bat and a lineout to left from Prince Fielder.

Cano. Hamilton. Bautista. Fielder. That's as fearsome a foursome as any pitcher can face in succession in today's game. Not that Strasburg was daunted by it.

"I love the challenge," he said. "It was great. Gio finished up a good inning, and I knew I was going to be going in there facing the middle of the lineup guys. It was great to get the opportunity to face them. Me being in the National League, I don't know when I'll be able to face them again."

Moments after Strasburg finished his one inning of work, Harper stepped to the plate for the first time, in the process becoming the youngest position player ever to appear in an All-Star Game. His evening got off to a positive start when he drew a walk off Harrison and then tagged up from first base on a flyout to deep left field.

Then things began to turn sour for the rookie outfielder. He was caught in a rundown off second base. He struck out looking at an 0-2 pitch from Athletics rookie Ryan Cook in the seventh inning. And, of course, there was that mishap in left field, with Harper throwing his arms out in confusion as Napoli's routine fly ball landed 10 feet behind him.

It wasn't the first time that's happened to Harper. He misplayed a similar ball in right field in Cincinnati earlier this season.

"Nothing you could do about it," he said with a shrug. "It happens. I wasn't really bummed out. I don't even care. It's going to happen probably 40 more times in my career, so ... whatever."

Harper's final boxscore line will show he went 0-for-1 with a walk and a strikeout. It won't show the misplayed fly ball. It also won't show all the fun he had meeting George Brett and Frank Robinson and hanging out with Chipper Jones and receiving words of wisdom from Tony La Russa.

That, in the end, is what Harper will remember most. Along with the feeling of pride he experienced when he stood along the third-base line, next to Strasburg and Gonzalez, introduced for the first time as an All-Star.

"I think that's when it started sinking in a little bit," he said. "It was a lot of fun to come out and be able to be around here and be around the best guys in baseball and really take it in."

Bryce Harper continues to struggle with few pitches to hit

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Bryce Harper continues to struggle with few pitches to hit

Most of the players had left the Nationals' clubhouse. After a straight forward game where Gio Gonzalez' off night was the central storyline, the media needed another angle, someone else to talk to.

Manager Dusty Baker had gone into detail about the recent struggles of Bryce Harper, so he would do. And sure enough, in walked Bryce after an extended wait.

Harper, though, had not changed out of his uniform after the game, not after over 30 minutes had passed. He had batting gloves on and a bat in his hand. He was dripping sweat. It appeared that Harper had gone straight to the batting cage after the 7-1 loss to get in extra work after his second hitless game in a row, one that dropped his season batting average to .252. 

Harper gave no comment when asked about it as he took off his gloves, but spoke extensively about his approach and where he can go from here.

"Sometimes you get beat and it happens," Harper said. "I mean, I'm not going to change my approach for anybody. I go up there with the same approach every single day. If I get a pitch to drive, then I'm going to try to drive it."

Bartolo Colon was Harper's main adversary on this particular night. The Mets starter rebounded from his awful outing against the Nats the week before to go seven innings of one-run ball in Monday's 7-1 Nats loss. Against Colon, Harper flew out to left, lined out to the shortstop in the third and grounded out to second base in the sixth. He later grounded out in the eighth against Mets reliever Jerry Blevins.

"I thought I got good pitches to hit. I felt great up there, to tell you guys the truth. I don't feel like there's a problem at all. I just need to stay through the baseball. That's pretty much it," Harper surmised.

Harper is now 2-for-17 in his last four games and just 4-for-25 (.160) in his last eight. He's still getting about a walk per game, but few chances to swing at pitches in the strike zone.

Harper insists he's fine with how pitchers are treating him and prefers to focus on how he can adjust.

"I feel like I can walk 200 times this year if I wanted to, to tell you the truth," he said. "You have to understand that they're going to give me maybe one pitch a game or two pitches a game. If you don't do damage on it, then that's your fault. You try to go into every at-bat thinking they're going to throw a strike. If they don't, then try to take your walk and let the guys behind you do your job. I'm not doing the job of hitting that one pitch."

Harper currently leads the majors in walks and is on pace for 172 this season. Only Barry Bonds has eclipsed that mark in a single season before and he did it three times. Baker was Bonds' manager for two of those years and drew the comparison between Bonds and Harper again on Monday.

"You've got to remember. When I had Barry Bonds and walked 200 times, he was 32 years old. He was nine years older than Bryce. He learned to deal with it. How would Barry have dealt with it when he was 23 years old?"

"Barry had tremendous vision," Baker continued. "And Bryce has the same vision. Hank Aaron had the same vision. But let's not forget this guy is very young. He's a player that's still trying to master his skill."

Harper is being pitched differently than he was in 2015, but don't forget he was batting just .245 on May 6 before he took off and won the MVP with a .330 average. It won't be easy, but the 23-year-old has shown he can make adjustments to turn his season around.

NL East: Bartolo Colon explains why he chose not to swing the bat vs. Nats

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NL East: Bartolo Colon explains why he chose not to swing the bat vs. Nats

Ever since Bartolo Colon joined the Mets in 2014, watching him play has been as much about what he does at the plate as it has about what he does on the mound. Whether it's the bat flailing, his helmet flying off after swings-and-misses or the meme-worthy adventures on the base paths, games in which "Big Sexy" is in the lineup are rarely boring. 

Of course, the apex of The Bartolo Colon Experience came earlier this month in San Diego when the 43-year-old right hander hit his first-career home run, one that sent shockwaves throughout Baseball Twitter. But unfortunately, it appears those looking for an encore may have to wait awhile. 

During Monday's 7-1 win over the Nationals, Colon conspicuously opted not to swing at any of the 14 pitches he saw on the night, instead striking out looking three times. He told reporters afterward that the reason why was because his lower back has been bothering him ever since his infamous long ball. 

And via Marc Carig of Newsday, perhaps even the Nats knew Colon wouldn't swing: 

“Yes, I decided that because I just thought it wasn’t worth it to swing,” Colon said on the eve of his 43rd birthday after holding the Nationals to one run in seven innings. “I swing at the balls pretty hard and I thought, not worth making my back worse, so I told their catcher from the beginning, ‘Just throw it right down the middle, I’m not swinging.’ ”

Bummer. Even if Colon was joking about what he actually told Wilson Ramos, a night without him taking a hack at the plate feels like a letdown for baseball fans. 

"After that first at-bat and they threw me that changeup, I was like: ‘No, I promise you, throw it right down the middle,’” he told reporters through an interpreter. “‘I am not going to swing.’”

Luckily for the Mets, Colon gets paid to be more than just an entertaining watch at the plate. In a bounce-back effort following a few rough outings, he limited the Nats offense to one run over seven innings to raise his record on the season to 4-3. 

Nats credit adjustments made by Mets for Gio's rough outing

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Nats credit adjustments made by Mets for Gio's rough outing

Having seen Gio Gonzalez just five days before, the New York Mets came to Washington on Monday with an adjustment to their approach. Now knowing what to expect from the Nats' lefty and having their previous meeting fresh in their mind, the Mets were aggressive early in counts and used that method to hand Gonzalez his worst start not only of this season, but in years.

Gonzalez was fine until the third inning when all hell broke loose. He hit Curtis Granderson on the elbow with one out, then saw Juan Lagares single on the first pitch of his at-bat and David Wright homer in the first pitch of his. Wright's victim was an 82 mile per hour changeup and he got every piece he needed of it.

"This game is a game of adjustments, and they adjusted quite well to Gio today," manager Dusty Baker said.

Wright's homer was one of three Gonzalez allowed in Monday's 7-1 Nats loss, a setback that tied the season series at 2-2. Yoenis Cespedes and Neil Walker also launched back-to-back bombs in the fifth inning.

It was the first time since July of 2009 that Gonzalez allowed at least seven earned runs and three homers in a single game. He hadn't allowed three homers since July of 2011 and had surrendered just three total in his previous eight starts of 2016.

"I just left pitches up. That was it. Just one of those nights," the lefty said. "They saw a pitch up and they were making contact… they were hitters being aggressive first pitch, got hits, and then they started being patient."

Baker went back to the changes the Mets made from game to game in their second look at Gio and within Monday's loss itself.

"They smell blood in the water," he said. "The adjustments, they happen so fast, in baseball like, you go to the bathroom and come back and they got five runs. It turns into a feeding frenzy."

Much will be made about Gonzalez working with catcher Wilson Ramos for the first time this season. Though the difference in his career numbers with Ramos as opposed to Jose Lobaton are negligible, it was still the first time Gonzalez and Ramos have formed a battery this year. The Mets, some may argue, aren't an easy team to get experimental against.

"It was the first time. I’m not going to judge him off one game. He’s a great catcher. Like I said, it was just unfortunate," Gonzalez said.

Gio, who saw his season ERA go from 1.86 to 2.87 all in a five inning span on Monday, instead turned the blame towards himself.

"I was flat today. It was just one of those games. I take this one on me. He did everything right as part of calling the game. If I executed pitches I wanted and bring it down with more movement, different game," he said.