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Eventful week for Nationals

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Eventful week for Nationals

And so I have returned from my week-long respite. Mrs. Z and I had a wonderful time on our vacation, thanks for asking. But it's time to get back to the daily grind, and I see there was plenty of Nationals news in my absence.

The manager finally has a contract for 2013. He's got a new coach on his staff, as well, not to mention a new piece of hardware for his mantel. As does the no-longer-19-year-old outfielder. The 21-game-winning left-hander, was not as fortunate.

So let's rehash the major events of the last week...

DAVEY JOHNSON GETS A NEW CONTRACT
Not that there was ever any doubt this would get done, but it's nice to finally have some resolution to this lingering issue. Johnson and the Nationals agreed late last week to a new contract that ensures he'll return as manager in 2013 ... but then ensures he won't return in 2014.

To be honest, I was a bit surprised Davey came right out and said next season will be his last. I didn't think he'd want to manage more than one year, but I suspected he'd at least leave the door open just in case. I mean, what if the Nats reach Game 7 of the World Series and then lose? Are you telling me Johnson wouldn't want to take one more shot at glory? Evidently not.

Given all that, two thoughts: 1) How motivated is Davey going to be to try to win it all in 2013? Very. 2) How many sets of eyes will be on Randy Knorr over the next year, trying to determine if the popular bench coach really is ready to ascend to the managerial position in 2014? Plenty.

BRYCE HARPER WINS NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Stop for a moment and contemplate this: When Harper made his big-league debut on April 28 at Dodger Stadium, would you have predicted he'd wind up winning Rookie of the Year? Perhaps there was some thought he could achieve this, but no one really knew how the 19-year-old would perform in his first trial at this level.

What Harper did accomplish was noting short of remarkable. It wasn't just the 22 homers, 98 runs scored, 57 extra-base hits, 18 steals and eight outfield assists. It was that he took his game to an entirely new level in September while the Nationals were in the midst of a pennant race and often was the best player on the best team in baseball.

History is littered with one-hit-wonder Rookies of the Year who never amounted to much else after their award-winning debut performances. Something tells me that's not going to be the case here. Harper only scratched the surface this season, and there's really no limit to what he could do in 2013 and beyond.

DAVEY JOHNSON WINS MANAGER OF THE YEAR
This was probably the easiest selection out of all the BBWAA awards this year. (OK, aside from Mike Trout as AL Rookie of the Year.) With all due respect to Dusty Baker and Bruce Bochy (the other finalists), Johnson was unquestionably the manager of the year in the NL.

This award almost always goes to the guy who's team most exceeded expectations over the course of a season. And certainly the Nationals exceeded expectations. But Davey deserved the honor for much more than that.

Let's not forget just how many injuries devastated the lineup through most of 2012. And let's not forget what a masterful job Johnson did in helping his team overcome those injuries. He wasn't afraid to play unproven rookies, even if they were out of position. He wasn't afraid to tinker with his bullpen roles when the situation called for it. And he once again proved to be the ultimate player's manager, understanding how best to communicate and relate with everybody on his roster.

GIO GONZALEZ FINISHES 3RD IN CY YOUNG VOTE
Though he was named a finalist last week, Gonzalez didn't really seem to stand a chance against R.A. Dickey, who wound up winning the award with 27 of 32 first-place votes. That's taking nothing away from Gio, who had a fantastic season and deserved his top three finish.

I had a Cy Young vote this year, and I had Gonzalez second on my ballot behind Dickey. (I had Clayton Kershaw third, Craig Kimbrel fourth and Johnny Cueto fifth.) My reasons for selecting Dickey ahead of Gonzalez? There were many.

In addition to his 20-6 record and 2.73 ERA, Dickey led the NL in innings (233), complete games (five), strikeouts (230), quality starts (27) and a category I call "dominant starts" (two or fewer earned runs allowed over seven or more innings). Dickey had 18 of those, tops in the NL. Gio only had eight.

Dickey also had the fewest "bad" starts in the league, failing to complete five innings only twice. (Gonzalez failed to do it six times.)

Now, you can certainly make the case that Gonzalez pitched all season in the thick of a pennant race while Dickey pitched for a 74-win team. Shouldn't Gio get extra credit for pitching in far more pressure-packed games? Yes, and I did give him extra credit for that. But it wasn't enough to topple Dickey's complete resume. In the end, I would say Dickey deserved the Cy Young because of his consistent dominance over the entire season. Gonzalez was occasionally dominant, but not on nearly as regular a basis as the New York knuckleballer.

TONY TARASCO NAMED NEW FIRST BASE COACH
The Nationals had one vacancy on their coaching staff following Bo Porter's departure to Houston, where he'll get his first career shot to manage. Though the initial thought was that they'd simply hire a new third base coach, there was the potential all along to hire a first base coach instead and shift Trent Jewett to the other side of the diamond.

Jewett has plenty of experience coaching at third base. He spent three seasons there with the Pirates (2000-02), not to mention 10 seasons as a Class AAA manager (a job that includes third base coaching duties in its description).

Tarasco's addition to the big-league staff certainly makes sense. He had been serving as the organization's roving outfield instructor and was influential in helping Harper learn his new position. He'll continue to work with Harper on a daily basis now, as well as take over the Nationals' baserunning duties.

ADAM LAROCHE TIES FOR 6TH IN MVP VOTE
Nobody expected the veteran first baseman to win the whole thing -- that honor went to Buster Posey, and deservedly so -- but it was nice to see the rest of the baseball-writing world recognize just how much LaRoche meant to the Nats this year. He actually received more fifth-place votes (six) than any other, but wound up settling for a sixth-place tie with David Wright (behind Posey, Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, Yadier Molina and Chase Headley).

Can't find fault with the way the top five shook out, nor with the fact three other Nationals received top-10 MVP votes. Ian Desmond finished tied for 16th, named on six of the 32 ballots. Gonzalez actually finished tied for 20th despite appearing on only two ballots (one voter had him fifth). Ryan Zimmerman finished tied for 24th (also received one fifth-place vote). And Harper finished tied for 30th, receiving one ninth-place vote.

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Thoughts on the death of Marlins superstar Jose Fernandez

Thoughts on the death of Marlins superstar Jose Fernandez

The baseball world lost one of its best on Sunday morning with the tragic death of Marlins superstar Jose Fernandez, an ace pitcher who at just 24 years old had already established himself as arguably the most feared right-hander in baseball.

He was a dominant force who was unquestionably one of the best players on the planet and a guy so many of us were genuinely excited to watch for years to come.

The details of his life off the field made his ending that much more tragic, how he had escaped from Cuba and been separated from his grandmother for so long.

How just a week ago he revealed on Intagram that he and his girlfriend were expecting a child.

RELATED: ORIOLES MANAGER REACTS TO TRAGIC PASSING OF FERNANDEZ

On the field, he had the talent to be a Hall of Famer, one of the best pitchers of all time. And by all accounts, he was a splendid person as well. On the mound his vibrant personality was easy to see through his emotional pitching style. It seemed like he was never stoic. There was always either a smile or a scowl. He lived in the moment and every pitch was an event.

It's clear how much opposing players admired him, not only with the outpour of condolences since his death, but with how they talked about him while he was still alive. Bryce Harper's famous quotes made to ESPN this spring training about how there should be more emotion and personality in the game honed in on Fernandez. He was the central example of his argument.

Here's what Harper told ESPN in March: "Jose Fernandez is a great example. Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist. And if you hit a homer and pimp it? He doesn't care. Because you got him. That's part of the game."

That's some serious respect from a guy who who had more plate appearances against Fernandez than any other player. Because he played in the same division as Fernandez, Harper faced him 26 times. He only got four hits - not one of them for extra bases - and posted a lowly .595 OPS. Yet, he admired Fernandez and enjoyed facing him.

A lot of Nationals players saw Fernandez frequently and none of them had success. Yes, none of them.

Jayson Werth went 1-for-20 with seven strikeouts. Wilson Ramos went 3-for-18 with six strikeouts. Danny Espinosa went 2-for-16. Anthony Rendon went 3-for-22 with nine strikeouts. Ryan Zimmerman, who went 4-for-15, was a relative standout in the bunch and he couldn't solve him, either.

Ian Desmond, who left the Nats to sign with the Rangers this offseason, went 0-for-17 with 12 strikeouts against Fernandez when he was in Washington. And Desmond is a three-time Silver Slugger and two-time All-Star.

Fernandez made 10 starts against the Nats in his career and went 7-0 with a 0.99 ERA. He gave up 34 hits in 63 2/3 innings and struck out 84 batters. 

Fernandez struck out 12.9 batters per nine innings this season, the best rate in the majors. In his last outing, which was against the Nationals, he tossed eight shutout innings with 12 strikeouts, no walks and just three hits allowed. He took a first-place team and made them look like they didn't even belong on the same field.

It didn't matter who you were. You were not going to hit his high-90s fastball that moved in all sorts of directions as it crossed the plate. You weren't going to hit his curveball, that dropped in the zone with zip and precision.

He was just that good. And now he's gone.

RELATED: NATIONALS ROAD TO 2016 NL EAST WAS RELATIVELY SMOOTH

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Bryce Harper's injury untimely, but Nationals' offense is heating up

Bryce Harper's injury untimely, but Nationals' offense is heating up

Notes and observations from the Nats' 10-7 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday afternoon…

Harper's untimely injury: The Nationals have another injury to worry about as they close the regular season and prepare for the playoffs, as Bryce Harper hurt his left thumb on an awkward slide into third base in Sunday's win. Now the reigning MVP heads for X-rays on Monday, hoping he didn't seriously damage the same thumb he tore a ligament in back in 2014.

The Nationals did not seem too worried based on their postgame comments to reporters, but it certainly bears watching with the playoffs set to begin in just about a week-and-a-half. Obviously, they would like to have Harper available for their postseason run, and he just happened to be heating up before he got hurt. Harper injured himself on a triple. He drove in a run earlier in the game on a groundout, had two RBI on Saturday and three hits on Friday. Harper has six hits in his last four games after having just one in his previous nine.

If Harper has to play through thumb pain moving forward, keep in mind how his 2014 problem significantly affected his power. Harper posted a career-low slugging percentage of .423. He's already struggled mightily at times this season and doesn't need anything else making it harder for him to be himself at the plate. It's a tough time for him to get hurt, but they do have over a week to get him right before the NLDS begins.

Nats offense kicking into gear: Harper's recent contributions have been part of an overall offensive surge for the Nats. With 10 runs on Sunday, the Nats have scored 29 total in their last four games. That's after posting just eight in their previous four games before that. Entering their weekend series against the Pirates, the Nats had the fewest runs of any NL team in the month of September. Offense was starting to look like a real issue for the Nationals, right as they neared the finish line of the regular season, but recently that has not been the case.

Cole, Latos, Glover continue to struggle: While the Nationals close out the final week of their regular season schedule, they will be closely evaluating their bench and bullpen in particular as they determine their final group for the playoff roster. Some tough decisions will be made on both accounts, but several Nats relievers may be pitching themselves out of contention for final spots.

A.J. Cole had another so-so outing on Sunday with three earned runs allowed on three walks and a hit in 2 2/3 innings of work. He only lasted 2 2/3 because he was ejected for throwing behind Jung Ho Kang in the third inning. Cole has now allowed 12 earned runs in his last 14 2/3 innings. That's a very discouraging trend for a guy who just a few starts ago looked like a potential playoff bullpen option.

Cole's downturn occurred following an impressive start against the Mets, an eye-opening performance against the Nats' division rival. The same thing happened to Mat Latos, who like Cole was good against the Mets but has since fallen off. Latos was charged with two earned runs on three hits and a walk in Sunday's win. He gave up two runs in his previous appearance against the Marlins on Sept. 19. That's two rough outings in a row with little time left to make an impression.

Rookie Koda Glover gave up the Pirates' final run on a homer by Kang in the bottom of the seventh. It was a two-run bomb, but the other run was charged to Sean Burnett, who was removed after walking Josh Bell with one out. Glover also gave up a run on Friday against the Pirates and has now allowed seven runs in six innings across his last seven outings. It has been a troubling stretch for a guy who had a nice start to this season and until recently looked like a potential playoff option.

Revere's best game in a while: The Nationals had 14 hits on Sunday and three of them came from center fielder Ben Revere. It was his fifth game this season with at least three hits and his first since July 1. Since Trea Turner took over for him in center, playing time has been hard to come by for Revere, but lately he's been making the most of it. Sunday was Revere's fourth start in September and in those games he has six hits and four runs. He also added two steals in Sunday's win, his first multi-steal game since June 27.

[RELATED: Nationals took relatively smooth road to winning 2016 NL East]

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