Harper sets stage, Desmond takes curtain call

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Harper sets stage, Desmond takes curtain call

He's only 26, but he's logged more time in a Nationals uniform than almost anybody else in the current clubhouse. So when Ian Desmond gathered Bryce Harper and Steve Lombardozzi together before Wednesday night's game to offer up some advice he got years ago from Frank Robinson, the two rookies stopped to listen.

Robinson's advice to Desmond, which Desmond passed along to Harper and Lombardozzi: Always watch an opposing reliever warm up at the start of an inning and see what you can pick up.

So when Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz took the mound for the bottom of the ninth, Desmond watched intently from the Nationals dugout and later from the on-deck circle.

"He was throwing his splits up in the zone," the shortstop said. "His fastballs were elevated to both guys ahead of me. I knew if I looked for the heater, I would be able to see the split up, and I would be able to react. I was really just locked in, and everything clicked for me right there."

Apparently so, because when Putz fired a 93 mph up and over the plate, Desmond took a mighty cut and launched the ball into the D.C. night. By the time it landed in the left-field bullpen, he was well on his way through a 360-foot celebration around the bases into the arms of his teammates who thoroughly enjoyed a 5-4 victory that snapped a five-game losing streak.

The first walk-off home run of Desmond's career was unlike anything he'd ever experienced.

"No," he said. "Circumstances being as they are -- the five-game losing streak, we're down, everyone keeps asking all these questions, obviously Bryce being here. He played a heck of a ballgame, and I'd hate for his second good ballgame like that to be unnoticed."

Oh yes, Bryce Harper. How could anyone ignore his contributions to this win. His manager certainly couldn't.

"What about the kid?" Davey Johnson jubilantly asked as he sat down for his postgame media session.

What did Harper do? It's probably easier to ask what he didn't do, because his fingerprints were all over this game.

If he wasn't hustling to beat out a slow roller past the mound, he was barreling his way into catcher Miguel Montero and knocking the ball loose to score a fourth-inning run.

If he wasn't making a bare-handed catch while falling to the ground in center field (albeit after initially misjudging the ball), he was crushing the ball off the wall in right-center, twice coming just short of his first career homer.

The second of those two wall-banging doubles came at a most-opportune moment, leading off the bottom of the ninth with his team trailing by a run, setting the stage for Desmond to play hero moments later.

Yes, Desmond's homer won it. But Harper's all-around performance is rubbing off on everyone inside the Nationals clubhouse.

"I mean, here's a 19-year-old kid that's getting the bat out," Johnson said. "It's infectious. It hurts you a little bit missing your 3 and 4-hole hitters, because when they start doing it, it kind of flows. But seeing a 19-year-old hitting seventh come along and have nothing but quality at-bats, that's impressive."

With his 3-for-4 showing in his fourth career game, Harper now owns five hits in 13 big-league at-bats. More importantly, he contributed to his first major-league victory.

"I'm just trying to come in here and play my game hard," he said. "I'm just trying to bring some fire to the table and play the game that I've known how to play my whole life. So I play with that fire and that passion, just trying to bust my butt every single day."

And he's gaining more and more admirers with each passing day.

Veteran big leaguers aren't always the most-accepting bunch, especially when it comes to a brash, 19-year-old phenom barging into their clubhouse and tasked with injecting some life into what has been a lifeless lineup. But once they see that player perform at this level, they welcome him into the family with open arms.

"He runs on and off the field the way he's supposed to. He runs down to first hard. That's just old-school baseball," reliever Craig Stammen said. "He gets a lot of stuff in the media about being kind of brash and all that. But he plays hard and he backs it up on the field. ... And I think he showed in the situations he was put in tonight, the stage isn't too big for him."

No, it certainly doesn't look that way. As Johnson put it: "He was born for those situations, I think."

And there's a good chance he's going to start getting a lot more opportunities in all kinds of situations. Not wanting to put too much pressure on the teenager, Johnson has slotted Harper into the seventh spot in his lineup for each of his first four games.

After this game, the manager asked a couple of his coaches if it's too early to bump the kid up a few notches. The consensus opinion: No.

So don't be surprised if Harper finds himself batting sixth, or even fifth, when the Nationals return to the field Thursday for their series finale against Arizona.

Just don't expect him to take over the leadoff spot. The Nationals are quite content with Desmond holding down that job for now, especially after he delivered in the clutch to give his team a much-needed victory.

"It's awesome. It's just what we needed," Desmond said. "Right time. It's just a good win. We played well. We battled the whole game. To finish it up like that, for me personally it was awesome, but for the team even better."

Papelbon's blown save snaps Nats' win streak against Royals

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Papelbon's blown save snaps Nats' win streak against Royals

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 7-6 walkoff loss to the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium: 

How it happened: The Nationals were on the brink of their fifth straight win when Jonathan Papelbon took the mound Tuesday night, but waiting for him was the middle of the Royals' order in a lineup that can grind out at-bats and make their own luck as well as any team in baseball. They got to Papelbon and they did it their way: a soft infield single to beat a shift, a stolen base by a pinch-runner and two RBI singles to finish the job. The Royals didn't need a single extrabase hit to erase a two-run deficit and steal a win from the Nationals.

Mike Moustakas tied the game with his RBI single in the bottom of the ninth and Lorenzo Cain ended it on a walkoff line drive to center field, as the Nationals fell to 18-8 on the season. Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth and Chris Heisey homered, Wilson Ramos returned with three hits and Tanner Roark made it 7 1/3 innings. But it wasn't enough with Papelbon's second blown save of the season.

What it means: The Nationals have to still feel great about their road trip so far despite Tuesday's loss, but the Papelbon failure in the ninth has to be concerning. It was his second blown save this season in 11 attempts. That puts him on a troubling pace.

Papelbon's drop-off: Speaking of Papelbon. He now sports a 4.50 ERA on the season after allowing three runs on five hits on Tuesday. It was a tough night for the Nats' closer, who has blown four saves now in 35 outings since getting traded to Washington last July.

Ramos picks up where he left off: Ramos hadn't played since April 24 due to the death of his grandfather, but he had quite the return on Tuesday night. Ramos had three hits including two doubles, the first to score a run in the sixth inning. It was Ramos' sixth multi-hit game this season and his first since April 15. The Buffalo is now batting .344 through 16 games.

Rendon finally gets a homer: One of the biggest surprises this season so far for the Nationals has been the lack of power numbers for Rendon, who two years ago was one of the best players in the NL. He entered Tuesday night slugging just .290 and had yet to hit a home run in in 100 at-bats. Well, that homer finally came in the first inning off Chris Young, a solo blast to left field. It was Rendon's first home run in 191 at-bats dating back to Sept. 14 of last season. Rendon hit 21 homers in 2014 and has the potential for even more. Perhaps that swing can get him going.

Murphy goes yard: Murphy hit his third homer of the season on Tuesday, a solo shot to right field off Young to make it a 3-2 game. Murphy now has three homers in 26 games with the Nats, which puts him on a 19-homer pace over a full 162 game season. That's a notch or two ahead of the 14 homers he hit in 130 regular season games in 2015, which was a 17-homer pace over 162 games.

Harper keeps scuffling: With all the talk this week about who should star in Space Jam 2, Harper has looked in recent days like he's auditioning for a role. Maybe somewhere in the galaxy right now a Nerdluck is blasting homer after homer into the oblivion. Okay, maybe not. But the real life Harper had another rough night Tuesday with zero hits in five at-bats and three strikeouts. Harper has multiple Ks in three straight games and is now batting .256 on the year. 

Up next: The Nats and Royals close out their series in Kansas City with a 2:15 p.m. start. Stephen Strasburg (4-0, 2.25) will look to continue his excellent run to begin the season. Right-hander Kris Medlen (1-2, 4.87) will take the mound for the Royals. After Wednesday, the Nats move on to Chicago for a four-game series at Wrigley against the Cubs.

Nationals minor league affiliate to play rare tripleheader

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Nationals minor league affiliate to play rare tripleheader

Here's something you don't see every day. The Single-A Potomac Nationals, an affilliate of the Washington Nationals, will play three games on Wednesday in a rare tripleheader.

Doubleheaders in baseball are common. The Nationals have one coming up in just over a week on Saturday May 14. Three games in one day, though? That's a lot of baseball.

Here's how it will work. The P-Nats and the Lynchburg Hillcats will play their first game at 3 p.m. in Lynchburg. It's a continuation of Monday's game that was suspended in the fifth inning due to rain. That game will go nine innings. They will then play two seven-inning games to close out their series.

So, barring extras, that means 19 innings of baseball. That's about the same as a doubleheader of two nine-inning games, but this day will have three different game results. 

A tripleheader, by the way, has not been played in the majors since 1920. It has been almost a hundred years and it may never happen again.

For more on the tripleheader, click here.

 

Podcast: 'Baseball in the District' - Projecting Harper's USA super team

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Podcast: 'Baseball in the District' - Projecting Harper's USA super team

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On this week's episode of 'Baseball in the District,' we examined the Nats' resurgence in the Midwest, Bryce Harper's surprising struggles and how the suspension of Dee Gordon could affect the NL East. We also projected what Harper's idea of a U.S.A. super team for the World Baseball Classic would like.

This week's episode also featured a very special guest: D.C. Washington, the national anthem extraordinnaire that has become a fan favorite around town. How did he get his name? How did he get his start singing anthems? Does he still get nervous before them? D.C. answered those questions and more in what turned out to be a very fun interview.

You can listen to the show on ESPN 980's website or download the show on iTunes.