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."

NL East: For one day, Harvey silences critics with dominant outing

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NL East: For one day, Harvey silences critics with dominant outing

In New York, where your every move is dissected to a T by fans and media, achieving and maintaining sports stardom can be difficult to do. Just ask Matt Harvey, who went from being the toast of the town while helping the Mets to the World Series last October to having his ability (and character) roundly criticized after his rough start to the 2016 season. 

But for one outing, the man known as "The Dark Knight" managed to silence his critics with a vintage performance against the Chicago White Sox on Memorial Day. He allowed just two hits over seven shutout frames, striking out six and issuing just one walk in the Mets' 1-0 win. The victory raised his record to 4-7 and lowered his ERA to 5.37. 

And unlike his previous start, he addressed the media after the game. Per MLB.com: 

"There's a lot of emotion," Harvey said. It's been a while. … The idea is to do everything you can to help the team, and I felt like I wasn't doing that very well. Today, to be able to go out in a one-run ballgame like that and be able to put up zeros, was very exciting."

The difference for Harvey on Monday was establishing his dominant fastball that had been missing for most of the first two months of the season. His heater was clocked as high as 98 mph, a marked improvement over his previous starts. 

Harvey was considered a hero in 2015, his first full campaign post-Tommy John surgery, as he pitched a total of 216 innings between the regular season and the playoffs. No pitcher had ever thrown that many innings in the first season following the procedure. And it's precisely that fact that many have pointed to when discussing whether or not the 27-year-old right hander is still feeling the effects from last year's overuse. 

So will Harvey return to form? Can he reclaim his status at the Mets ace? It's too early to tell, but Monday's outing was the first that provided a light at the end of the tunnel. Just don't expect the circus to end anytime soon.  

"I think it's a first step," Harvey said. "Obviously, this isn't going to mean anything unless I continue to do this and stay with what we've been working on. It's a work in progress, but I'm happy that I was able to go out there, feel comfortable in my mechanics and get the job done."

Zimmerman heating up for Nats, Papelbon can't solve Philly

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Zimmerman heating up for Nats, Papelbon can't solve Philly

Here are a few leftover thoughts from Monday night's Nationals win over the Phillies…

Is Zimmerman finally starting to heat up?

Ryan Zimmerman missed his ninth homer of the season by a matter of inches on Monday night as he watched his long flyball in the seventh inning bounce off the railing in center field at Citizens Bank Park. Instead, it was his first triple since last April and the 20th of his career. A 12-year veteran, Zimmerman is usually good for one or two of them per season.

The triple was Zimmerman's fourth extra-base hit in his last three games and his 15th of the month of May. In April he only had four extra-base hits the entire month. Zimmerman's four XBHs are the most he's had in a three-game span all season. Over his last 19 games he has seven homers, 12 RBI, eight walks, a .355 OBP and a 1.007 OPS.

Zimmerman is still hitting just .244 this year through 46 games and .247/.309/.769 since the start of 2015 (141 G). But perhaps this recent stretch can get him going. All year it has been pointed out how highly he ranks in average exit velocity - currently 11th in MLB at 94.7 miles per hour - and it may now be starting to pay off. 

Papelbon keeps having trouble with the Phillies

Jonathan Papelbon earned his 14th save of the season on Monday night, but once again it was an eventful outing against his former team. Papelbon served up back-to-back doubles to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning, the second by Ryan Howard. That brought home Maikel Franco and cut the Nationals' lead to 4-3 with no outs.

Papelbon escaped, but it wasn't easy. Since getting traded from Philadelphia to Washington, Papelbon has blown two saves and has allowed six earned runs in 5 2/3 innings (9.53 ERA) against the Phillies. 

Compare those numbers to what he's done against the rest of the league since joining the Nats and it will make you scratch your head. Papelbon has a 2.09 ERA (9 ER in 38.2 IP) with the Nats against non-Phillies teams. The Phillies are 29th in baseball in runs scored this season, too. There doesn't seem to be a good reason for it, but Papelbon just can't solve his former team.

Roark goes seven strong innings

Tanner Roark continues to bounce back nicely from his May 14 disaster against the Marlins, his worst start of the season. In his three outings since, Roark has allowed just four earned runs in 20 2/3 total innings. In four of his last five starts Roark has gone at least six innings with two runs or less allowed. 

Roark now has a 2.70 ERA, which ranks just third on the Nats but 13th overall in the National League. He places sixth in slugging percentage against (.304) and 11th in the NL in OPS against (.607). One stat that really stands out for Roark is his groundball rate. His groundball/flyball ratio is 1.94, which ranks third in the NL and seventh in baseball.

As good as Roark has been, the Nats are just 4-7 in his starts this season and have lost five of his last seven outings. He's been killed by a lack of run support, ranking fifth from the bottom (100th among qualifying pitchers) with an average of 2.55 runs per game scored by his team. Stephen Strasburg, who is a perfect 9-0 and has seen the Nats win his last 15 starts dating back to last season, is second from the top with an average of seven runs scored per start.

Revere keeps searching for consistency

Ben Revere went 0-for-4 on Monday and is now hitless in three straight games and in five of his last six. He's still not striking out, which is good. Revere only has one strikeout in his last eight games, a span of 30 at-bats, and he has the best contact percentage on the Nats (88.6%). 

And when Revere gets hits, they tend to come in bunches. In each of the last five games he's notched a hit, he's landed at least two in those contests. That gives him a .282/.333/.436 slash-line over the last 11 games. That's not bad, but it has been feast or famine for the outfielder with six hitless outings during that stretch.

Bryce Harper hopes to play Tuesday after injury scare against Phillies

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Bryce Harper hopes to play Tuesday after injury scare against Phillies

Here is the update from the Associated Press on Bryce Harper's injury after the right fielder left Monday's Nationals win over the Phillies:

Bryce Harper left the game shortly after taking a fastball off the outside part of his right knee in the seventh. The reigning NL MVP went to first base, got doubled off on Murphy's fly out to left and was replaced by Chris Heisey in right field in the bottom half.

"It hurts," Harper said. "Whenever you get squared up like that, it doesn't feel good. We'll evaluate tomorrow and see how it feels. If I don't feel good, I'm not going to play. If I feel fine, then I'll be in there."