Instinctive Harper helps Nats win again

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Instinctive Harper helps Nats win again

With each passing day, we get more and more of a picture of Bryce Harper as a big leaguer. And what we learn is that the Nationals new left fielder, 19 years old or not, is more than a mere athletic specimen.

Yes, he has the god-given ability to hit or throw a baseball with enough authority to make a stadium full of fans gasp. But he also has the instincts and the awareness to do a lot of subtle things plenty of guys with far more experience have yet to master.

"He's a baseball player," teammate Jayson Werth said, using a seemingly generic term in the most complimentary sense. "When you're a baseball player, you can be 15 or you can be 50. If you know how to play the game, you can play. ... He's a good player, no question about it. He's definitely going to be a force in our lineup for a long time."

He already is. As Harper showed once again Thursday night during the Nationals' 2-1 victory over the Diamondbacks, his quick ascension to the major leagues was made possible not only by his physical tools but by his innate sense for the game.

The kid's latest moment of heroics: An RBI double down the left-field line in the bottom of the sixth, scoring Ian Desmond with the run that put the Nationals ahead for good and rewarded Ross Detwiler for his 6 13 innings of one-run ball.

It was a bit more complicated than that, though. Facing a tough right-hander in Ian Kennedy (a 21-game winner last year) with one out in a tie ballgame and the infield drawn in, Harper avoided the temptation to swing from his heels and drive the ball over the Anacostia River. Instead, he shortened up and took what Kennedy gave him, first sending an outside fastball foul down the third-base line, then dumping another outside fastball into left field for the game-winning hit.

"I was just trying to think middle of the field," Harper said. "He has a good change-up, so I wasn't trying to get too excited and pull off of something. I was just trying to think middle the whole time and got a pitch I could handle and got it going."

It was Harper's fourth double in five games, spanning 16 big-league at-bats. And it came in his first appearance as a No. 3 hitter at this level, a move manager Davey Johnson made prior to the game after easing the rookie in as his No. 7 hitter for several days.

"I don't care if his name is Harper or whatever, or how old he is," Johnson said. "If you're swinging the bat good, we're trying to put out guys who are swinging the bat best in order to do the most damage."

Harper wasn't done with his double. He immediately showed off those instincts by advancing on Jayson Werth's grounder to third base, waiting for Arizona's Ryan Roberts to make the throw before taking off for the bag.

The crowd of 19,636 roared with approval, and players in both dugouts couldn't help but appreciate the teenager's approach to the game.

"He plays really hard," Kennedy said. "That's all you can really ask for out of someone with his status, where he's at, being crowned, I don't know, the savior or whatever signs are out there, or in ESPN The Magazine. It's all you can ask for. He does play really hard."

Harper, of course, wasn't alone in making this victory possible. It required another stellar start from Detwiler, who didn't allow a hit until the fifth and for the fourth time in five outings this season was charged with zero or one earned run.

"Gutty performance against a good-hitting ballclub coming back after a tough loss," Johnson said. "He was my star of the game."

The key to Detwiler's success in this one: His early command. A whopping 23 of his first 27 pitches were strikes, setting the tone for the night.

"Absolutely," the lefty said. "The only way they're going to chase balls later is if you throw strikes early in the game."

Not wanting to put Detwiler in a position to take the loss, Johnson pulled his starter with one out and a runner on second. Ryan Mattheus then proceeded to pitch out of the jam, striking out A.J. Pollack on a heavy, 94-mph sinker. Tyler Clippard retired the side in the eighth. And Henry Rodriguez (getting his first save opportunity since a Saturday night meltdown at Dodger Stadium) set down the Diamondbacks in order in the ninth.

Just like that, the Nationals had themselves another low-scoring, narrow victory. They're now 8-5 in one-run games. Incredibly, they've also won five games in which their lineup has produced five or fewer hits (they only had four in this victory).

"Pitching and defense wins championships. We'll go with that for now," Werth said. "And once we get healthy, maybe we'll go with something else. No matter how you do it, that's the most important thing. We're playing good, crisp, clean baseball, especially early in the season."

And they're getting a lot of help from a 19-year-old who plays the game like he's been a big leaguer for a lot more than five days.

Despite hot streak, Anthony Rendon gets the night off versus Cardinals

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Despite hot streak, Anthony Rendon gets the night off versus Cardinals

Though Dusty Baker had already made the call earlier in the week to sit Anthony Rendon for Saturday's game against the St. Louis Cardinals, his third baseman's recent torrid stretch at the plate nearly gave the Nats' skipper second thoughts. 

"I hate to give a guy a day off when they're getting hits and starting to look good," Baker said before Saturday's game. 

Still, he stayed true to his word, giving Rendon the day off and tapping Stephen Drew to take over at the hot corner. 

"I told him [earlier] he'd be out Saturday. I said 'Give me all you got until your day off on Saturday,'" the manager said. "And he did." 

Rendon's hot streak has been a much-needed sigh of relief for the offense, as his previous struggles were reaching the point where Nats fans might have wondered if he'd ever reclaim his 2014 form. That guy —the then 24-year-old who finished fifth in National League MVP voting and was once nicknamed "Tony Two-bags" — had been missing for the last season-plus as he battled either injury or inconsistency. 

But since Rendon was dropped to sixth in the batting order, the almost 26-year-old has slowly started to resemble what he was two seasons ago. In the last 10 games, he's raised his average from .237 to .262 thanks to six multi-hit efforts that included four doubles, a home run and a triple. Baker noted that Rendon had been making great contact all along, and part of his breakout is simply getting those hits to drop. 

"He's kinda been our hard-luck guy," Baker said. 

Rendon had played all 49 of Washington's games prior to Saturday, prompting Baker to describe the day off as "much needed." And when he returns, the Nats have to hope he can continue to be a presence in a lineup that desperately needs someone other than Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy to produce consistently. 

"He's looking good," Baker said. "He's looking real good."

Nats tap Gonzalez as they hope to rebound vs. Cardinals

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Nats tap Gonzalez as they hope to rebound vs. Cardinals

Nats (29-20) vs. Cardinals (25-24) at Nationals Park

The Nationals are looking to bounce back a day after dropping Friday night's game to the Cardinals —their first loss to the Red Birds all season. After Max Scherzer's uneven outing, Washington will send lefty Gio Gonzalez to the mound to face a St. Louis offense that has had trouble with southpaws. The Cards have a slashline of .240/.322/.390 against left-handed pitchers on the season, so it will be up to Gonzalez to keep that trend going against an otherwise hot-hitting lineup. It could help that he has his personal catcher in Jose Lobaton back in the lineup after Wilson Ramos held those duties in Monday's 7-1 loss to the New York Mets. 

Another wrinkle in Saturday's lineup is that Anthony Rendon will have the night off, a decision he made earlier in the week despite the third baseman's recent hot streak. In Rendon's absence, Stephen Drew will take over at the hot corner.

Cardinals first baseman Matt Carpenter will return to St.Louis' lineup after going on paternity leave for the first two games of this series. 

First pitch: 7:15 p.m.
TV: FOX
Radio: 106.7 The Fan, XM 183
Starting pitchers: Nats - Gio Gonzalez vs. Cardinals - Adam Wainwright

NATS

CF Ben Revere 

LF Jayson Werth 

RF Bryce Harper 

2B Daniel Murphy 

1B Ryan Zimmerman 

3B Stephen Drew 

SS Danny Espinosa 

C Jose Lobaton 

LHP Gio Gonzalez 

CARDINALS

1B Matt Carpenter 

SS Aledmys Diaz 

LF Matt Holiday 

RF Stephen Piscotty 

CF Randal Grichuk 

C Yadier Molina 

2B Jedd Gyroko 

3B Greg Garcia 

RHP Adam Wainwright

 

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NL East: Mets trade for first baseman to help with Duda's absence

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NL East: Mets trade for first baseman to help with Duda's absence

The New York Mets have acquired some help at first base by bringing in 10-year MLB veteran James Loney in a trade with the San Diego Padres. The return has not been reported yet.

Loney himself hinted at the news on Twitter before ESPN confirmed the story. What a time to be alive.

Loney, 32, played the previous three seasons for the Tampa Bay Rays. He has yet to appear in the big leagues this season after signing a free agent deal with San Diego in April.

The former first round pick is a solid hitter with a .285 lifetime average and has always been known for his defense. Last season he hit .280 with four homers and 32 RBI in 104 games for the Rays.

Duda is currently on the 15-day disabled list with a stress fracture in his back. He could be out for a long time, so Loney at least gives the Mets some insurance behind Eric Campbell, who is filling in at first but is hitting just .182 this season.