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Nats breathe sigh of relief

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Nats breathe sigh of relief

PHILADELPHIA -- For most relievers, the sight of a closer trotting out from the bullpen to pitch the ninth inning of a tight game brings with it a sense of calm.

"You bring in the closer and everybody's like: Whew," Craig Stammen said. "Take a little break."

These days, when Henry Rodriguez takes the mound for the ninth inning, the rest of the Nationals bullpen stands at the ready, knowing it may not be long before someone else's services are needed.

Monday night, it took only two wayward Rodriguez pitches before the phone rang inside the visitors pen at Citizens Bank Park. Sean Burnett immediately sprang into action.

"Once the phone rings," the left-hander said, "it's go time."

So for the second time in a week, Burnett was summoned to bail out Rodriguez. And for the second time in a week, he pulled it off, this time preserving a 2-1 victory over the Phillies.

Had Burnett not been able to do it, had he not stranded the tying runner on second base, everything positive that took place for the Nationals over the previous 2 hours and 40 minutes would have gone to waste.

Gio Gonzalez's six scoreless innings and nine strikeouts, giving him the major-league lead in punchouts, a 6-1 record and a sparkling 1.98 ERA to go along with it? Would've been thrown out the window.

Ian Desmond's continued power display out of the No. 5 spot in the lineup, highlighted in this game by his seventh home run of the season? Would've been an afterthought.

Two more scoreless innings of relief from Stammen, suddenly one of the most-dominant setup men in baseball? Would've become a footnote.

Yes, the Nationals owe Burnett a month's worth of free dinners after this one, even if he remained modest about the job he performed.

"I'm just going to do what they ask me to do, the way it's always been," he said. "I'm just trying to help the team out."

The scenario: Leading 2-0 in the bottom of the ninth and having dominated every aspect of this game, the Nationals needed only to record three more outs. As Davey Johnson has learned -- sometimes in painful fashion -- those final three outs are no picnic, especially when Rodriguez is involved.

Johnson, though, has seen his regular closer (Drew Storen) and his backup closer (Brad Lidge) succumb to injury, so he has tried to stand behind his third-string option and give Rodriguez opportunities to right his wayward ship. It nearly ended in disaster again, though.

It took only two pitches to John Mayberry -- neither of which could be handled by catcher Jesus Flores -- to realize Rodriguez didn't have it on this night. The call was placed to the bullpen and Burnett began warming up in a hurry as Rodriguez tried to hold down the fort.

"I've never done it before," Johnson said of having an emergency closer warming up so quickly after the ninth inning begins.

It's a good thing he did, though, because Rodriguez's inning continued to spiral out of control. He walked Mayberry on four pitches, retired Freddy Galvis on a flyball, uncorked a wild pitch, allowed a single to Mike Fontenot, then uncorked another wild pitch (his MLB-leading eighth in only 18 innings of work) to put the runners on second and third and bring Johnson from the dugout.

"Henry threw another wild pitch, and that was it for me," the manager said.

Burnett was thrust into quite a jam. Not only was the tying run now in scoring position, but the Phillies were going to send up a pair of right-handed pinch-hitters to face him in Ty Wigginton and Hector Luna.

What was Burnett's gameplan in that situation?

"You could give me one," he said with a laugh. "I don't have one. Just try to get two more outs before they get two runs. That was all I was trying to do. If it was groundballs, strikeouts, however it got done. Just looking to get outs before they scored."

Which he managed to do. Mayberry did tag up and score on Wigginton's sacrifice fly to right. And Luna did draw a walk to prolong the suspense. But Burnett ultimately got Placido Polanco to line out to second base, and the entire Nationals dugout could breathe a sigh of relief at last.

At the same time, there was concern and sympathy for Rodriguez, who officially has blown only three save opportunities but has now needed someone to bail him out twice in a week and faces an uncertain future.

"He's never been a closer before, on our team," Desmond said. "He's got to learn. It's not easy coming in in the ninth inning. Ask anybody. ... Coming from a guy that's booted more balls than probably anybody in the big leagues, it's a mental thing. You want to do so good, and you want to help the team win. Every time he comes up there, I'm rooting for him. I know the next time he comes out, he's going to do better. It's the same thing I went through, just different aspect, different position."

Whether Rodriguez gets another opportunity to pitch the ninth inning anytime soon remains to be seen.

"I'm going to sleep on it," Johnson said. "But I'm looking at alternatives."

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Bryce Harper's contract demand reportedly forcing Nationals to move on after 2018

Bryce Harper's contract demand reportedly forcing Nationals to move on after 2018

It is no secret that Bryce Harper's next contract could very well be the largest contract in baseball history.

The 2015 N.L. MVP has reprotedly been looking for something in the realm of 10 years, $400 million.

The Nationals would love to keep the cornerstone of their franchise, but with Harper garnering such a monumental price tag, the team may have no other choice but to move on when his contract expires in 2018.

With the MLB winter meetings taking place at the National Harbor in Oxen Hill, Md. this week, talks of Harper's contract situation have arisen again, and according to USA Today's Bob Nightengale, the news might not be good for Nationals fans. 

The Washington Nationals, balking at Bryce Harper’s demands in early talks about a long-term contract extension, now are preparing themselves to be without their All-Star outfielder after 2018, a high-ranking Nationals executive told USA TODAY Sports.

The executive spoke to USA TODAY Sports on Monday only on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations.

Agent Scott Boras says the only active negotiations of late have involved a one-year deal in 2017. Harper, who made $5 million last season, is eligible for salary arbitration.

RELATED: NATIONALS DECLINE TO TENDER CONTRACT ON SPEEDY OUTFIELDER

Harper is one of Major League Baseball's top stars but with the Nationals already investing $84.7 million in 2019 salaries to Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman, the money just might not be there for the Nationals to spend. 

The Nationals, who had begun preliminary negotiations this year to retain Harper beyond 2018, believe the chasm in their talks now have become too great to overcome. While no specific dollar amount has been broached by high-powered agent Scott Boras, the executive says Harper is seeking a deal more than 10 years in length, believing it would exceed $400 million.

The Nationals' reported mood toward moving on from Harper after 2018 could explain why the Nationals are aggressively pursuing former N.L. MVP Andrew McCutchen and former A.L. Cy Young award winner Chris Sale. 

In the grand scheme, not much has changed. Harper was always expected to command the largest cotnract on the market. But the latest news shines a light on the possible direction of the Nationals' front office. 

2018 is still a long ways away, but this could be an early sign of things to come, one Nationals fans have been hoping they would never have to see. 

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New York Daily News puts Bryce Harper and Manny Machado in Yankees uniforms

New York Daily News puts Bryce Harper and Manny Machado in Yankees uniforms

You can always count on the New York Daily News to run an audacious cover. The tabloid delivered again Friday with an image edited to show two of the league's best young hitters in Yankees pinstripes: Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper and Orioles short stop Manny Machado. 

"Bats to the Future" is exactly the headline you'd expect, too.  

It's hard to tell what's more odious to Washington and Baltimore fans: the image itself or the suggestion that baseball's new collective bargaining agreement makes it easier for the Yankees to poach their stars. 

The premise of that argument comes from sources who say the new CBA contains two changes beneficial to New York: reduced revenue sharing burden (due to tweaks in how sharing is calculated, plus a deduction for the cost of building and running Yankee Stadium) and an increased luxury tax threshold. 

Without going into number crunching detail, the Daily News explains how the club could afford Harper and/or Machado when they become free agents after the 2018 season. 

The article's tone of inevitability, despite its many assumptions, will rankle fans of all 29 other teams. After all, the Yankees aren't the only franchise interested in Harper and Machado. 

The Nationals and Orioles will presumably try to keep their stars. But to do that, they may have to fend off potentially historic money from the Bronx. 

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