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It’s been a trying year for Bryce Harper

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WASHINGTON — Before we can get into Harpergate – the silliness, the confusion, the panic – we must begin by talking about October 10, 2012. That was the date of the first baseball playoff game in the nation’s capital in almost 80 years, the first playoff game since Goose Goslin and Heinie Manush played in these parts.

That was a crazy American day because baseball in Washington is a crazy American thing. For a long time, baseball in Washington was simply lousy, hysterically so; those Senators were the team that inspired the Vaudeville joke, “First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.” And then the Senators were gone, shipped off to Texas to become Rangers, and Washington baseball was mourned loudly and often by real senators and congressional leaders and political writers and various power brokers.

So that day – October 10, 2012 – was a pomp and circumstance, marching bands, political leaders waving celebration day. Flags unfurled. The afternoon was bright and warm, one of those bold-faced days when colors pop, like everything is freshly painted, and the Nationals had the best record in baseball. They also had two of the most exciting young players in recent memory – flame-throwing pitcher Stephen Strasburg and 19-year-old phenomenon Bryce Harper. This team looked like baseball’s next superpower, a potential dynasty. Washington was the shining city on a mound.

Yes, everything seemed possible that day.

Well, yeah, then the Cardinals clobbered the Nationals 8-0. Washington lost the series two days later after blowing an early six-run lead and a two-run lead in the ninth inning. Strasburg didn’t pitch at all in the series – Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo had shut him down to protect his healthy arm. The preseason World Series predictions in 2013 did not prevent Washington from an abysmal, unfocused injury-laden start, Harper smashed into a wall, and the Nationals still had a losing record in late August. Manager Davey Johnson was pushed overboard. This year has been marked by stops and starts and more injuries and arguments.

The story never changes. It is really hard to get things done in Washington.

* * *

Before we get into Harpergate – the absurdity, the misunderstandings, the climax – we must note that the Washington Nationals are in first place. It is easy to miss that when you’re inside the beltway. More than that, at this moment the Nationals are in first place by 4 ½ games, which is the biggest lead in the National League. More than that, the Nationals have the best run differential in the National League.

They have a five-man pitching rotation so extraordinary that you could argue their fourth and fifth starters at the moment are Strasburg (who leads the league in strikeouts) and Gio Gonzalez (who could have legitimately won the Cy Young Award two years ago). Their bullpen has a sub 3.00 ERA. The Nationals also have a lineup that, when healthy, has six or seven above average hitters, and that does NOT EVEN INCLUDE Bryce Harper, who we will get into in a moment.

“We’re a good team,” Rizzo says, but it is like he’s shouting into the wind.

“I’m really happy with the way this team has battled,” Rizzo says, but it is like no one is listening.

“We have a lot of players that …” oh, wait, I forgot to write down the rest. This Washington thing is contagious.

Baseball is not a sport for the restless or the impatient. It’s a long season. A loss is just a loss. A slump is just a slump. In baseball, a week is nothing, a month barely registers. The all-star Tommy Helms when he was a minor-league manager, used to do his postgame interviews in front of the mirror, while shaving. “Turn the page,” he would always say without looking away because one baseball game in the summertime, win or lose, is never worth cutting yourself shaving.

But Washington is a particularly restless city, an agitated and frenetic place where today’s news is the most important thing that ever happened … until tomorrow. So the Nationals 62-51 record is not simply that. It is a record of spectacular and calamitous events, a talking point followed by another talking point followed by another. For a while in July, the Nationals were healthy – healthy enough that they had their slugging shortstop Ian Desmond hitting seventh – and they went 15-5 with that impressive lineup. Then, at other times, they have seemed utterly helpless, unable to score.

The Nationals have the best record in baseball when scoring four or more runs – 53-6. But they have one of the worst records in baseball when failing to score four runs (9-45). This schizophrenic tendency drives Washington’s most extreme impulses. One Washington insider I know who is otherwise known for his calmness in crises will fluctuate from elation to utter alarm on a daily basis when it comes to his Nationals. He seems to more or less fit the Washington Nationals fan profile.

* * *

Stephen Strasburg has been at the center of this Washington whirlwind for – believe it or not – five seasons already. He came up as one of the most hyped pitching prospects in a half century; some thought his debut was the most anticipated since a 17-year-old Bob Feller took the mound. Well, why not? He brought a 100-mph fastball, a lane-changing curveball and a change-up that made hitters jolt awake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. He came up to the big leagues very quickly and struck out 92 batters in 68 innings. And then he blew out his arm.

Everyone knows the story that followed. He had Tommy John surgery. He missed almost the entire 2011 season. Then, in 2012, he was often brilliant – he did not pitch more than seven innings in any game, but he still struck out 10 or more five times, allowed zero runs six times, righties batted just .185 against him. Rizzo had said from the start that he would shut down Strasburg after a certain number of innings, but then the Nationals began winning. And winning. And winning. Rizzo kept repeating that he would stick to the plan, but few believed him. Hey, if the Nationals made the playoffs, they would HAVE to pitch Strasburg, right? Right?

Wrong. Rizzo had made up his mind. Some thought he was capitulating to Strasburg’s powerful agent Scott Boras. Some thought he was just stubbornly refusing to give in to public pressure. But the most common thing I heard inside baseball was this: Rizzo felt sure that he had a brilliant young team that wasn’t quite ready to win, a team that he felt sure would get better over the next few years. He saw no need to push in all his chips. He was betting on Stephen Strasburg and the future.

So now what? Well, Strasburg is having an unusual year. He leads the National League in starts and strikeouts and his 177-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio is fantastic. But he also is posting the highest ERA of his career so far (3.39) and the Nationals are just 12-12 in games he starts. He has honed his change-up into one of the most devastating pitches in the game, but his velocity slowly comes down and hitters have teed off on his fastball for much of the season. Even teammates have commented on how aggressively hitters attack his fastball. He could get to 200 innings for the first time this year, but he does not have a complete game and has only twice even started the eighth inning.

And so Strasburg has been one of the most argued about people in Washington – not quite at the level of President Obama but probably on par with, say, John Boehner. Some see an emerging ace. Some see an enigma who doesn’t pitch inside enough. Some see a pitcher with great stuff but not great presence. Some see a young man who is maturing because he recently became a father. Some see a pitcher who has not improved at all since coming to the big leagues. Every day there’s something new about Stephen Strasburg. Every day.

“So I thought I’d write something on Stephen Strasburg,” I told Mike Rizzo.

“How novel,” he replied.

If he was any 26-year-old pitcher leading the league in strikeouts … but he’s not. He’s Stephen Strasburg. This is Washington. The pontificating never ends.

There’s only one player who feels it even more.

So, here’s what seems to have happened in Harpergate. Nationals manager Matt Williams went on a radio show Tuesday morning and the hot topic was Bryce Harper because Bryce Harper is always the hot topic. Harper talk is especially hot now because he has been hitting about .225 with no power since returning from his latest injury on June 30. He has been swinging and missing a lot.

The hype for Harper, if possible, even trumped the Strasburg stuff. Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16 years old with the understated headline: “Baseball’s Chosen One.” In case you missed the point, the subhead was: “Bryce Harper is the most exciting prodigy since LeBron.”

He got his GED and left high school after his sophomore year, went to junior college at Southern Nevada when he was 17 and smashed 31 home runs. He was the first pick in the draft, of course. Comparisons? Mickey Mantle! Barry Bonds! The work ethic of Pete Rose, the power of Willie McCovey, the hand-eye coordination of Ted Williams! The head of a hawk, the body of a lion, the force of Reggie Jackson! Baseball America called his raw tools “freakish,” and that was one of the more understated things said about him.

He came up at 19 and showed everything – power, speed, arm, the whole package. He was selected Rookie of the Year and made it back on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which this time used its headline to ask a question: “What does Bryce Harper have in mind for his encore?”

The answer was below: “Some seriously monumental numbers.”

It did look that way for a while last year – he hit two homers on Opening Day. He hit .337 and slugged .700 in April. Then it started to go bad. He slumped. He got hurt running into a wall. When he returned, he wasn’t the same. He was beat up. His knee hurt. He hit just .266 the rest of the way with just eight homers in 74 games. People started talking about how he needed to adjust his game, be a little less aggressive, be smarter. He didn’t agree with any of that.

This year has been trying. He started off reasonably well then got hurt again, this time sliding into third base. When he came back he griped about Matt Williams’ lineup. And he just stopped hitting. One scout told me that he looks lost up there, like he’s completely lost his feel for hitting. On Tuesday night against the Mets, he looked particularly overmatched. He struck out looking, then he struck out swinging, then he lofted a fly ball to deep left that died at the warning track. When he reached first base he slammed his helmet down in frustration.

The next day, he dove into first base on a play that wasn’t even all that close. “He has got to stop doing that!” echoed throughout the stadium.

So, yes, Harper was going to be the conversation for Matt Williams’ radio show. But it took an odd turn – the idea of Harper going down to the minor leagues was brought up. But it wasn’t exactly brought up as an idea. It was brought up in a sort of passive-aggressive way, with the kicker being: “is that just a stupid idea on my part?”

This might have been a good time for Williams to say, “Yes, stupid idea,” and everyone could laugh and move on. Instead – maybe to be nice, maybe because this is something that has been on his mind, maybe because it was early in the morning and his brain wasn’t quite awake – he said this according to the Washington Post transcript:

“I don’t know. I don’t think it’s stupid. Generally if you have young players, that’s what you do. But this guy is a special player, we all know that. It’s different. … But I don’t know if it’s a good idea at this point to do that because it’s completely different pitching. … It’s probably more of an option to have him feel good here, get it back.”

Well, you can imagine what happened next: The Bryce Harper-to-the-minors talk in Washington pushed to 11. Could they really send him down? Should they? Don’t they realize that, even with the latest slump, he has accomplished more at 21 than all but a handful of major leaguers? But could sending him down shake him up?

Well, of course this happened — this is Washington, and this is Bryce Harper, and Matt Williams can ask any politician of note what happened: He had just fed the beast. In a few hours he would come into the press room and lambasted the media. “I will caution everyone in this room,” he said, “The minute you think you can read my frickin’ mind, you’re sorely mistaken.”

But it was too late then. You can’t go on the radio as the manager of the Washington Nationals, tell someone that sending Bryce Harper to the minors is NOT a stupid idea, and then expect Washington to sit still. It’s WASHINGTON for crying out loud. (Williams later realized this an apologized).

Rizzo said shortly after Harpergate began that Bryce Harper is fine, he’s matured a lot, he’s got a great work ethic, this little slump is nothing more than a little slump. He’s going to work through it. He’s going to be a great player. And, oh, by the way, maybe you can notice that the Nationals are in first place.

“Bryce is a key part of this team,” Rizzo says. “We have a lot of key parts … that’s what makes us a good team.”

Well, yes. Doug Fister missed a few starts for injury, but he has one of the lowest ERAs in the game (2.47) and the Nationals have won 12 of his 16 starts. Tanner Roark has emerged as one of the better starters in the National League. Late inning guys Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and closer Rafael Soriano all have sub-2.00 ERAs.  Twenty-four year old third baseman Anthony Rendon looks like he is going to be a big star. And so on.

But … Bryce Harper? What about Bryce Harper?

Thursday afternoon, in the 13th inning against the Mets, Bryce Harper mashed a long walk-off home run to extend the Nationals lead.

“I haven’t felt like that in a long time,” he said afterward, and for a few hours all was all right in our nation’s capital.

Tony Gwynn’s family sues tobacco companies for wrongful death

Tony Gwynn
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The widow of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn and their two children, former major leaguer Tony Gwynn Jr. and Anisha Gwynn-Jones, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit in San Diego Superior Court arising out of Gwynn’s death of oral cancer in 2014.

According to the lawsuit, Gwynn started dipping as a 17-year-old while playing baseball for San Diego State. According to the complaint, “Once Defendants got Tony addicted to their products, he became a self-described `tobacco junkie”‘ who used 1 1/2 to 2 cans of Skoal per day.” The suit seeks unspecified damages against Altria Group Corp., the parent company of Philip Morris, and US Smokeless Tobacco Co. LLC.

It will not be an easy lawsuit for the Gwynn family to win. While Gwynn himself cited his copious tobacco use as the cause of the salivary gland cancer which eventually killed him — and while it makes a lot of intuitive sense to assume that smokeless tobacco use + time = oral cancer — Gwynn’s specific form of cancer, of the parotid gland, is not associated with tobacco use. The gland which developed the cancer was around his ear and there has been no observed link between smokeless tobacco use and cancer of that particular gland, let alone any sort of consensus on the matter. There are strong links, obviously, between smokeless tobacco use and cancer of the stomach, esophagus, pancreas, mouth, and throat, in addition to other health problems.

None of which is to say definitively that tobacco didn’t cause Gwynn’s cancer — there just isn’t enough medical data on this form of cancer to be so certain — or that the defendants in this case may not settle with the Gwynn family to avoid the expense, risk and bad p.r. of defending a suit arising out of the death of a beloved figure. But it is certainly not a slam dunk by any stretch of the imagination, and Gwynn’s family will have the burden of proof.

And That Happened: Monday’s scores and highlights

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MAY 23:  Hunter Pence #8 and Matt Duffy #5 of the San Francisco Giants celebrates after Pence hit a walk-off rbi single to score Brandon Belt #9 (not pictured) against the San Diego Padres in the bottom of the ninth inning at AT&T Park on May 23, 2016 in San Francisco, California. The Giants won the game 1-0.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Dodgers 1, Reds 0: Clayton Kershaw with a two-hit shutout. And he only needed 102 pitches to do it. His opponent, Brandon Finnegan was almost as good, allowing one run over eight innings. And that run came on a double play. Low offense and both pitchers going the distance led to a game time of two hours eleven minutes. Welcome to 1966.

Giants 1, Padres 0: Johnny Cueto tossed a two-hit shutout of his own. And he had to, as the Giants and Padres traded zeroes until the ninth inning when Hunter Pence doubled in Brandon Belt for the walkoff win.

Mets 7, Nationals 1David Wright, Yoenis Cespedes and Neil Walker all homered, with Cespedes and Walker going back-to-back in the fifth inning. Bartolo Colon allowed only one run over seven innings. Colon also did this, due to a stiff back:

At the plate, Colon did his best to not contribute to Gonzalez’s rough night, telling catcher Wilson Ramos he wasn’t going to swing.

“I swing at the balls pretty hard and I thought, not worth making my back worse, so I told their catcher from the beginning, `Just throw it right down the middle, I’m not swinging,” Colon said through a translator. “After that first at-bat and they threw me that changeup, I was like: `No, I promise you. Throw it right down the middle. I am not going to swing.”

If you’re going to all gaga and anti-DH when pitchers hit homers, you kinda gotta contend with this too, do you not?

Cardinals 4, Cubs 3Randal Grichuk hit a walkoff homer. He’s also the latest addition to the “Describe in Literal Terms What Happened” All-Star Team:

“I was trying to battle and get a pitch in the zone and put good wood on it and get on. Luckily, I was able to get a homer.”

ESPN is busy preparing a seven figure offer sheet for him to be an analyst when his playing career is over.

White Sox 7, Indians 6; Indians 5, White Sox 1: The old Doubleheader of Existential Stasis, as the clubs split and ask themselves if it would have been better to never have left bed that morning. Todd Frazier hit a solo shot and Brett Lawrie hit a three-run homer for the White Sox in the first game. In the nightcap Jose Ramirez, Rajai Davis and Juan Uribe went deep for the Tribe. It doesn’t matter, I’ll probably get hit by a car anyway. Eat at Arby’s.

Pirates 6, Rockies 3: A scary moment when Pirates starter Ryan Vogelsong was hit in the face with a pitch. He’s been admitted to a hospital but seems alright. Wilfredo Boscan was the emergency reliever, allowing two runs on two hits and himself hitting an RBI single in four innings. It was a bad game all around for folks near home plate: umpire Jeff Nelson left the game after some debris hit him in the eye during a play at home.

Tigers 5, Phillies 4: Two homers for Miguel Cabrera who apparently did not feel any bad effects from that bruised knee on Sunday. Miggy also doubled and scored a run on a Victor Martinez single. J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos also homered for Detroit, which has won six of seven.

Marlins 7, Rays 6: Four hits for Ichiro, bringing the future Hall of Famer to 2,960 in the U.S. portion of his career. More importantly, one of his singles contributed to an eighth inning rally which helped the Marlins come from behind. Suzuki is 10 for 13 in the past three games. As a part time player he ain’t exactly as important to Miami as David Ortiz is to Boston, but he too is going out on top, presuming he is going out, hitting .417/.478/.467 on the season.

Angels 2, Rangers 0: The Angels were supposed to be a carcass on the highway after losing 40% of their pitching staff to ligament injuries but they’ve won eight of 11 because, well, baseball. Albert Pujols‘ homer in the third inning was his 569th, which ties him for 12th in career homers with Rafael Palmeiro. Nick Tropeano allowed four hits and one walk while striking out six while pitching into the seventh inning.

Royals 10, Twins 4: Sal Perez went 5-for-5, hitting a double, a triple and three singles while driving in one. Omar Infante only had one hit, but it was a two-run double and he added a sac fly to give him three driven in on the night. Ricky Nolasco gave up six runs on eight hits in less than three innings of work, so that continues to be a great situation for the Twins. Between this season, next season and his inevitable buyout, Nolasco is owed $25 million by the end of next year. The Twins have the worst record in baseball, which is saying a lot given that the Braves are in this league.

Athletics 5, Mariners 0: Rich Hill tossed eight shutout innings and notched his seventh win of the year, which is a pretty good trick for a guy pitching for a team that’s in fourth place and six games under .500.

 

The Mets are among six teams that help Dominican prospects earn high school diplomas

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - APRIL 19:  A detailed view of the blackboard with theoretical physics equations in chalk by Alberto Ramos, Theoretical Physics Fellow and visitor, Antonio Gonzalez-Arroyo from the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid (both not in frame) at The European Organization for Nuclear Research commonly know as CERN on April 19, 2016 in Geneva, Switzerland.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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In a special for USA TODAY Sports, Mike Vorkunov details how six teams — the Mets in particular — provide an education program that helps their Dominican prospects earn high school diplomas. It seems like an obvious win-win: smarter players make smarter decisions, making them more likely to achieve their potential as athletes. That, of course, requires spending money, which is why only six teams make the investment. For the players, if baseball doesn’t work out, they are better able to support themselves in other ways.

Vorkunov lists the Pirates, Tigers, Phillies, Diamondbacks, and Mariners as the other teams who provide an education program for their Dominican prospects. We learned earlier this month that the Phillies were also investing in making sure their minor leaguers eat healthy. As Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “few teams” supply their minor league players with healthy food options.

Juan Henderson, the head of the Mets’ Dominican academy, said, “We see the benefit of it. I gotta tell you, we’re working with a new generation of baseball players. You see in the past that players just carry a bat and a glove and a helmet on the baseball field and in the academy. Those years, I think, are going to be pretty much over. Now they also do that, but they also carry books, they also carry an iPad, they also carry a laptop.”

Kudos to the six teams for making a great decision and here’s hoping the other 24 teams follow suit.

Video: Albert Pujols hits 569th career home run, tying Rafael Palmeiro

ANAHEIM, CA - MAY 22:  Albert Pujols #5 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim returns to the dugout after scoring in the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on May 22, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Angels first baseman Albert Pujols cranked out a two-run home run in the third inning against Rangers starter Derek Holland, breaking a scoreless tie. It’s the ninth homer of the season for Pujols and the 569th of his career, putting him into a tie with Rafael Palmeiro for 12th on baseball’s all-time home run leaderboard.

Harmon Killebrew is Pujols’ next target at 573, followed by Mark McGwire at 583 and Frank Robinson at 586.

Pujols hadn’t homered since May 13. He entered Monday night hitting a mediocre .228/.309/.395 with eight home runs and 28 RBI in 188 plate appearances.