Bryce Harper

Nationals’ nine-game winning streak is “absolutely epic”

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This shouldn’t be happening, not like this. It’s not that the Nationals have won nine straight games. And it’s not that they’ve won in walk-off fashion four of the last five nights. It’s that they’ve won three of the last four nights after blowing a lead in the eighth or ninth inning.

Really, who does this?

“I mean, just absolutely epic,” Bryce Harper said. “That’s the best word I can put on it for you. It’s been incredible.”

The events taking place each evening on South Capitol Street are beginning to defy explanation. Four nights after rallying from 3 runs down to beat the Pirates, three nights after watching Rafael Soriano melt down in the ninth before they came back to win in the 11th, two nights after watching Tyler Clippard blow his own ninth-inning lead before they again came back to win in the 11th, they did it yet again.

Leading by two runs in the eighth, the Nationals saw Clippard surrender another game-tying homer, only to pick up their All-Star reliever by producing another winning rally in the ninth, beating the Diamondbacks 3-2 for their ninth consecutive victory.

At this point, it sure looks like Matt Williams is drawing them up this way, going for maximum drama at the expense of everyone’s blood pressure.

“No, no. Not even close,” the rookie manager insisted. “That’s not the way you draw them up. But they don’t stop fighting, that’s for sure.”

The Nationals find themselves in this position — winners of nine straight, owners of a 7-game division lead, an NL-best 19 games over .500 — thanks to an elite rotation (starters have given up 10 total earned runs during these nine games) and an opportunistic lineup that thrives in pressure situations late (they’ve scored 27 runs from the sixth inning on during the streak).

They got both Wednesday night, with Tanner Roark tossing seven scoreless innings despite some early command struggles and then Harper, Kevin Frandsen and Anthony Rendon combining to produce the winning rally in the bottom of the ninth.

Harper ignited things with a base hit up the middle (his third of the game) after battling Arizona reliever Evan Marshall to a full count.

“Great at-bat,” Williams said.

After Wilson Ramos struck out on three pitches, Frandsen sent a sharp grounder up the middle, just past Aaron Hill’s diving attempt. Harper, seeing the ball trickle into shallow center field, never broke stride and wound up on third base without drawing a throw.

That brought a familiar face to the plate in an unfamiliar role. Rendon was supposed to have the night off after 62 consecutive starts at either second or third base, but here was the 24-year-old being asked to pinch-hit for the first time this season, with the game on the line.

Rendon had spent the evening shadowing Scott Hairston, watching how the veteran bench player prepared for the possibility of late action.

“I followed Scotty throughout the whole game pretty much,” Rendon said. “I was like: ‘Alright, what do I do? Do I do this? Do I do that?'”

Rendon also remembered advice he got earlier this summer from former teammate Greg Dobbs, a pinch-hitting specialist for many years.

“He said to just get up like it;s your first at-bat of game. That’s what Dobbs told me,” Rendon said. “And that’s what I actually remembered from earlier in the year. So I was like: ‘Alright, I’m going to go up like it’s my first at-bat of the game and go up there and try to barrel the ball like I always do.'”

Rendon took ball one from Marshall, then turned on the next pitch. The ball was scorched down the third-base line, giving Harper a leisurely stroll home with the winning run while everyone else mobbed Rendon near first base, impressed (but not surprised) by his latest offensive exploits.

“A lot of guys around here will sing his praises all the time, because he is so levelheaded,” Frandsen said. “For him to finally get a day off today, you’d never know, because he was out there doing everything, coming off the bench. There’s one thing I think he was born to do, and it’s hit.”

And there appears to be one thing these Nationals know how to do right now: Win ballgames, no matter how much drama it requires.

“For me, it’s just a very good ethic that these guys have,” Williams said, who with one more win Thursday would have to make good on his pledge to break out his old Babe Ruth impersonation. “They believe in each other. They believe that we can stay in a game, that we can win a game, that we’re never out of a game. That’s a trait that you can’t force on folks. They get that amongst themselves in that clubhouse, and it’s enjoyable to watch. Sometimes it’s not a whole lot of fun, but it’s enjoyable to watch the way they go about it. So I’m proud of them.”

Columnist calls for Sammy Sosa to “come clean.” He probably shouldn’t.

15 Sep 1998:  A silhouette portrait of Sammy Sosa #21of the Chicago Cubs taken in the dug-out as he looks across the field during the game against the San Diego Padres at Qualcomm Park in San Diego, California. The Cubs defeated the Padres 4-2
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Yesterday Sammy Sosa — quite ridiculously — compared himself to Jesus Christ. The idea: he has suffered greatly since retirement, having been shunned by the Cubs and disparaged by the baseball establishment and . . . well, I don’t know how that makes him Jesus, but forget it, he’s rolling.

Today, predictably, a Chicago columnist does what columnists have been doing for years with respect to guys suspected of PED use: argues that Sosa should “come clean” if he wants to come in from the cold. Here’s David Haugh of the Tribune:

The game welcomed back Barry Bonds and McGwire from steroid exile after both separately acknowledged their involvement with performance-enhancing drugs. Fox Sports employs Alex Rodriguez, who admitted to PED use during his career. The door back to baseball is open for Sosa, but only if he follows the same path his contemporaries from the steroid era did. The Cubs have made this clear to Sosa, in no uncertain terms, yet he continues to paint himself as the victim.

This is not accurate. Bonds has never “come clean” about his PED use. He was in litigation over it until 2015 and wasn’t giving any confessionals about it. When the Marlins hired him he said nothing. He made allusions to being “an idiot” in an interview last summer, but that was clearly focused on his cagey attitude, not his drug use. There was no deal with the Marlins that his job was prefaced on his “coming clean,” and he never did.

The same can be said for McGwire. Big Mac was hired by the Cardinals as a hitting coach on October 26, 2009. His acknowledgment of PED use came months later, just before spring training in January 2010. While it may be plausible that the Cardinals told McGwire that they would not hire him absent a confession of PED use, that’s not how it tracked in real time. At his hiring, John Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt each said there was no set blueprint for how McGwire would proceed as far as his public statements went and they allowed him to control the timeline. His confession seemed to be very much a function of heading off spring training distractions and questions from the press which would have access to him everyday, not some precondition of his employment.

But even if we grant the apparently erroneous premise that Bonds and McGwire “came clean” to return to baseball’s good graces, such a road map is of no use to Sosa. He’s not looking to coach or, as far as we know, even be employed by a club. If the study we talked about four years ago remains accurate, coming clean about PED use makes an athlete look worse in the eyes of the public than those who deny. Ask David Ortiz how that works. It likewise will do nothing for his Hall of Fame vote totals. Ask McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro how that works.

Sosa may be engaging in some unfortunate hyperbole, but as far as can be determined, he’s not asking for a whole hell of a lot. He’s not asking for a coaching job or to have his number retired or for them to rename Wrigley Field after him. He’s asking to be acknowledged as a part of Cubs history. He’s asking for the same kind of treatment other retired greats receive from time to time. A first pitch? A public appearance or two? Some minor role as a team ambassador? The bar for that isn’t very high.

The Cubs, who benefited greatly from Sosa’s production — and, necessarily, by whatever juicing Sosa did to achieve it — aren’t being asked to do much. Just to be decent to a person who is an important part of their history. That should not require that Sosa give a weepy interview about steroids which will serve no one’s purpose but the tut-tutting media. A media which, if McGwire’s example is any guide, will still slam Sosa if he comes clean and claim that his confession wasn’t good enough and his contrition wasn’t genuine. If he does confess, bank on that reaction. Bet the mortgage on it.

All of which makes me wonder if it’s the media, and not the Cubs who are the ones who really want to see such a thing.

Rob Manfred on robot umps: “In general, I would be a keep-the-human-element-in-the-game guy.”

KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 5:  Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred talks with media prior to a game between the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on April 5, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Craig covered the bulk of Rob Manfred’s quotes from earlier. The commissioner was asked about robot umpires and he’s not a fan. Via Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports:

Manfred was wrong to blame the player’s union’s “lack of cooperation” on proposed rule changes, but he’s right about robot umps and the strike zone. The obvious point is that robot umps cannot yet call balls and strikes with greater accuracy than umpires. Those strike zone Twitter accounts, such as this, are sometimes hilariously wrong. Even the strike zone graphics used on television are incorrect and unfortunate percentage of the time.

The first issue to consider about robot umps is taking jobs away from people. There are 99 umps and more in the minors. If robot umpiring was adopted in collegiate baseball, as well as the independent leagues, that’s even more umpires out of work. Is it worth it for an extra one or two percent improvement in accuracy?

Personally, the fallibility of the umpires adds more intrigue to baseball games. There’s strategy involved, as each umpire has tendencies which teams can strategize against. For instance, an umpire with a more generous-than-average strike zone on the outer portion of the plate might entice a pitcher to pepper that area with more sliders than he would otherwise throw. Hitters, knowing an umpire with a smaller strike zone is behind the dish, may take more pitches in an attempt to draw a walk. Or, knowing that information, a hitter may swing for the fences on a 3-0 pitch knowing the pitcher has to throw in a very specific area to guarantee a strike call or else give up a walk.

The umpires make their mistakes in random fashion, so it adds a chaotic, unpredictable element to the game as well. It feels bad when one of those calls goes against your team, but fans often forget the myriad calls that previously went in their teams’ favor. The mistakes will mostly even out in the end.

I haven’t had the opportunity to say this often, but Rob Manfred is right in this instance.