Bryce Harper begins rehab assignment, expects to move around Nationals’ outfield

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Out for the past two months with a torn thumb ligament, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper began a minor-league rehab assignment Monday night at Single-A.

Harper singled in his first at-bat and later walked before exiting the game after three innings as planned. He played left field, which is where he’s expected to spend most of his time upon rejoining the Nationals, although Harper could also see some action in center field if the team decides to keep using Ryan Zimmerman occasionally in left field rather than third base.

Zimmerman said Monday that he’d prefer to remain in left field but is willing to play third base if that’s where the Nationals need him. Similarly, Harper said after his first rehab game that he’d prefer to remain in one outfield spot full time but is willing to shift around on a game-by-game basis if the Nationals want it that way instead:

I want to get comfortable in one spot. I got in a little bit of trouble last year playing right field and getting hurt. So I think just trying to stay in one spot would be great. But with the outfield we have, I don’t think that’s going to happen. So being able to play left and play center and play right is something that I need down here.

July 1 is Harper’s expected return date for now, so the Nationals have another week to decide what their plan will be.

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The “Clayton Kershaw can’t pitch in the postseason” narrative should be dead

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For years, a bulk of the postseason coverage surrounding Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw focused on his poor results once the regular season ended. The three-time Cy Young Award winner carried a career 5.68 postseason ERA following his NLDS Game 1 start against the Diamondbacks last year, a sample size spanning 15 starts and four relief appearances totaling 95 1/3 innings.

Kershaw had a subpar start against the Astros in Game 5 of the World Series last year and the narrative hit a fever pitch. I dug into the numbers at that point and found that a not-insignificant portion of Kershaw’s playoff ERA could be attributed to relievers coming in after him and failing to strand their inherited runners. At the time of that writing (October 30, 2017), Dodger relievers allowed 10 of 16 runners inherited from Kershaw in the playoffs to score, a strand rate of 37.5 percent. That’s roughly half of the league average (around 75 percent).

Kershaw finished out the World Series last year by pitching four scoreless innings of relief in Game 7. He returned to the postseason, starting Game 2 of the NLDS against the Braves this year and tossed eight shutout frames on just two hits with no walks. The narrative should have died there, too. It, of course did not. As the Dodgers advanced to the NLCS, Kershaw got the Game 1 nod against the Brewers and struggled. The Brewers got him for five runs (four earned) across three-plus innings. One of those runs included a home run hit by the opposing pitcher (Brandon Woodruff). Kershaw was also hurt by a passed ball and catcher’s interference on the part of Yasmani Grandal in the third inning. Not a great outing, but not as bad as the line score read, either.

In Game 5 of the NLCS on Wednesday evening, Kershaw once again redeemed himself. He limited the Brewers this time around to a lone run on three hits and two walks with nine strikeouts over seven innings of work. The only run came around in the third inning when Lorenzo Cain hit an RBI double to center field. Kershaw’s career postseason ERA is now 4.11 and it would be much lower if his bullpen had, in the past, done its job more effectively.

According to Katie Sharp of The Athletic, tonight’s postseason start was Kershaw’s eighth in which he allowed one run or fewer and three hits or fewer. No other pitcher in baseball history has made more than five such starts. That’s partially a function of opportunity, as the Dodgers have been in the postseason every year dating back to 2013 as well as in 2008 and ’09. But Kershaw still has to go out there and make the pitches, and he largely has. The “Kershaw can’t pitch in the postseason” narrative is dead. It never should have lived.