Little Leaguer Aukai Kea does Bryce Harper bat flip after walk-off home run in LLWS game

Little Leaguer Aukai Kea does Bryce Harper bat flip after walk-off home run in LLWS game

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The 2017 World Series teams are struggling with injuries and depth. Can they make it back to the postseason? USA TODAY Sports

A Little League star paid homage to a big-league star early Saturday morning at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. 

Hawaii Little League pitcher Aukai Kea, 13, hit a walk-off home run in the 11th inning, giving his team a 2-0 victory over Georgia. 

After drilling the ball over the left-field wall, Kea did a two-handed bat flip and gesture — looking a lot like Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper after he won the 2018 Home Run Derby

Kea kept Hawaii in the winner’s bracket with his homer and his pitching. He held Georgia scoreless while showcasing highlight-reel skills on defense — snagging a ground ball barehanded

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Did the Home Run Derby 'fix' Bryce Harper?

Did the Home Run Derby 'fix' Bryce Harper?

It’s been a month since Nats slugger Bryce Harper staged an epic Home Run Derby comeback in D.C. He denies it turned his season around — but the numbers say otherwise. 

Rhys Hoskins is convinced that the Home Run Derby helped him. Bryce Harper, not so much.

It’s been exactly one month since Harper staged an epic comeback on his home turf to defeat Chicago’s Kyle Schwarber in the final round of the Derby in D.C. Schwarber’s opponent in the semis was Hoskins, who’s already gone on record as saying the Derby jump-started his second half.

“Hundred percent,” the Phillies slugger said late last month. “I think it kind of forced me to be aggressive to the pull side. I haven’t done that very well this year. For whatever reason, I’ve been a little more passive on the inner half of the plate. In the Derby, I was able to pull balls more true and keep the ball a lot straighter instead of hooking the ball. It seems to be carrying over.”

Hoskins has an OPS of 1.001 since the All-Star break, nearly 200 points higher than in the first half. After hitting 14 home runs in 86 games prior to the break, he already has nine homers in just 24 games since.

As for Harper, heading into the All-Star break there were whispers that maybe the Derby was just what the doctor ordered — that contrary to the recent trend of superstars skipping the contest for fear of ruining their swings and/or injuring themselves, the most well-known National might actually benefit from it. After all, he had nowhere to go but up. Following a first half in which he hit an anemic .214 and struck out more than 100 times, the Derby might actually snap him out of his funk. Or so went the thinking.

The way the Home Run Derby played out, with Harper captivating the capital en route to hoisting the hardware, only added fuel to the fire. The way Harper came out of the break hasn’t done anything to douse those flames.

Since the Midsummer Classic, the former MVP is hitting .337. His slugging percentage is more than 200 points higher than it was before the break. His 1.115 OPS is up nearly 300 points. His swing-and-miss rate is down (from 33 percent to 30 percent), as is his chase rate (28 to 22). Perhaps most important, he’s using the whole field.

“Better approach,” says one National League scout who’s watched Harper recently. “He’s staying on the ball, using the opposite field, not pulling everything.”

The numbers back up the scout’s take. During the first half of the season, 24 percent of Harper’s batted balls went to the opposite field. Since the break, that number has spiked to 35 percent, a telltale sign he’s feeling more comfortable at the plate.

“When he’s really good,” said Washington manager Dave Martinez earlier this month, “that’s what he does.”

That’s not to say the Home Run Derby is necessarily responsible for Harper trending in the right direction.

“[He’s] just a really good hitter,” said Martinez. “Throughout the course of the year, he was eventually going to come out of it, and he’s starting to do so now.”

In other words, Derby or no Derby, Harper was bound for some regression to the mean. Nowhere is that regression more evident than in his batting average on balls in play (BABIP).

Prior to the break, Harper’s .226 BABIP was not only well below the league average (typically around .300), it was the second lowest in the National League. Although a low BABIP can sometimes be a function of “bad hitting” (i.e. not hitting the ball with authority), it’s more frequently a byproduct of bad luck (i.e. not hitting the ball in the right place). In Harper’s case, it was the latter: His 41.1 percent hard-hit rate in the first half was higher than his best mark for any full season (40.9 percent during his MVP year in 2015). Even though his hard-hit rate has stayed about the same in the second half, his BABIP has gone up. Way up. In fact, Harper’s .429 BABIP since the break is the third highest in the NL, a sign that perhaps his luck has started to turn (and/or that he’s not pulling the ball into the shift as frequently). As for whether the Derby had anything to do with it, well, that depends on whom you ask.

Although Harper himself says his mechanics haven’t changed at all since the Derby and there hasn’t been any kind of carryover effect, not everyone around him agrees.

“What I do know is that he fed off the fans that day … and I think right now he’s playing with a lot of heart,” said Martinez. “He appreciates what the fans did to him that day, so I think that has a little bit to do with it.”

That might not be the only factor in play.

As encouraging as Harper’s performance since the Derby has been, it’s been even more so since the trade deadline. Leading up to the July 31 cutoff, Harper became the subject of increasing trade speculation as rumors swirled that the disappointing Nationals might become sellers instead of buyers. The front office’s decision to hold on to its star right-fielder and not break up the band seemed to energize Harper. Just hours after the trade deadline passed, he went out and collected a pair of doubles in a 25-4 rout over the Mets. That began a string of seven games in which Harper recorded multiple hits six times. In related news, Washington won six of seven over that stretch, prompting many to wonder whether Harper and the Nats had finally turned their season around.

Since then, though, the Nationals have dropped seven of nine, including a pair of gut-wrenching walk-off losses to the Cubs and Cardinals on back-to-back nights. It’s a crippling skid that’s dropped Washington’s playoff odds to 22 percent, down from the mid-40s a week ago and all the way down from 59 percent at the All-Star break.

There’s no denying the Nationals have some serious issues that need fixing if they’re going to reach the postseason for the fifth time in seven years. The bullpen needs closer Sean Doolittle and setup men Kelvin Herrera and Ryan Madson to get healthy, and fast. The rotation needs Stephen Strasburg to do the same, and faster. And it wouldn’t hurt if the Braves and Phillies, two upstart clubs that have definitively outplayed Washington thus far, finally started showing some cracks in their youthful facade.

The good news is that exactly one month after the Home Run Derby, it appears Bryce Harper is no longer one of the things that needs fixing.

Inside Pitch: Would Bryce Harper be a fit for the Cardinals?

Inside Pitch: Would Bryce Harper be a fit for the Cardinals?

St. Louis, MO (63101)

Today

Partly cloudy with a slight chance of thunderstorms. High 84F. Winds S at 10 to 15 mph. Chance of rain 30%..

Tonight

Scattered thunderstorms early, then mainly cloudy overnight with thunderstorms likely. Low 69F. Winds S at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 90%.

Updated: August 14, 2018 @ 1:26 pm

A weight has been lifted off Bryce Harper, and he's ready for Nationals' final stand

A weight has been lifted off Bryce Harper, and he's ready for Nationals' final stand

Bryce Harper doubled home the eventual game-winning run in the Washington Nationals‘ 2-1 victory over the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday afternoon, then afterward sat quiet and alone at his locker, in no hurry, comfortable, gathering his gear. Nobody came to interview him.

The Nats had just won for the eighth time in 11 games and the fifth time in six games since General Manager Mike Rizzo said Tuesday that, “Bryce is not going anywhere. I believe in this team.”

Since the all-star break, when Harper won the Home Run Derby batting against his father as a packed Nationals Park rained dozens of ovations on him, he has driven in 14 runs in 15 games and hit .367.

Since Rizzo took the trade-deadline worries off his shoulders – dealing him would have been an acknowledgement by the Nats that they had little realistic chance, or even interest, in re-signing the soon-to-be free agent – Harper has hit .471 in the past five games and hit to all fields, as he does when he is hottest.

If, somehow, against what appear to be the logical baseball odds, Harper ends up staying in Washington after this season, perhaps even for plenty of years, part of the reason will be his old-shoe comfort in his Nats world.

“I know everybody here, every single person that I see every day,” he said, including every person who opens every door or polishes every spike. “I understand that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.”

If the Nats, against what appear to be logical probabilities of pennant races, somehow reach the playoffs, plenty of the reason will be that Harper is now finally partly relaxed, strongly resembles his best self and is happy he is still here. Harper doesn’t hide emotion well – or even try.

“Is Juan Soto really this good?” someone asks.

Harper starts chuckling, thinking of the 19-year-old rookie who is tearing up the game as a teenager better than anyone since . . . Bryce Harper.

“Soto’s amazing. And he’s just a great person,” Harper said of the player who may, to a degree, be the reason the Nats can imagine a future without him.

Many wonder who Harper is. But, at least for the practical purposes of enjoying watching him play baseball, it’s quite easy. He is perhaps the only Nationals player who is such a baseball nerd that he has a sense of the team’s entire schedule for the last two months – whom they play, where and when – and what the schedules of the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves look like as well, and in detail.

The Nats are about to enter deep water beginning with a four-game series against Atlanta that starts with a day-night doubleheader Tuesday. In a span of 41 days the Nats play 33 of their next 39 games against winning teams. By the time that trek ends Sept. 16, their division chances, or their entire season, could be stone dead.

In that same span, the Phillies play 23 of 40 games against losing teams. Considering that the Phillies are already six games ahead of the Nats in the NL East, that Stephen Strasburg is unlikely to be back in the rotation within two weeks and that closer Sean Doolittle will be out even longer, who would pick the Nats?

Well, Harper kind of likes their chances. He has already studied the Phillies’ schedule. Of their trip to Arizona and San Diego this week, he says, “The West Coast is always tough.” Then he points at those home-and-home series with the Phillies on Aug. 21-23 at Nationals Park and Aug. 27-29 in Philadelphia.

“Oh, man, those are going to be exciting,” he says. “But we have to do well because you know they are going to sweep this series,” he says, referencing a losing team the Phillies play in between.

Harper even has every series of the last two weeks of the season worked out – who’s where, what will need to happen. Maybe you’re different, but this is how I like my ballplayers. I asked Gene Mauch what the worst part of being a manager was. He thought and said, “The day you realize that you care more than they do.”

That’s not a Harper problem. Sometimes he screws up. He doesn’t “not care.”

What excites Harper? “The next two months,” he says.

Maybe the Nats will need to hope for a wild-card berth. Right now they are 41/2 games behind the Braves for the second and last spot, but Atlanta has an even worse schedule than Washington with an almost ridiculous 43 of its last 54 games against teams that are at or above .500. The Braves will be tough this week, but if they are still a factor by the season’s last week, I’ll make a deep bow.

The coming days and weeks may be the last stand of the 2012-2018 Nationals with Harper at their center. They are certainly due for some breaks. Their bad injury luck has been well documented. But the Nats have also maxed out their misfortune in one-run games (10-18) and in run distribution. From 2011 through 2017, formulas that predict a team’s record based on its run differential said the Nats should win 637 games. In fact, they won 635.

This year, the run differentials of the teams in the NL East predict that the Braves should lead by a half-game over the Nats – 61-47 to 62-49 for Washington (yes, 62-49, not 57-54) – with the Phillies back at 59-52.

Winning a game 25-4, as the Nats did last week, may show raw talent. And it certainly gave Rizzo a chance to send a loud, in-plain-view shape-up message to his entire team when he fired (designated for assignment) relief pitcher Shawn Kelley on the spot after a mound tantrum. But it sure isn’t the best use of run differential.

The Nats will need many factors, and tons of luck, to make the playoffs in a rare year when the NL entered Sunday with 11 of its 15 teams at or over .500. But one of those catalysts will have to be the missing man: Harper.

Part of his poor season so far has been bad luck on batting average on balls in play. Part has been a sport that now shifts much more often against pull hitters like him. He has anxiously chased more bad pitches this season than usual, so he strikes out more. But part of what nags him is not knowing whether, or how much, the only team he has ever played for really wants to keep him. Freedom of choice is fine, but don’t you also want the one you’re already with to choose you?

Because Harper is a total baseball geek, he understands every twist of his situation. The issue now is whether the Nats, who like him personally and understand exactly how valuable a player he is, see him as the best use of their resources in the immediate future. And Harper truly has no idea about that. He may already be gone and not know it.

But, just days ago, he got one big answer. The Nats could have gotten a semi-decent basket of prospects for Harper, just as the Orioles did when they dealt Manny Machado for the 57th-best prospect in the minors, plus four warm-body lottery tickets who appear not to be in the top 300 prospects. But they didn’t.

Rizzo said, “I believe in this team.” So far, the team appears to have heard it. What Harper seems to have heard is: We still believe in you, Bryce.

Originally published in The Washington Post.

MLB | Reds 7-2; Nationals 1-6: Votto twice hit by pitch in split doubleheader

MLB | Reds 7-2; Nationals 1-6: Votto twice hit by pitch in split doubleheader

WASHINGTON — Nationals slugger Bryce Harper got hit by a pitch and soon left the field. Then Reds star Joey Votto got hit and immediately went off — on the Nats.

The second game of a doubleheader turned testy Saturday night after a pair of former NL MVPs got plunked during Washington’s 6-2 win for a split.

In the sixth inning, Harper was hit in the right kneecap by Austin Brice. Harper initially struggled to put any weight on his leg, but ultimately made his way to first base.

But Harper labored defensively chasing after a double by Mason Williams in the seventh and was immediately replaced in right field by Adam Eaton.

“It hurts,” Harper said. “I’ll see where I’m at (Sunday) and go from there.”

In the eighth, Votto was hit for the second time in the game, nailed in the leg by Ryan Madson’s first pitch.

Votto gestured at Madson as he took first base. After being retired on a forceout at second to end the inning, Votto waved at Washington’s dugout, prompting plate umpire Andy Fletcher to warn both teams.

Cincinnati interim manager Jim Riggleman said the Madson pitch “certainly appeared (intentional). The only person who knows is the person who threw the pitch.”

That person says the Reds had the wrong read.

“No. I didn’t mean to hit him,” Madson said. “Definitely didn’t mean to hurt him. Nothing like that. Hopefully, he’s OK.”

Votto, who also was hit in the first inning, remained in the game. He was not available to reporters after it was over.

“I was just in pain,” Harper said. “There was no point in being out there.”

Washington’s Spencer Kieboom was hit in the seventh.

The Reds won a tame opener 7-1 before tempers flared.

Anthony Rendon had a pair of RBI doubles and Matt Adams homered in the second game for Washington.

Jose Peraza led off the game with a homer for Cincinnati and Eugenio Suarez hit his 26th home run.

The Nationals scored single runs in each of the opening five innings against Matt Harvey (5-7).

“It was kind of a battle from beginning,” Harvey said. “It’s never good when you give up a run every inning. It’s obviously not ideal.”

Jeremy Hellickson (5-2) pitched into the sixth. The Nationals have won four of five.

In the opener, Cincinnati starter Anthony DeSclafani (5-3) allowed one run in seven innings, stopping Washington’s three-game winning streak.

The Reds had six runs and 10 hits against Gio Gonzalez (6-8), who lasted only 3 2/3 innings. He has lost seven straight decisions.

“If I knew the answer to that, it’d be a different outcome,” Gonzalez said of his struggles. “Right now, I’m just trying to battle through whatever I’m going through. Hopefully start catching my breaks. Tide will change.”

Phillip Ervin hit a three-run homer and Brandon Dixon had a solo shot as the Reds snapped a three-game losing streak.