Atlanta hitting coach Kevin Seitzer delivered the news to Braves outfielder Lane Adams earlier Tuesday. If Adams walks to the plate during the Braves’ three-game series in Washington, he should expect a nice hand from any fan who has been paying attention.
Adams didn’t know the first walkoff home run of his life had clinched the division for the Washington Nationals on Sunday afternoon until Seitzer told him Tuesday. He had not checked his Twitter account to see if any Nationals fans sent him social-media thank-you notes. Adams was just going about his business.
His home run coupled with the Nationals‘ win Sunday to seal the National League East division in Washington’s favor for the fourth time in six years. The Nationals celebrated and needed to clear the alcohol out of their heads and clothes after the game. Adams was pelted with dirt when he crossed home plate in the 11th inning in Atlanta. He scrubbed and scrubbed to clear the dirt away afterward.
“Another thing you can add to the list of baseball being weird,” Adams said of the situation. “Give me a fastball in the middle and we’ll call it good.”
Tuesday, Adams and the Nationals were on the same field to begin a three-game series. It was meaningless when it came to determining the fate of each team in the regular season. However, it started a 19-game run for the Nationals to balance being sharp with being rested, the one curse of of early playoff clinches.
Nationals manager Dusty Baker started talking Sunday about what was to come in the final three weeks of the regular season. Baker is confident he knows how to keep the team sharp and relayed as much when a group of veteran leaders came to talk with him in his office after the clinch. The players laid out how they would like the next three weeks to go. Baker delivered his points. A priority for Baker is the final week of the season. He knows there will be a five-day delay after game 162 on Oct. 1 before the Nationals open the playoffs.
“We’d like to keep rolling, regardless of who we put out there, and then really roll the last week or so of the season,” Baker said.
Outfielder Michael A. Taylor and shortstop Trea Turner will arrive at the end of the regular season with sufficient workloads after returning from injuries. Jayson Werth (shoulder) is expected to join that group Wednesday. Baker gave the 38-year-old Werth one extra day off Tuesday before bringing him back. The massive question remains what is next for Bryce Harper.
Sunday, amid the celebration, Harper did not elaborate on how his hyperextended and bruised left knee is feeling. Tuesday, Baker said the club was hopeful to “step up Harp’s baseball activities” soon, though no dates were mentioned.
“What’s next is hopefully have him start hitting and see how his legs feel,” Baker said. “Because running and sliding and dodging is going to be the thing. He’s progressing. I got my trainers [to] let me know when he’s really progressing. You don’t want to force him to progress because that leads to regression. Maybe those five days off is meant to be, which to help him get five days possibly closer to being ready.”
Harper has not played since Aug. 13. When he last spoke with reporters specifically about the injury Aug. 30, Harper did not sound like he had made much progress. Last week, Harper played a light game of catch in the outfield twice. If he has been doing more than that, it has been out of sight.
When Harper was injured, the Los Angeles Dodgers were 49 games over .500, steamrolling all opposition on the way to an 83-34 record. Nine days later, Los Angeles peaked at 54 games over .500. Sports Illustrated filled its cover with the headline, “Best team ever?”
Fast forward to Tuesday. The Nationals were a mere 3 ½ games behind the Dodgers for the National League’s best record. Los Angeles had lost 11 consecutive games and 16 of 17. Sometimes the wheels fall off. Others, the whole vehicle goes over a cliff.
Baker has been watching the standings since the first day of the season. Being up on who has the best record in the National League caused him to keep a particular eye on the Dodgers throughout the season. Los Angeles’ Friday arrival at Nationals Park for the start of a three-game weekend series suddenly has more to it than a possible preview for October. Washington could surge right past the Dodgers and claim home field throughout the playoffs. Home-field advantage in the World Series will also be determined this season by the team with the best record. Does his group want to catch the Dodgers?
“I hope so but I want them to concentrate more on today,” Baker said. “Let me worry about that. You worry about today.”
The first day since the clinch began with a possible postseason, Harper-less lineup. The regulars who had Sunday off were in their usual spots. Howie Kendrick, who could well claim playing time from Werth in the postseason, was hitting second. Baker will try to massage the innings of his starters and main bullpen members for the next three weeks. He said he believes in the theory that players rust out before they wear out. He’ll fight both aspects of that until October comes.
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