Inside-the-park slam delivers Taylor-made boost for Nationals

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WASHINGTON — ‘Tis better to receive than to give. At least when it comes to inside-the-park grand slams.

In the Washington Nationals11-10 victory on Friday night, Michael Taylor was the beneficiary of a gift from Philadelphia Phillies center fielder Odubel Herrera, who misplayed a Taylor line drive and turned it into an inside-the-park grand slam.

The wacky play occurred nearly two years after the last time there was an ITPGS, when Taylor himself botched a sinking liner off the bat of Philly’s Aaron Altherr in September 2015.

Friday’s freaky four-bagger was only part of what was a huge game for a guy who has become a huge piece of the Nats’ playoff puzzle.

“He’s impacting the game both defensively and offensively,” Washington starter Max Scherzer said of Taylor. “He’s taking bases. He’s playing outstanding, Gold Glove center-field defense for us. Robbing home runs, making diving catches. He’s doing everything he can to help us win ballgames.”

It’s a role that, entering the season, Taylor wasn’t necessarily being counted on to fill.

A former sixth-round pick back who has taken longer than expected to begin tapping into his potential, the 26-year-old outfielder started the season as a reserve but took over in center when starter Adam Eaton sustained a season-ending knee injury in late April. After two solid months of filling in, Taylor suffered an injury of his own in early July (oblique) that sidelined him for more than a month. Although he has struggled since returning in mid-August, posting a .734 OPS that’s almost 100 points lower than the .831 he had before being shelved, his performance on Friday suggests that maybe he’s finally finding his groove again. That’s good news for the Nats, given how depleted their outfield is.

“We’re gonna need more of those kind of nights from Michael,” said skipper Dusty Baker, who has lost pretty much every outfielder on his roster to injury at some point this season. That includes Bryce Harper, who’s currently on the disabled with a knee injury and might or might not be back in time for the playoffs, and Jayson Werth, who is banged up again (shoulder) after missing almost three months with a broken foot.

“He’s feeling good about himself,” Baker said of Taylor. “We’re feeling good about him.”

It’s easy for Baker to feel good after what Taylor did on Friday, helping Washington to win by going 4-for-5 with five RBIs and three SOVs (standing ovations). His slam in the third, beside electrifying the crowd at Nationals Park, gave his team a 6-3 lead and produced the first ovation. The next ovation came in the top of the seventh, when with one out and Philly having already scored three times to cut the lead to 10-7, Taylor hosed down Nick Williams trying to score from second on a single for his eighth assist of the season (tied for fourth among National League outfielders). In the bottom of the eighth, Taylor laced an RBI triple to left field (you know, the part of the park that’s really close to third base and therefore doesn’t typically yield triples), producing the third and final ovation, not to mention what turned out to be a much-needed insurance run. But the highlight of the night for Taylor — and everyone else in the stadium — was by far that thrilling third-inning gallop all the way around the bases.

If it weren’t for the hapless Phillies — who own baseball’s worst record — flubbing multiple plays immediately prior to Taylor’s at-bat, history might not have been made.

After Daniel Murphy drew a leadoff walk to start the bottom of the third, Ryan Zimmerman hit a grounder to second that Cesar Hernandez mishandled, putting men on first and second with nobody out. Anthony Rendon followed with a ground ball to first that looked like a potential double play, but rookie Rhys Hoskins bobbled it and had no choice but to get the out at first, allowing both runners to advance — before Matt Wieters walked to load the bases. That brought up Taylor, Washington’s 7-hole hitter, who drilled a 106 mph line drive to center. That’s when the fun started.

“I could see Herrera break in, and then I could tell he was in trouble,” said No. 9 hitter Scherzer, who was in the hole for the festivities. “You could just see he wasn’t moving anymore, and he was getting ready to jump. I was like, this ball is going over his head. And it was just on for the races. I was wondering if they were going to hold him at third.”

What Scherzer didn’t know is that Taylor had no earthly intention of settling for a triple.

“As soon as it went over his head, I was thinking four,” said Taylor, whose head-first slide just barely beat the relay throw from Philly shortstop J.P. Crawford, much to the delight of everyone in the home dugout.

“That was a pretty neat play,” said Nats leadoff hitter Trea Turner, who contributed three hits to the cause, including a garden-variety outside-the-park home run in the sixth inning. Turner’s first bomb since June 17 would’ve been big news on any other night. Instead, all anyone wanted to talk about after the game — including Turner — was Taylor and his unorthodox dinger, which had a launch angle of 12 degrees, the lowest of any home run in the Statcast era.

“Big moment in the game,” Turner said. “I saw the stats on the board, and I guess there’s only been six in the last 18 to 20 years. That’s pretty crazy.”

Just how crazy? According to ESPN Stats & Information research, since the beginning of the expansion era in 1961, there have only been 28 inside-the-park grand slams. What’s even crazier is that it only has happened twice this millennium, and Taylor has been intimately involved both times. Not that he was aware of it.

“I do not,” he said when asked if he remembered his 2015 flub that led to MLB’s previous inside-the-park slam.

After being reminded of the details surrounding Altherr’s ITPGS, Taylor thought for a moment and took it all in before stating the obvious:

“Feels better to be on this side of it.”

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