1. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals: Hitting his 24th home run of the season in the first inning, Harper put the Nationals on the board in what would ultimately be a nine-run inning; the early offensive onslaught put Sunday’s game out of reach and helped Washington complete a weekend sweep in which it outscored the Pittsburgh Pirates by a combined 19-3. The homer also put Harper in rare company as a 22-year-old cranking out major power production this early in the season (and I have to love a list with Mel Ott on it, since he was my great-grandfather's favorite player):
Sunday's blast was pretty much a perfect bit of anticipation, as Harper jumped on a first-pitch middle-in sinker from sinkerballer Charlie Morton and planted it into the seats straight down the right-field line. For Harper, that’s not so much unusual as it is a reflection of why he can be so hard to pitch to. His spread of souvenirs makes it clear he’s ready to go yard in any direction:
This was Harper's first straight-pull homer down the line on the season. He has seven homers to left, nine up the middle and now eight toward right field. That’s worth keeping in mind whenever you want to predict where he might ultimately want to go play, but don’t bet on a short porch in right being the key consideration -- not when he’s already able to provide this kind of power to all fields.
The series had other highlights, of course: The Nats’ series-long pitching performance was a marked improvement for a team that has spent most of the year wondering about its rotation after enduring injury and ineffectiveness from Stephen Strasburg and Doug Fister. Max Scherzer's thwarted bid for perfection still leaves the question of whether he might not be baseball’s best pitcher, while Gio Gonzalez threw his own gem Sunday. If the Nats are ready to consistently provide that kind of performance, it will do wonders as far as keeping games in reach when Harper -- and perhaps some of their other hitters -- go on a serious tear.
2. J.D. Martinez, Detroit Tigers: Martinez clouted three homers in the Tigers’ 12-4 rout of the Yankees, putting him at 16 bombs on the year. For the Tigers, their fans or fantasy owners, this marked a nice reminder that Martinez is doing a solid job of proving 2014's breakout season wasn’t a fluke. His strikeout rate is the same, his walk rate is a little stronger, his Isolated Power is almost identical (.241 this year versus .238 last year), and he’s hitting as many home runs per fly ball as he did last season. In short, he’s the same guy -- the one major difference being he’s not hitting .389 on balls in play, which was one of the many amazing peaks of production he generated last year. Which is why his drop-off as far as his OPS -- from .912 last season to .849 this season -- is all about the singles. But he already was putting up a .327 BABIP before Sunday's game. Martinez's power spike was just a reminder that he’s not about to go back to being the guy the Houston Astros cut, and that he’s the real deal -- this year same as last.
3. Baltimore Orioles pound their way to a win: You can credit Manny Machado's breakout as he takes that big step forward, but the Orioles’ comeback win to beat the Blue Jays by a final of 13-9 had many heroes beyond their star third baseman. Chris Davis continued his climb back to respectability with his 15th home run and a pair of walks, boosting his OPS to .784. J.J. Hardy plated both the tying and go-ahead runs with singles in the seventh and ninth innings, providing some hope he’s about to get back to at least where he was last season -- if not the 20-homer shortstop the O’s enjoyed in years past. But the other fun thing to see was Jimmy Paredes' eighth homer of the season, a second-inning Earl Weaver special good for a three-spot as the journeyman utility man continued to provide unexpected offense out of the DH slot.
4. Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs: Who’s the Cubs’ ace? Sure, Jon Lester makes the big bucks, and he has the rings and postseason experience, so as a matter of course that label goes to him. But in terms of performance? You should probably pick Arrieta because his complete-game shutout of the Twins on Sunday didn’t just earn him his seventh win of the year, it was the single best start from any Cubs starter so far this season (good for a Game Score of 86), and his team-leading 10th quality start in 14 turns. There’s no shame in being seen as the second banana behind Lester, but when the day comes the Cubs are playing a short series for the highest stakes, bet your bottom dollar Arrieta will be every bit as important to the outcome.
5. Yasmani Grandal, Los Angeles Dodgers: Grandal belted a pair of bombs in the Dodgers’ 10-2 win to protect their lead in the NL West over the San Francisco Giants. It’s a nice reminder that getting him from the Padres this past winter was and should still be seen as a bigger deal than San Diego getting Derek Norris from the Oakland Athletics, in terms of what you can reasonably expect as far as big-time power.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.