Mark Zuckerman on the Nats' All-Star selections
Updated at 8:50 p.m.
Bryce Harper has been elected by fans as an All-Star Game starter for the first time in his career, and teammate Jordan Zimmermann has been selected by fellow NL players to make his first career appearance in the Midsummer Classic.
Ian Desmond, meanwhile, will have to wait a bit longer to learn his All-Star fate. The shortstop is one of five NL players in the "Final Vote" competition and will need to beat out a star-studded group that includes Dodgers rookie Yasiel Puig, Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and Giants outfielder Hunter Pence in online balloting to earn his second straight All-Star selection.
While Zimmermann's selection seemed a foregone conclusion — he entered the day with an NL-leading 12 wins and a 2.46 ERA — Harper needed a late surge in fan voting to earn the starting nod for the July 16 game at New York's Citi Field.
When the most recent balloting totals were released by MLB on Tuesday, Harper found himself in fourth place among NL outfielders, trailing Atlanta's Justin Upton by about 15,000 votes. But perhaps bolstered by his return from the disabled list and the home run he hit on his first swing in five weeks, Harper made up the difference and in the process made some history.
At 20, Harper becomes the fourth-youngest player ever elected an All-Star starter. The other three — Al Kaline in 1955, Jerry Walker in 1959, Ken Griffey Jr. in 1990 — all played in the AL, so Harper is the youngest NL player ever elected to the All-Star starting lineup.
Harper also becomes the first member of the Nationals to make the All-Star team twice — Desmond would join him if he wins the final vote — and only the second National ever elected a starter, following in the footsteps of fellow outfielder Alfonso Soriano in 2006.
"Very blessed," he said. "I'm excited to be part of it. I've got to thank the fans for everything they did for me, just voting for me every single day. I'm really looking forward to it. I'm excited."
Harper's case for election wasn't ironclad. He burst out of the gates in April, hitting .356 with nine homers and a 1.181 OPS through his first 25 games. But after crashing into the wall April 29 at Atlanta's Turner Field, and later suffering a knee injury on a scarier collision with the wall May 13 at Dodger Stadium, Harper saw his production sharply decrease. He was hitting just .152 with four homers and a .598 OPS over a 24-game stretch entering Saturday.
Harper spent five weeks on the DL with bursitis in his left knee, and though he returned with a bang, homering on his first swing Monday night, he then fell into an 0-for-19 slump that didn't end until he delivered an RBI single in the fifth inning this afternoon against the Padres.
That slump had Davey Johnson planning to give Harper the rest of the weekend off, a plan that was altered after the young outfielder jokingly sent a text to his manager this morning that read: "Play me or trade me." The two had a long conversation in Johnson's office this morning, after which Harper's name re-appeared on the Nationals' lineup card.
"He came in and we had a nice chat," said Johnson, who was previously selected an NL coach for his final All-Star Game. "As far as I'm concerned, he's good to go."
While there was some question about Harper's candidacy, Zimmermann's case was rock-solid. He entered the day with an NL-best 12 wins, a 2.46 ERA that ranked sixth in the league and an 0.945 WHIP that ranked third.
Long the under-appreciated member of the Nationals' star-studded rotation, Zimmermann began gaining recognition last season but really has taken off this year. His dominant opening statement to the year had him among the early favorites to start the All-Star Game, and though his recent cooling off plus the emergence of Mets rookie Matt Harvey make a starting assignment unlikely, the right-hander was thrilled just to learn he made the team.
"It's awesome," Zimmermann said. "It's a huge honor to be representing the Nationals. ... I throw the ball, these guys score the runs for me and play the defense. I'm happy to be out there pitching for them."
Desmond also seemed to have a strong case, especially after a torrid June in which he led the NL with 30 RBI. He entered Saturday in the top-10 in the NL in total bases, doubles, homers and extra-base hits, and led all major-league shortstops in doubles, homers, RBI and slugging percentage.
But the 27-year-old — who was selected to last year's All-Star Game but didn't attend due to an oblique strain — finished sixth in fan voting at shortstop and couldn't beat out starter Troy Tulowitzki and backups Jean Segura and Everth Cabrera for a spot on the roster.
Desmond still has a couple of avenues, though, to make it to New York. He could win the "Final Vote," though even he admitted "it's not looking too good" with Puig on the ballot. He could also be added as an injury substitute should Tulowitzki not be able to play due to a fractured rib.
"It's an honor to be mentioned," Desmond said. "Obviously not in, but to be in that group ... to be, I guess, thought of is good. I've came a long way since I came into the big leagues."