WASHINGTON—Barring a rainout, Thursday night almost certainly will mark the final time Bryce Harper and Manny Machado face each other in the so-called “Beltway Series.” Each will be a free agent after this season, sure to cash in on his youth, talent and versatility with a contract totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

While the Washington Nationals have a legitimate shot at retaining Harper’s services, Orioles fans long ago came to grips with losing Machado. In fact, Baltimore’s train wreck of a season virtually ensures Machado will be traded before the July 31 non-waiver deadline.

That won’t be the only move for a team that entered play Wednesday night at 20-51, a staggering 25 games out of the American League wild-card race. Chris Davis, with 4 ½ years left on a $162 million contract, already has been benched with a .157 average, one home run and 62 strikeouts in 153 at-bats. Pedro Alvarez was banished to the minors Tuesday with a .175 average.

The Orioles may do a favor to their longest-tenured player, center field Adam Jones, and ship him to a contender before the deadline. Same with former closer Zach Britton, who was recently activated after recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. Both will be free agents after the season—as will manager Buck Showalter, who (if he avoids being fired) may not have the stomach for a massive rebuild.

The only bright spot has been Machado. He entered Wednesday’s game batting .305 and ranked among Major League leaders in home runs (18) and RBIs (53) despite a dearth of base runners on the American League’s worst-hitting team (.228). MLB.com reported Wednesday that the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks are among the many teams kicking the tires on a trade for Machado.

Oddly, while Machado’s bat hasn’t been enough to keep the Orioles competitive, the Nationals have surged despite getting little offensive output from Harper. In fact, recent events suggest they have enough outfield depth that they could decide not to get into a free-agent bidding war after the season.

Harper is mired in one of the worst slumps of his career. His RBI double in Tuesday’s 9-7 win over the Orioles snapped a 1-for-26 skid and actually raised his season average to .213.

Yes, he’s supplied power (19 homers, 44 RBIs). But unlike 2016, when he followed up an MVP season by batting .243 while fighting through injuries, he seems healthy (at least physically). That’s what makes his skid so baffling.

One day after general manager Mike Rizzo told reporters that Harper was handling his struggles “with class and dignity,” rookie manager Dave Martinez weighed in, saying Harper had been working diligently with batting coach Tony Hale.

“They’ve been doing drills he’s never done before—and he likes ’em,” Martinez said Wednesday. “Sometimes less is more, so we try to keep it simple.

“He’s gonna hit, and he’s gonna carry us for a month or two. So let’s not overburden him. His power numbers are really good. Just let him feel things out and get going. And he’s gonna get going, no doubt. He’s doing all the things he’s supposed to be doing, but his average is down. If he gets back to just swinging at strikes, he’ll be fine.”

But will he be a National after this season? Even before his struggles, there was speculation that Harper might choose to become a Yankee, a Cub or even a Giant in 2019—especially if the Nationals can’t match the Capitals’ ability to exorcise their own playoff demons.

And strange as it may sound, Washington may not suffer a huge dropoff if he leaves. The Nationals had won 28 of their previous 44 games before Wednesday and have myriad outfield options.

At 19, Juan Soto is taking baseball by storm. Michael Taylor leads the majors in stolen bases (21) and plays superb defense in center. And while injuries have sapped his speed, Adam Eaton is still a capable outfielder—and under contract through next year. Brian Goodwin and Howie Kendrick (once his torn Achilles heals) are solid backups.

The Nationals wouldn’t be better off without Harper, but they won’t collapse, either. He and Machado will cross paths again many times over the next decade—but probably not in Nationals Park or at Camden Yards.

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Steve DeShazo: 374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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