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Olney: Sluggers prep for the Home Run Derby

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HR Derby one of MLB's most exciting events (2:33)

Tim Kurkjian looks back at the excitement and top moments of the Home Run Derby. (2:33)

Freddie Freeman is 6-foot-5, 220 pounds and one of the eight participants in Monday’s Home Run Derby, the annual event of big and powerful and frantic hacks, and he is fully capable of hitting a baseball a long way in batting practice.

It’s just that he doesn’t. Ever. Freeman chuckled in a phone conversation Friday and said, “I haven’t hit a home run in batting practice in three years.”

Three years? Seriously?

Freeman confirmed this. Three years.

It’s one of the many interesting back stories behind this year’s Derby, related in interviews with all but one of the participants in recent days.

Freeman described his daily batting practice routine as a series of soft line drives over shortstop, work that reinforces important habits. In the games, his power is fueled by adrenaline and the velocity of pitches, and sure, that’s when he’ll hit a ball 440 feet, over and over. He had 28 homers last year, has 16 this year and is approaching 200 for his career.

But so many of Freeman’s hits are like what he practices: Line drives over the shortstop or through the middle of the field. Freeman says that when the idea of participating in the Home Run Derby first popped up, he and his dad talked about watching the likes of Ken Griffey Jr. in past Derbies -- and what a unique opportunity it would be. He figured he could adjust his batting practice routine for one day, for a few rounds.

Oh, by the way, Freeman doesn’t believe in the Home Run Derby curse, which (some believe) supposedly infects hitters in their night of big swings and wrecks them in the second half of the season.

A few stories from other participants in Monday night's slugfest:

Rhys Hoskins: The Phillies are in Miami this weekend, and Hoskins says he talked to Justin Bour Friday about Bour’s experience in the Derby last year. Bour told him: “Just keep swinging. You’ll get tired.” And when you do get tired, Bour said told Hoskins, then use your timeout.

Hoskins’ Derby pitcher is Chris Truby, the minor league infield coordinator for the Phillies. Hoskins spent a lot of time taking batting practice against Truby as he rose through the minor leagues, and says he got to know him pretty well. After Hoskins got word confirming his participation, he called Truby, who was “pretty stoked about it, ecstatic about it.”

Kyle Schwarber: Mike Sinicola, who has thrown batting practice to Schwarber in the Tampa, Florida, area in the offseason the past three or four years, will throw to Schwarber in the Derby. Sinicola is a real estate agent who played college baseball, and during the most recent offseason the two mused about doing the Derby together. When Schwarber got the word that he was in the Derby, he immediately texted Sinicola and asked him if he was ready to go. Schwarber: “He was really pumped, he was excited. He’s from up in New York, so I don’t think he’ll be nervous.”

In recent days, Schwarber said, Sinicola has been preparing for the Derby in Tampa by having a left-handed batter stand in, with a catcher behind the plate, and practicing batting practice. “He’s been grinding,” Schwarber said.

The Cubs left fielder says his typical batting practice routine is to take a couple of rounds at the end in which he imagines himself in hitter's counts, and he swings hard. He went through a Derby walk-through of sorts on Saturday in San Diego, and Schwarber felt like he was trying too hard. He realized he just needs to treat it like normal batting practice.

Jesus Aguilar: He says he was in a home run derby in 2015, when he was in Triple-A, and advanced to the third round -- experience that will help him, he believes. His Derby pitcher will be Carlos Subero, the Brewers’ first-base coach.

Bryce Harper: As of Saturday, there was hope that Ron Harper, his father, would pitch to Bryce in the Derby, but that is not locked in. A lot of Bryce Harper’s batting practice in recent years has been taken indoors, so he can focus on his work rather than to get swept up with the excitement and adrenaline of the crowd. This year, he has sometimes hit outside on the first day of a series.

Alex Bregman: He has an unusual batting practice regimen. “In my first round,” he said Saturday, “I try to hit line drives the other way. After that, in every other round, I try to hit home runs to left-center field.”

That’s what has worked for him. Bregman says he has talked to teammates who’ve been present for the Home Run Derby, and what he’s gotten from so many of them is: “Take my time," he said, and adding in his own strategy: "And hit them low so I can take more swings.”

Bregman said that when he was texted the invite for the Home Run Derby, his text response was immediate: “Hell, yeah.”

I mentioned to him that because of his size, he’s regarded as an underdog. “That’s fine with me,” he said. “I think I should be the underdog. I’m 5-foot-10, 190 [pounds]. I’m not going to be using any extra time because I’m not going to be hitting them 440 feet.”

Max Muncy: Dodgers hitting coach Turner Ward will throw to Muncy. He says he has told Ward to just throw the ball down the middle and then he’ll adjust his position in the box to where Ward is throwing the ball, rather than asking Ward to throw in a certain spot.

The most notable advice he got from a teammate: “Don’t do what Yasiel Puig did and hit it into the [pitcher’s] L-screen.”

Javier Baez: His older brother, 27-year-old Gadiel Baez, will be his pitcher. Like Javier Baez, Gadiel just had a baby, and he initially blanched at the notion of going to Washington. “He didn’t want to come up and leave his family,” Javier said. “I told him that this is a special moment, and if we don’t do this together now, we don’t know when we’ll have the opportunity again. ... I pretty much made him come.”

He and Gadiel used to throw batting practice to each other when both were in high school, growing up in Jacksonville, Florida. Gadiel’s BP pitching “is perfect,” said Javier. “He knows my timing, with my leg kick.”

I asked him if he thought Gadiel would be nervous. “Maybe, a little bit.”

In Baez’s normal batting practice session, he said, he’ll initially look to hit ground balls between first and second. Then, in subsequent rounds, he’ll try to drive the ball gap to gap. In the final two rounds, “I let it go” -- he starts trying to jack the ball.

News from around the major leagues

So much of the work in baseball is required in the face of stacked odds. The best hitters make outs in seven of 10 at-bats, and when the count reaches two strikes, the chances for a hit is less than half of that. Pitchers are expected to back up bases after allowing hits, in the off chance that a throw could get away. Outfielders will usually move to cover for each other on balls hit into the gap, just in case. When the ball is put in play, a lot of catchers will trail the hitter to first base, to account for the possibility that a throw will get past the first baseman.

The other night at Citi Field, Bryce Harper again failed to run out a double play ground ball -- although calling it a ground ball isn’t a whole description. Harper had blasted a rocket up the middle, just to the shortstop side of second base, with the exit velocity at 108 mph. When he saw the Mets’ Amed Rosario positioned to intercept the ball and begin the attempt at a 6-4-3 double play, Harper slogged out of the batter’s box, presumably frustrated at this result in the midst of a season of frustrations. Rosario flipped the ball to Asdrubal Cabrera, who stepped on second and, seeing Harper’s pace up the line, slowed his actions and took extra time to complete his throw to first base -- and Harper was still a good two to three strides from the bag when the play ended.

Nationals manager Dave Martinez told reporters after Friday’s game that he intended to talk to Harper about his failure to run out the ball, and when Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post approached Harper about Martinez’s reaction Saturday afternoon -- Harper did not talk with reporters after Friday’s game -- he was put off.

“After I hit the ball 108 mph?” he asked.

He’s not the first player who didn’t run out a ground ball and he won’t be the last, and all other players could relate to Harper’s frustration in the moment he hit into the double play. But there is a reason why pitchers back up bases, why hitters stay in the box and try to fight back from a two-strike count, why a manager continues to give signs and stay in the moment when his team is getting blown out, why the Baltimore Orioles will play today and finish out their schedule the rest of the summer, despite an AL East deficit that has already reached 39½ games.

Because the alternative is to quit.

Harper works hard, is incredibly diligent in his preparation, and is passionate about his results. But when he doesn’t run out a ball, he is quitting on a play, and when it happens repeatedly and he isn’t held accountable, this is when it becomes a festering problem.

And along the way, Harper is damaging the credibility of his rookie manager. Undoubtedly, there are Washington players watching Martinez’s response to Harper’s lapses in hustle and assessing. Fans follow his reaction and are assessing his words, like these from Saturday, when Martinez worked to cover for the slugger. “He plays hard,” Martinez told Janes. “One little thing happens and it gets blown out of proportion. ... He’s a good kid.”

Years ago, I covered a frustrated player who was in the middle of trade talk, and his effort was atrocious -- he ran half-speed on groundouts, he didn’t bother backing up teammates on defense, etc. His manager, pressed for a response to the lackadaisical play, defended the player and complimented his talent and his work ethic -- words that were mocked on local talk radio, and drew eye rolls from more invested veteran players.

After a couple of months of this, the manager summoned me into his office, closed the door and said, “You know I see the same [expletive] you do, right? It makes me sick, and it makes me sick that I have to cover for that [expletive].” He explained that he had to help in the effort to prop up the player’s trade value.

This is the managing opportunity that Martinez chose for himself, and with the 2018 Nationals, covering for Harper’s lapses is part of that job.

Harper has the power to fix all of this, of course. He has the power to end the conversation about the consistency of his effort. He could just do his job and give at least a routine effort on routine ground balls, and eschew the momentary instinct that most players probably feel from time to time to quit on a play.

• Unless the Orioles and Astros are able to do what they could not do last summer and finish a trade for Zach Britton, it appears all but certain that Houston will again go into the postseason this year with uncertainty at the back end of its bullpen. The Yankees have Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson and other elite relievers from which to choose. The Red Sox have Craig Kimbrel. The Indians have Cody Allen, Seattle fields Edwin Diaz and Oakland finishes with Blake Treinen. The defending champion Astros don’t really have a set closer and haven’t since last year’s postseason, when Ken Giles was displaced.

Manager A.J. Hinch navigated through the American League Championship Series and the World Series last fall by daily sorting through his relief options and using everyone from Lance McCullers Jr. to Charlie Morton to close out games -- a successful strategy that was fragile nonetheless, and could be difficult to recreate. But the Astros are as well suited as any team to attempt this because they do have an array of relievers who can match up in the middle and they have a rotation that will provide an October surplus. Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Dallas Keuchel presumably will serve as starters, with McCullers and Morton perhaps serving in swing roles.

Baseball Tonight Podcast

A special Call To the Legends: A conversation with principals from the movie "The Sandlot" -- director David Mickey Evans and actors Tom Guiry (who played Scottie Smalls) and Patrick Renna (Hamilton Porter) -- who tell stories from the movie, and from the memorable reactions they get from MLB players Matt Kemp, David Ortiz and others.

Friday: Orioles general manager Dan Duquette about the trade talks around Manny Machado and Britton; Karl Ravech on the player we both picked to win the Home Run Derby; Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle about the surging Oakland Athletics.

Thursday: Keith Law about teams that might be bluffing in the trade market, and the Houston bullpen issues; Boog Sciambi on the Home Run Derby field; Sarah Langs plays the Numbers Game.

Wednesday: A conversation with Rockies pitcher Kyle Freeland about growing up and pitching in Colorado, his unusual tattoo and dogs; David Schoenfield about the Indians’ bullpen mishap and the AL East trade market; and Paul Hembekides about the cost-efficient Athletics.

Tuesday: Tim Kurkjian talks about Manny Machado, Max Muncy and whether Chris Sale is already a Hall of Famer; Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on the Brewers and the trade market; and Langs and the Numbers Game.

Monday: Conversations with Max Muncy and Matt Kemp; Jerry Crasnick on the All-Star selections; and Todd Radom’s weekly quiz.

And today will be better than yesterday.