WASHINGTON — Before Game 2, Bryce Harper said of his hitting: “I think it could get better.” Then it did.
With his Nationals trailing 3-1 in the bottom of eighth inning and on the verge of falling into the abyss of a two-game hole in the National League Division Series, Harper crushed a massive two-run bomb off Chicago Cubs reliever Carl Edwards Jr. that tied the game. Perhaps more importantly, the blast — Harper’s first extra-base hit since returning on Sept. 25 from a knee injury that forced him to miss six weeks — seemed to open the flood gates for a Nats offense that was about to crumble under the pressure of the postseason, propelling the NL East champs to an epic 6-3 win and evening up the series.
It was a turnaround that, prior to Harper’s heroics, nobody saw coming.
In Game 1, Dusty Baker’s club looked like a shell of the team that ranked third in the majors in scoring, mustering just a pair of hits against Kyle Hendricks and friends in a 3-0 whitewashing. Despite the lack of production, Baker decided to wash(ington), rinse and repeat by fielding the exact same lineup on Saturday. Through the first seven innings of Game 2, it was more of the same, as the Nationals’ only hits off starter Jon Lester were a solo home run by Anthony Rendon in the first and a fifth-inning single by Ryan Zimmerman. If ever a team was pressing, it was the Nationals.
“Just trying too hard,” said leadoff man Trea Turner, who is 0-for-8 with four strikeouts in the series. “You want to do so well, and you got to let the game come to you.”
In the eighth inning of Game 2, it finally did.
Pinch hitter Adam Lind, who was making his first postseason appearance in 1,344 career games (most among active players), started things off by serving an 0-2 fastball from Edwards into left field for a single. That set the stage for Harper, who by his own admission hadn’t been as ready for the spotlight as he would have liked since coming off the disabled list.
“The more at-bats I get, the more comfortable I get,” said Harper before the game, having gone 3-for-18 with seven whiffs in five regular-season games after returning. “Taking six weeks off, seven weeks off, not seeing live pitching is tough. You know, just got to go out there, see the ball, and try to hit it the best I can.”
In Game 1, Harper was one of the only Nationals who did hit the ball, lining a first-inning single to right field that accounted for 50 percent of his team’s base knocks. Although he went oh-fer in his first three trips on Saturday, the former MVP showed signs that he’s starting to come around. After a four-pitch strikeout in the first inning, he stuck around for seven pitches before grounding out to shortstop in the fourth. Then in the sixth, he fouled off five offerings from Lester as part of an eight-pitch battle that ended with another grounder to short. In the eighth, when he jumped all over a 3-1 breaking ball from Edwards, he only needed five pitches to get the job done. And that’s all the Nats needed to snap out of their deep lumber slumber.
“The tension and the frustration builds,” said Zimmerman, “and sometimes it takes kind of just one hit for everyone to exhale.”
There was more than just exhaling going on at Nats Park. As soon as Harper made contact, the sellout crowd of 43,860, which had spent the first seven innings just waiting for a reason to lose it, did just that, springing to its feet as fireworks exploded from the top of the stadium. Inside the first-base dugout, the volume was just as loud.
“A lot of screaming,” said Turner of how the Nationals reacted after Harper crossed home plate and came down the steps. “It doesn’t get more fun than that right there.”
Except for when it does.
Relieved and recharged by Harper’s 421-foot depressurizer, the Nats’ lineup poured it on. Rendon followed Harper’s homer with a walk, which was followed by a single from Daniel Murphy, which was followed by a skyscraping three-run Zimmerman jack that just barely escaped the reach of left fielder Ben Zobrist and sailed over the left field fence. Even though Zimmerman’s shot was technically the game winner, it was Harper’s heroics that really seemed to get the Nats off the schneid.
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“We just needed that spark,” said starter Gio Gonzalez. “It just took off from there. It’s like a lighter. It just blew up right there. Bryce always steps up right when it’s time. It’s unbelievable what he does and how he does it. He’s a story, a movie, everything all in one.”
“Obviously a huge hit by him to kind of lift that pressure a little bit,” added Zimmerman. “One of the bigger homers he’s ever hit.”
For a player like Harper who has a flare for the dramatic, that’s saying a lot.
Counting his Game 2 game-changer, the 24-year-old slugger already has five postseason home runs, two more than anybody in Nats/Expos history. He also has five Opening Day dingers — most among active players — not to mention five career walk-off bombs. And that doesn’t even include the ninth-inning, pinch-hit homer he clubbed against the Minnesota Twins last year to send the game into extras.
But of all Harper’s clutch clouts, perhaps none was bigger than his eighth-inning job on Saturday, the one that broke the seal. The one that tied Game 2 and script-flipped the NLDS, pulling his team back from the brink of a 2-0 deficit and giving the Nationals — who now fly to Chicago with visions of Game 3 starter Max Scherzer dancing in their heads — a very real chance of winning their first playoff series ever.
After the game, while his teammates were busy getting showered and changed in preparation for a late-night flight to Chicago, there was Harper, standing outside the Nationals’ clubhouse in full uniform, sharing the moment with his father.
“I love you, Pop,” Harper told his dad as he gave him a giant bear hug.
“I love you, Big Kid,” Ron Harper told his son, squeezing him back.
After the younger Harper had finally disappeared into the clubhouse, the elder Harper stood there a while longer and basked in the afterglow of his boy’s latest storybook memory.
“I believe that he’s built for those big moments,” said Ron, who was Bryce’s pitcher for the Home Run Derby at the 2013 All-Star Game. “You’ve seen ’em the last five or six years.”
Harper’s father talked about what he’s most proud of is how his son has persevered. How he has been able to overcome the gruesome knee injury that, a couple of months ago, appeared to be devastating. How, just when he was ready to return, he got sick, and how he had barely a week to try to get his timing back.
Then the elder Harper stated the obvious:
“It looks like he’s starting to get it a little bit.”