In the first inning Sunday afternoon, Bryce Harper slid headfirst into second base as catcher Anthony Recker’s throw skipped into Daniel Murphy’s glove. The ball clearly beat Harper’s fingers to the base. The umpire called him out. Harper ambled off the field, a stolen base attempt gone awry.
One minute and 32 seconds, Harper emerged from the dugout and jogged back to second base. Manager Matt Williams’s sharp eye led him to ask for a replay challenge, and for the first time, the Nationals won.
In the Washington dugout, Williams noticed a telling detail about the throw. The one-hop forced Murphy lift his glove in the air before he slapped the tag back down. “We thought he looked safe,” Williams said. “So we’re going to go out there to see what it is.”
The crowd booed Williams as he trotted to the middle of the diamond. He tried to steal a glance at the Nationals’ dugout as he conversed with the umpire, hoping for a sign they had received word from the video coordinators watching a replay feed in a truck. Either way, though, Williams knew he would challenge.
Live, it seemed obvious was out. On replay, it became clear Harper had beaten Murphy’s tag – as he hands hit the base, Murphy’s glove had yet to touch Harper’s shoulder. The challenge led to the Nationals’ only run in a 3-1 loss. Harper moved to third on a wild pitch, and he scooted home on Ryan Zimmerman’s single.
“That’s the hardest one, because the ball clearly beat him,” Williams said. “But what happens with the infielder dictates a lot of whether he’s out or safe. So, split-second, naked eye, you could’ve made an argument either way. But understanding that he’s got to pick the ball up out of the dirt and come up before he goes down, you may have a shot there. I don’t know if we were absolutely sure, but we thought this was an opportunity to go take another look.”
Williams made two challenge-related decisions. In the sixth inning, Harper dragged a bunt to the right side and was called out after Murphy shoveled a throw between his legs. Harper may have beaten the throw. Williams wanted to take Harper out of the game, though, because Harper had already run so much throughout the afternoon. He would have challenged in the season. Today, he let Harper stay in the dugout.
In the ninth inning, Adrian Sanchez, a Nationals minor leaguer, grounded to shortstop. The throw quite obviously beat him. But the Nationals still had a challenge remaining. Desperate, and with no reason to save the challenge, Williams used it anyway.
“You never know,” Williams said. “He may have come off the bag. Even though the ball beat him. We don’t know. So we figured we’d use it.”
*Drew Storen has never had good results in spring training, and so his 9.53 ERA, while eye-catching, is not all that surprising. Today, Storen issued a four-pitch walk to the first hitter he faced, and Curtis Granderson smashed a thunderous homer. After another walk, pitching coach Steve McCatty trudged to the mound. Still, Williams said he had no concerns. “I’m not worried,” he said.
** Harper had another eventful game. He went 1 for 2 with a walk, and he also made two fantastic plays in left field. In the second inning, Chris Young (the Mets’ outfielder, not the Nationals’ pitcher) launched a flyball into the left field corner. Harper chased it down and nearly crashed into the fence.
The ball caromed off the wall and rolled toward the Mets’ bullpen. Harper scooped the ball and fired a one-hop throw to Ryan Zimmerman, who tagged Young out.
“Right on the money,” Williams said. “That’s the good side of it. He stayed on his feet and was able to get back toward the infield when the ball trickled and made a good throw.”
In the sixth, Harper made a more subtle kind of great defensive play. Andrew Brown cracked a liner to left, close to the line. Harper sprinted to his right and made a running, backhanded stop. He planted his right foot and made a perfect throw to second base, which held Brown at first.