LOS ANGELES — The situation called for a hero, for the 19-year-old with thick, black streaks under each eye to save the Washington Nationals at the last second. Bryce Harper would freely admit the thought occupied his mind as he strode to the plate late Sunday afternoon and Dodger Stadium hurled boos at him. Down to the last out, a man on base, two runs down, Harper wanted the whole thing.
“I wanted to hit a bomb,” Harper said. “For sure.”
Harper took his hacks, but foul balls, plate discipline and a checked swing conspired to send him to first base with a walk, to let someone else try to win the game. No one else could. Jesus Flores struck out, ending the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 2-0 victory and sending the Nationals home with an offense gone missing.
With Jayson Werth scratched late with a migraine headache, the Nationals scored less than four runs for the ninth time in 11 games, struck out 14 times and slogged to their fourth straight loss, dropping them into a tie for first place with the Atlanta Braves.
Harper went 1 for 3 with a single, which constituted one quarter of the Nationals’ hit total, and made a remarkable catch in center field while slamming against the wall. Gio Gonzalez extended his scoreless streak to 25 innings, a Nationals record, before he lost control in the sixth and his offense squandered a stellar outing.
“We’re missing our pitch,” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “We’ve got runners at third base, less than two outs, and we’re striking out. We need to put the ball in play. The bottom line goes down to that. We can’t keep missing our pitch. It’s that simple.”
In the latter innings, the Nationals did not mount any real threat, until the last one. Harper began the ninth due up fourth. If one hitter reached base, he could come to the plate with a chance to tie the score. Adam LaRoche took four straight balls. Xavier Nady and Chad Tracy struck out. Up came Harper.
“He was up there to get a hold of one,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
Against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, a hard-throwing sinkerballer, Harper looked for an elevated pitch. Harper fell behind, 1-2, while swinging through one pitch. He felt too much weight on his front foot, and he told himself to stay back.
“I just tried to get something I could drive,” Harper said. “And if I didn’t, I was going to draw a walk.”
The count ran full. Harper fouled back a sinker he thought he could send to the seats. Jansen tried one more sinker over the outside corner. Harper checked his swing. Ball four. The moment fizzled when Flores struck out.
Harper’s first three at-bats came against left-handed Dodgers starter Chris Capuano. At Class AAA Syracuse, Harper went 4 for 21 with six strikeouts against lefties, but “his numbers against lefties are probably not as good as the at-bats that he’s had,” Syracuse Manager Tony Beasley said. He struck out chasing a curveball in his second at-bat, but in his third he smoked a single through the right side.
In the fourth inning, Harper got his first test in center field. Juan Uribe launched a deep drive and Harper turned over his left shoulder and raced to the warning track. The wind carried the ball to his right. He leaped and crashed into the fence, snaring the ball less than a foot away from the top and crumpling to the dirt.
Harper rifled a throw back into the infield, then stayed down for a moment. When the trainer emerged from the dugout, Harper waved him off. He only had a slight cramp. The fence may have needed some attention.
“It’s better than running into the wooden wall in Syracuse,” Harper said.
Great plays become irrelevant, though, when you cannot score. About 45 minutes before the first pitch, the Nationals inserted Tyler Moore into left field for his major league debut. Moore, who had flown all night from Class AAA Syracuse, went 1 for 3 with a line-drive single to right-center in the fifth.
At full strength, the Nationals have lacked offense. Without Werth, Capuano retired their first nine batters in order. Ian Desmond led off the fourth with a bullet off the top of the left-field fence for a double and moved to third on Steve Lombardozzi’s sacrifice bunt. Danny Espinosa, batting third after Werth’s scratch, needed to put the ball in play. He struck swinging at a high fastball.
Capuano pitched around LaRoche, and these days when you walk the Nationals cleanup hitter, you might just get to face Nady, hitting fifth despite a .140 average. Nady struck out on four pitches.
Espinosa’s strikeout continued two of the trends currently dooming the Nationals offense. Espinosa has 27 strikeouts in 21 games. As a team, the Nationals have given themselves 45 chances with a runner on third and less than two outs. They’ve scored the run 19 times.
“Situation or non-situation, we’ve got to put the ball in play,” Eckstein said.
The offense provides a small margin for their starting pitchers, who have allowed two earned runs or less in 17 of 22 games. Gonzalez cruised into the sixth inning with the game scoreless, the fourth of their six games on their West Coast swing in which the Nationals were tied at zero after five.
With one out in the sixth, Gonzalez endured the kind of wild spell he had seemingly left in Oakland, where he led the league in walks in 2011. He walked Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Uribe to load the bases, spewing 12 consecutive balls at one point.
“I kind of beat myself there,” Gonzalez said. “I was trying to be too perfect, put my pitches where they were too perfect and it kind of got away from me.”
James Loney took advantage. He flicked a single into shallow center field, scoring two runs. Gonzalez had allowed only three hits, bringing his total in his past four starts to a scant nine. But Sunday, five walks, even with his seven strikeouts, did him in.
The Nationals have Monday to regroup. Tuesday, they will welcome the Arizona Diamondbacks to Nationals Park and introduce Harper to his new home.
“It’s going to be fun to go into D.C. and play,” Harper said. “I’m really excited. Very, very excited. It’s going to be a fun time.”