ATLANTA — This season has beaten down the Washington Nationals. They sat inside the visitor’s clubhouse practically speechless late Friday night, having watched the Atlanta Braves dance around home plate in the 10th inning and walk-off home run hero Justin Upton race around the bases to meet them.
Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond sat at their lockers still in their uniforms and stared at nothing. A yellow towel draped over the head of hunched-over Ian Krol, who served up the Upton homer in the gut-punch of a 3-2 loss.
And then there was Bryce Harper, who even when he doesn’t intend it is somehow at the center of the action. He, too, sat hunched over at his locker. A bandage on the back of his left arm poked out from under his grey polo shirt, the result of yet another baseball from a Braves pitcher to his body. He sustained, in fact, two pitches to the body Friday in an ongoing saga between the two sides. Harper wasn’t in the mood for talking.
Not only do the Nationals have their sinking season to occupy their minds, but now they have another matter to ponder. What are they going to do when one of their best players continues to get plunked?
“You know, that’s one of those things we take care of in-house,” Werth said. “That’s just part of the game. I’m not going to speak publicly about it.”
The Nationals yet again stumbled against their division rival, with the National League East race all but determined. Their razor thin playoff hopes took yet another blow thanks to shoddy defense, a lack of timely hitting and a hanging curveball to one of baseball’s hottest hitters. There was little to play for Friday except perhaps pride. And even then, the Braves smashed that hope. Insult was literally added to injury.
Asked whether he thought Harper was an intentional target, Manager Davey Johnson shook his head.
“I hope not because it’s ridiculous in a close ballgame,” he said. “And they’ve got a lot more to lose than we do at this point. So it would be a ridiculous thing to be doing.”
For the second time in three meetings, Harper was bruised by Braves pitching. Even though pitcher Julio Teheran denied it, the Nationals still believe Harper was intentionally hit Aug. 6 in his at-bat following a towering home run off Teheran. On Friday, Harper didn’t appear to be an intentional target, but the circumstances were certainly regrettable.
When Harper took the batter’s box for each at-bat, many of the 35,663 in attendance booed, the same way he was treated last season and has been treated all season. Rookie left-handed starter Alex Wood, who fooled the Nationals for 61 / 3 innings, unleashed a curveball that hit Harper in the back between his shoulder blades.
Unlike when he shouted at Teheran and the benches cleared, Harper walked to first base quietly and even shared smiles with Freddie Freeman. Leading 2-0, hitting the leadoff hitter who has struggled against left-handed pitching this season didn’t seem like the situation for a retaliatory move. But two at-bats later, Harper’s reaction wasn’t as subdued.
With the Braves leading 2-1 in the eighth, left-handed specialist Luis Avilan hit Harper with a 91-mph fastball on the back of his left arm. Harper dropped his bat and hunched over near the batter’s box. With Harper on first and Ryan Zimmerman already at second following a double and Werth up to bat, Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez removed Avilan.
The crowd cheered after Harper got hit and gave Avilan a standing ovation as he walked off the field. As he stood at first base, Freeman again tried to chat up Harper. But Harper’s face was blank.
“I feel bad for him, especially because I don’t want to hit him in that part of the body,” Avilan said. “It was a bad day for me.”
The Nationals’ dugout seemed none too pleased. Home plate umpire Marty Foster issued warnings to both teams. Although both pitches didn’t appear intentional, Harper and the Nationals seemed particularly perturbed by the second hit-by-pitch of the night.
“After he got hit the second time, he should’ve thrown him out of the ballgame,” Johnson said. “But it’s [the umpires’] choice.”
Werth responded the only way he could, lacing an RBI single off right-hander Luis Ayala to right to score Zimmerman and tie the game at 2, the first run the Nationals scored off the Braves’ bullpen all season. Even though they stranded eight runners on base and went 1 for 10 with runners in scoring position, they managed to claw back into the game and force extra innings.
With his shutdown looming, Taylor Jordan pitched six strong innings. He allowed only two unearned runs despite 13 base runners. He pitched around three errors by the Nationals’ defense, which allowed the game’s first two runs to score. He induced three crucial double plays. Johnson expects him to make another start. The offense, however, betrayed the Nationals again.
“We just couldn’t get the hit with runners in scoring position,” Johnson said. “We had the right guys up a lot of times, just didn’t get it done.”
Drew Storen pitched a strong ninth inning in his first appearance since returning from his demotion to Class AAA Syracuse. He struck out two batters on sliders and stranded a runner at first.
Krol raced out from the bullpen for the 10th inning. He got left-hander Jason Heyward to ground out. In hindsight, Krol thinks he should have pitched around Upton, but he attacked him instead. The rookie hung a 2-2 curveball.
“I thought that’s what the right pitch was, but it was not right placement,” he said.
Upton drilled the ball to left field and over the fence. The Nationals walked off the field in silence. Krol shouted into his glove. Werth walked in slowly from right field.
“I let my team down,” Krol said.