In the Nationals’ 7-3 victory over the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, Morse drove in four runs and crushed two homers. The second came in the sixth inning and soared some 451 feet, landing in the back bullpen in right-center field. Morse hopped after he finished his wicked swing and admired the flight of the ball, the blow that provided the separation the Nationals needed to lower their magic number to three with just six games remaining.
“I guess it’s never too late to get going,” Morse said. “I feel good. It’s been a tough year for me, but this team is doing so great that everybody’s been picking up everybody the whole year. I guess that’s what good teams do.”
Down in Atlanta, the Braves won their fifth straight, which meant the earliest the Nationals can clinch the East is Saturday night in St. Louis. But the Nationals know they can clinch if they handle their own business, which is what they did emphatically Thursday night.
Gonzalez, the Nationals’ No. 1 starter for the playoffs, turned suddenly from horrendous to splendid for his major league-best 21st win. Harper inched closer to another milestone with another home run. As a bonus, scuffling set-up man Clippard struck out two in a 1-2-3 eighth inning.
They give the Cy Young award for mastery, not mettle, and so Gonzalez may not have helped fill his trophy case Thursday night. But after he allowed three runs in the first, he refocused and finished his start with five scoreless innings, which left his ERA at 2.89.
“You have to bounce back,” Gonzalez said. “You want to show your team that you’re not going to lay over and take a beating.”
Harper had given Gonzalez a lead by drilling a home run in his first at-bat for the second consecutive night. He launched Tyler Cloyd’s 0-1 cutter into the right field seats. Harper’s 21st home run placed him three behind Tony Conigliaro’s total in 1964, the most a teenager has hit in a single season.
As Gonzalez settled on the mound, the Nationals chipped away at a 3-1 deficit. Morse crunched a solo homer in the second inning to the first row in left field, just his third home run since Aug. 18. Ryan Zimmerman laced a leadoff double in the fourth and scored on Morse’s groundout to tie it. Harper gave the Nationals the lead by flaring an RBI single in the fifth.
Morse finished Cloyd’s night in the sixth when annihilated a 2-1 changeup. The crowd gasped as the ball carried to right-center field. There was no doubt from the moment the ball left the trademark. Morse tossed his bat and took two slow steps. The last time a visiting player had sent a ball into the back bullpen came when Zimmerman did it 2009.