Following their 13-hit barrage Tuesday, the Nationals laced 11 more hits. They did not allow the opposing starting pitcher to reach the seventh inning for the seventh time in eight games. Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano each posted zeroes, the latter with an emphatic untucking of his shirt to punctuate his third save. Clinching the series victory over Chicago kept the Nationals steaming toward a division showdown with first-place Atlanta, which will enter Nationals Park on Friday at 8-1.
“Hitting the barrel is contagious,” Desmond said. “And a lot of guys are finding the barrel right now.”
For the 24,586 who came to the stadium — many arriving before the umpires, whose misadventure in D.C. traffic (seriously) delayed the game for 15 minutes – the clearest memory came when Harper came to bat in the fourth inning. The White Sox led, 1-0, and Chicago right-hander Gavin Floyd, an Annapolis native, had yielded almost nothing.
Harper had grounded to first in his first at-bat. In his second, Floyd tried to jump ahead in the count with an 86-mph cutter. It did not cut. Harper whipped his bat through the strike zone with an acute vehemence. He plastered the bottom half of the pitch.
“It does sound different,” said center fielder Denard Span, Harper’s teammate for a spring training and change. “And it does come off different. He has quick-twitch muscles. He gets his bat through the zone. It’s pretty explosive.”
The ball came off his bat with such pace that for a moment it seemed to disappear. Or vaporize. By the time it came into focus, the ball was hurtling toward the third deck.
“Probably one of the longer ones I’ve seen him hit,” Desmond said. “And I don’t even know if he got it on the barrel.”
In batting practice earlier Wednesday afternoon, Harper took his swings as his father, Ron, watched from the stands behind the cage. Harper crushed one BP fastball off the facade of the third deck, where the Nationals display ROBINSON 42. “Did you see where that one went?” Ron Harper asked.
Now, in the game, Harper had scalded another ball deep and high to right. It came close to reaching the highest part of Nationals Park, but it crash landed well beyond the home bullpen, 420 feet from home plate according to the best estimates.
“I’m not measuring,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “That was fun to watch that one.”
Power stands out most about Harper, but he can startle in other ways. In the fifth inning, after Jayson Werth singled, Harper lashed at one of Floyd’s fastballs. Harper’s bat chipped at the handle, and when he followed through the wood snapped in half over his back. As his single skipped up the middle, Harper was left holding only a shard of the knob.
“I have no clue,” Harper said. “All I know is, I got a base hit.”
And, again, he did it in a way that made him different.
“Everything he does is just fast, man,” Span said. “I think it was spring training. Cold day. We took BP in a batting cage. So we didn’t stretch on the field. The first round, everybody was trying to get loose, taking slow swings. He gets in there. His first swing, it was like, ‘What I wouldn’t do to be 20 again.’ Whack! He doesn’t have to stretch as much as everybody else.”
Ryan Zimmerman continued the rally with a third consecutive single, bringing home Werth and sending the Nationals ahead, 3-1. Adam LaRoche’s double play ended the threat, and the White Sox chiseled a run against Zimmermann to bring the White Sox back within one run.
The Nationals’ varied attack may strike at any moment, and Desmond sparked an instant rally with a triple off the left-center field fence to lead off the sixth. Danny Espinosa notched one of his two RBI with a double down the right field line. After Kurt Suzuki walked, Zimmermann pushed two runners into scoring position with a perfect bunt. Span’s infield single stretched the lead to 5-2.
Zimmermann would need no more runs. In an economical 90 pitches, he struck out four without a walk. He pitched almost exclusively with his turbo-charged fastball, boring it inside and breaking bats as he overcame an odd start.
First pitch waited 15 extra minutes for a reason only the boldest employee would submit. An immigration rally-fueled traffic ensnared the umpiring crew headed by Tom Hallion, and they did not arrive at Nationals Park in time to prepare for their duties.
At 7:20 p.m., Zimmermann came out firing. He threw one 96-mph fastball and lit up the radar gun with several 95s. “I came out a little pumped,” Zimmermann said. The White Sox handled the hard stuff, though. Jeff Keppinger whistled a one-out single to center, and Alex Rios smoked a double to the left corner.
Adam Dunn lumbered to the plate to polite applause, cheered, perhaps, only by those hardy supporters who dared attend a Nationals game in 2009 or 2010, the two misbegotten seasons Dunn spent in Washington. He tapped a groundball to first baseman LaRoche, and Keppinger dashed home with the game’s first run.
The White Sox surely knew the odds dictated they would need more offense, given the force lurking in the other dugout. The Nationals would overpower them again. Harper led way with his home run. He tore around the bases and signaled to his family as he crossed home plate. He hopped into the dugout to greet his celebrating teammates, leaving nothing on the field but an echo.