The homer put the Nationals down, 2-1, and they kept the deficit at one with the type of inning that had remotes flying at televisions all across the District.
The agony began innocently. Ryan Zimmerman led off the fourth with a single to center off Dodgers starter Ricky Nolasco. Harper followed with his second hit of the night, a single to right. Zimmerman tested Puig’s arm and made it to third with a nifty hook slide, and Harper took second on the throw. With first base open, Nolasco pitched Werth with caution, conceding the walk.
The Nationals had the bases full with no outs and seemingly the right man walking to the plate. In his career, Desmond had hit .405 with the bases loaded. Now, though, he tapped a 1-1 curveball to left side. Third baseman Juan Uribe charged the swinging bunt and fired home to cut down Zimmerman.
“Desi’s been swinging the bat good,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “He just got a little anxious.”
Chad Tracy, filling in for LaRoche, tried to hit a flyball to score Harper from third. Nolasco’s fastball tailed just enough that Tracy hit it off the end of the bat, and he popped it to shallow left. Harper tagged up as Carl Crawford made the catch about 15 feet behind the infield dirt. Harper drew a throw against the weak-armed Crawford but stopped short even as it sailed up the first base line.
The inning fell to Wilson Ramos. He chopped a 2-2, 95-mph fastball back to Nolasco. The pitcher trotted toward first and flipped the ball to Gonzalez. As all three runners skulked back to the dugout, the fans hurled boos.
“You get a guy on the ropes like that, you need to capitalize,” Tracy said. “We didn’t get it done.”
And so the Nationals still trailed entering the sixth inning. Zimmerman led off with another single, then went first to third when Werth rolled a single to left. Desmond atoned for his earlier failure in a clutch spot, flaring a single to center for the lone RBI of the Nationals’ night.
Puig squelched a minor Nationals rally in the seventh when he crashed into the side wall in right field with two outs to snag Anthony Rendon’s flyball. The catch would make any highlight reel, but it was not even his most remarkable defensive play of the night.
Harper lined a double into the right field corner to lead off the second. Werth followed with a flyball to right, pushing Puig back a few steps. Harper crouched into a modified sprinter’s stance on second, looking over his right shoulder. Puig’s feet pitter-pattered as he waited for the ball to descend. The moment lacked only a cinematic score.
Puig unleashed a preposterous throw. The ball sliced through the air on a spectacular arc, carrying from deep right to third base. Uribe summoned the courage to stand in the path of a baseball moving with roughly the force of a meteorite. The ball thudded into his glove as Harper dived headfirst. Uribe tagged Harper’s lower left leg before Harper’s fingers touched the bag, but umpire Eric Cooper signaled safe.
Nolasco’s very next pitch curved into the dirt and bounded past catcher A.J. Ellis. Harper scooted home and gave the Nationals a 1-0 lead. A fresh start still seemed vividly possible for the Nationals. By the end of the night, they could only look forward to another chance over the weekend, asking the same familiar questions.