The red helmet cratered into the dirt behind third base and skittered toward the outfield, discarded in a burst of energy and glee, like wrapping paper on Christmas morning. Bryce Harper sprinted for home, his slicked-back hair holding on for dear life. Ian Desmond had scorched the ball into the left field corner, and now it zipped toward the catcher, hopeless against Harper’s speed. Nationals Park erupted, louder than it had been in some time, maybe all year.
Fifty-seven games after he tore a ligament in his thumb, Harper returned Monday night and made the Washington Nationals’ lineup whole for the first time since opening day in a 7-3 victory over the Colorado Rockies. In the sixth inning, Desmond’s go-ahead, three-run double and Harper’s first-to-home dash quieted the barroom debate and prospective controversy surrounding how the Nationals will arrange their pieces. All of that ceded to the roar from a stadium happy to watch them together again, and an opponent unsure how to handle the loaded lineup.
Perhaps swept up in the frenzy of the crowd, Harper told the stadium afterward in an on-field interview, “We’re the best team in baseball.” At the moment, the Nationals remain a half game behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. But the sudden depth of the Nationals’ lineup — Wilson Ramos, No. 8 hitter? — made Harper’s remark a possibility.
Harper went 1 for 3 with an intentional walk, but the box score would not convey his influence. He made two wicked throws from left field, including one behind a runner at first base that required, in Manager Matt Williams’s words, “anticipation” and “vision.” On his lone hit, a single, Harper took second base on center fielder Drew Stubbs’s momentary fumble, his helmet flying off. His presence in the sixth spot of the Nationals’ order gave Rockies Manager Walt Weiss a dilemma at the worst time.
“I don’t think there’s too many opposing pitchers out there that want to see it,” Desmond said. “It was nice to have Bryce back. He brings a lot of energy to our team when he plays this way. The way he went about his business today — putting pressure on the defense, made a good throw back to first base — that’s the kind of stuff he does. When he plays, he impacts the game.”
Harper’s return overshadowed the other key performances. Ryan Zimmerman went 3 for 4 with a game-tying double and, back at third base to accommodate Harper, ended the seventh inning with a sensational double play. Adam LaRoche, making a possible all-star push, bashed a solo homer. Jordan Zimmermann earned his sixth win with six strong innings, yielding just two runs to conclude June with a 1.43 ERA.
The might of the Nationals’ lineup at full health took six innings to surface. Once it did, the Nationals turned a 2-1 deficit into a rocking-chair win.
With one out in the sixth, following Zimmerman’s RBI double, Harper walked to the plate. With first base open, Weiss had to choose: pitch to Harper or Desmond, who already had one double and has thrived in his entire career with the bases loaded.
“That’s the kind of decision-making and pressure we want to apply,” Williams said. “With that length in the lineup, then we have opportunity to do that sometimes.”
Weiss ordered reliever Rob Scahill to intentionally walk Harper and load the bases for Desmond, who was 5 for 5 this season in such situations. There were no soft spots — behind Desmond lurked Ramos, the slugging catcher who hit cleanup on opening day.
“Having such a deep lineup is huge,” Harper said. “One through eight, pick your poison. You’re going to get a guy that hit the ball out of the ballpark.
Scahill delivered Desmond a first-pitch curveball. Desmond waited back, then lashed it past third baseman Ryan Wheeler and into the left field corner. After Jayson Werth and Zimmerman scored, Harper careened around third. Harper’s helmet flew off, taking on the same pose as the bobblehead in his likeness, which fans had lined up for starting just after lunchtime.
Desmond had perpetuated a remarkable personal streak, one that suggests he makes perceived slights personal. In his career, he is 11 for 17 with 16 RBI when the batter in front of him is intentionally walked.
“I try to do the same thing I do every other time,” Desmond said.
This time, Desmond doubled, then stole third and scored on Ramos’s grounder to second, even with the infield playing in. “On a ball most guys don’t score on,” Williams said, “he scored.”
The other half of the Nationals’ lineup switch surfaced in the top of the seventh. Back at third base, with one out in the seventh, Zimmerman dove to his left and snared Charlie Blackmon’s soft liner. He then hopped to his feet and fired an overhand, one-hop throw to LaRoche to nail the runner on first.
“I would say it was really impressive if I hadn’t seen it like 500 other times,” Desmond said.
Zimmerman insisted moving back to his old position from left field wasn’t so simple, even if he had played there nine seasons and won a Gold Glove in 2009.
“It’s definitely going to take some adjustment,” Zimmerman said. “I still have a lot of work to do to get to where I want to be, but I felt okay.”
A lot of hitters can go 1 for 3. What the Nationals missed for 57 games is the kind of play Harper made in the first inning with two outs. A ball trickled toward him, and he shoved aside prudence for potential awesomeness.
With a runner on second, Justin Morneau hit a single to left. Harper charged, and Morneau made a wide turn at first. Rather than flipping the ball in, Harper unloaded a throw behind Morneau.
“I was not expecting that,” Zimmermann said.
LaRoche had Morneau caught in a rundown, but the play fizzled when no one covered first base — Zimmermann had to back up home with a man on third.
“It’s one of those plays in baseball where you can’t practice it,” Williams said. “If your right fielder can get there, that’s potentially one thing, but that’s a long way to go. So it’s one of those plays. But he threw a strike to first base. That’s pretty special stuff. That’s what he brings.”
Harper creates more possibilities than most other players, and the Nationals have more possibilities than other teams. With nine qualified players for eight spots, Williams plans to juggle his lineup.
“It’s going to be a tough job for Matt,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a good problem to have too many players and not enough spots. As long as we keep winning, everything will be fine.”