Nationals vs. Blue Jays: Bryce Harper homer punctuates Washington’s fifth straight win
By Adam Kilgore,
TORONTO — The ball hissed through the cool Canadian twilight, and the tale of Bryce Harper’s first season in the major leagues grew a little taller. Harper provides a new feat to marvel at almost every night. He has stolen home, roped a walk-off single, come off the bench to seal a sweep at Fenway Park and, on Tuesday night at Rogers Centre, he clobbered a baseball off the windowed facade of a restaurant that hangs perhaps 450 feet from home plate.
Harper’s mammoth home run sparked the Washington Nationals’ 4-2 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, their fifth straight win and seventh in their past eight games. They moved to 37-23, a 100-win pace, and vaulted into a four-game lead in the National League East after the Atlanta Braves lost to the New York Yankees.
Add all his exploits together, and Harper is doing something no teenager ever has in the major leagues. After his second consecutive three-hit game, Harper is batting .307 with a .943 on-base plus slugging percentage. Over a full season, his OPS would surpass the highest mark by a teenager — Mel Ott’s .921 in 1928 — since at least 1900.
“I just feel really good up there,” Harper said. “At the beginning, I usually struggle. Once I get going, it’s scary.”
Harper added that he feels more comfortable with the rest of the lineup coming alive, and the Nationals swatted 10 hits Tuesday. Danny Espinosa drilled a double and a home run, and rookie catcher Jhonatan Solano crunched his first career homer. Chien-Ming Wang pitched around constant trouble for his first win as a starter this season and Tyler Clippard slammed the door for his ninth save.
For all his teammates’ contributions, Harper’s blast to right-center field hung over Rogers Centre all night, the crowd’s collective gasp remaining as a figurative echo. He had piled on one more outsize layer to his rookie season.
Harper has reached base in eight of his last 10 plate appearances, the possible start to one of the monster hot streaks he has compiled each season since junior college. None of those at-bats resonated like his second Tuesday night, with nobody on base in the third inning.
In his first at-bat, Harper had rifled a groundball through the right side for a single. He dug in now against starter Henderson Alvarez with the game still scoreless. He had been selective all series. Now, just because, he wanted to hack.
“I was going up there swinging out of my shoes, first pitch,” Harper said. “I made up my mind in the on-deck circle. It could have been a curveball, 54 feet. I was swinging.”
Alvarez threw him a first-pitch change-up, an off-speed offering to get over for strike one. Harper destroyed it.
“I don’t know why the outfielder went back,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
The ball came off his bat like a cannon blast, soaring to right-center field. It never stopped gathering speed until, suddenly, it thudded off the portion of Windows restaurant covered by a BlackBerry billboard. The place may have been 450 feet from the plate. The collision sounded like a manhole cover dropped from a skyscraper.
“I don’t really hit big home runs,” Harper said. “They should just be line drives that get going. That was a pretty good one. When guys are hitting around, it feels pretty good.”
Harper would add a bunt single in the eighth inning off left-handed reliever Darren Oliver. He tried to steal second and was picked off, a blemish the Nationals can live with. He may get himself out sometimes. The opposing pitcher, at the moment, cannot.
“The kid keeps hitting the ball,” Johnson said. “He’s hitting about everything they throw up there, and hitting it pretty hard.”
After Harper’s solo homer started the scoring, Espinosa extended the lead. From the left side of the plate this year, Espinosa has not been able to duplicate the fluid stroke he has found as a right-handed hitter. Tuesday night, he may have found it. In his first at-bat, Espinosa flicked his hands and rocketed a deep drive to the warning track in left field, an opposite-field double.
In his second at-bat, Espinosa came up with two outs in the fourth inning and Adam LaRoche, after a double, on second base. Alvarez threw him a low, first-pitch 93-mph fastball. Espinosa again took an easy, loose swing, and the ball soared off his bat to straightaway center field. The ball bounded around the camera well, and the Nationals led 3-0.
“I thought he made a lot of great adjustments,” Johnson said.
In five innings, Wang ratcheted his pitch count, but he managed to allow only two runs. He looked nothing like his usual self, unable to command his sinker. He walked five batters and, also uncharacteristically, struck out five as well. Wang needed 95 pitches for 15 outs, only 48 of them strikes.
He still pitched around disaster until the fifth. He led off the inning by walking Brett Lawrie. Two batters later, he nearly hit Jose Bautista with a wild sinker as he worked the count to 3-1. Wang threw a chest-high slider, and Bautista mashed it over the left field fence. The Blue Jays had sliced the lead to 3-2.
“I feel kind of better today,” Wang said through an interpreter. “The ball sometimes sinks too much.”
Solano, the rarely used catcher making a start to give Jesus Flores a breather, provided extra cushion in the seventh. Solano, called to the majors in late May, crushed the first home run of his career off Alvarez, a lined shot to left field.
After Solano circled the bases, his teammates, keeping with one of baseball’s most comical traditions, ignored him. Solano put his helmet in the rack and took a seat on the bench before the Nationals ended the silent treatment. They mobbed the 26-year-old they call Onion, who drove a produce truck to the tryout where the Nationals signed him.
“Wow,” Solano said afterward, clutching the ball he hit. “Sweet. It was emotional. I’m happy.”
Solano’s story sounds like a myth. In the Nationals’ dugout, he is not alone.
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