Bryce Harper and his preternatural ability, his magnetism anywhere on a baseball diamond, will spread murmurs and chills throughout Nationals Park for years to come. The first time came Tuesday night. Even if the Washington Nationals and their dismal offense are blown out, even if he goes hitless and strikes out in his first at-bat, even if the place is half-full, Harper will still find a moment to amaze.
In his first game at Nationals Park, a listless 5-1 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks before 22,675, the park came alive in the seventh inning when Harper settled underneath a flyball and began pumping his feet on the left field grass. The runner at third base crouched. The ball landed in Harper’s glove. The roar swelled.
“I thought I had a shot,” Harper said. “I reared back and gave it my all.”
The breathtaking throw that followed served as a counterweight to the rest of the night. Harper went 0 for 3. Arizona right-hander Trevor Cahill shut down the Nationals for 71 / 3 innings. The Nationals’ scoreless streak reached 17 innings at one point, rendering Jordan Zimmermann’s three earned runs in 61 / 3 innings moot. They have managed seven runs over their five-game losing streak.
“I feel like we got the hitters that can hit,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “We’re not as aggressive as I’d like to see. We’re just not centering the ball. The talent is there. The pitching has been outstanding. It’s going to put a strain on the pitching staff if we don’t start scoring some runs.”
But there was still that throw. The people who showed up will remember it as the first time Harper did something that made them stand and tightened their throats.
Harper unleashed a rocket to the plate from roughly 300 feet away. It seemed ill-advised at first — of course John McDonald was going to score, so why not, with the bases loaded and one out, keep the runner on second from advancing? But Harper had put himself in perfect position.
“When you get completely behind the ball with momentum, that’s when you can make a throw like that,” said third base coach Bo Porter, who coaches outfielders. “He did a great job. He had all his momentum going toward the plate.”
As the ball traveled and the din rose and McDonald sprinted home, it became clear Harper had made the right decision. The ball settled into Wilson Ramos’s glove, a foot or two toward the infield. McDonald slid in. Ramos tagged him on the knee as he crossed the plate. Replays would later show the tag hit McDonald’s knee a blink before his toe crossed the plate. Home plate umpire Jeff Nelson may not have believed it. He called McDonald safe.
“I didn’t really know Bryce had that good of an arm before I saw that,” Zimmermann said.
“Fantastic,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “He’s got a cannon.”
Harper had arrived at Nationals Park at 1:15 p.m. Twenty pen-wielding fans greeted him at the players’ parking lot. He posed for pictures and signed an autograph for every one of them.
In the clubhouse, as he did before his debut in Los Angeles, Harper scribbled four messages under the brim of his cap with a silver pen: WIN, PFH, Mom, Pops. The phrases meant What’s Important Now, Play For Him (meaning God) and, of course, his parents, Sherri and Ron, who sat behind home plate.
“I got the chills a little bit running out to left field,” Harper said.
In his first at-bat, with a man on second and one out in the second, he strode from the on-deck circle as Moby’s “Flower” blared, drowned out by a standing ovation. Cahill hatched the ideal attack for a 19-year-old with nerves. He needed only four pitches, three of which were change-ups. Harper whiffed at two of them, including one in the dirt for strike three.
“I went into my first at-bat a little excited, chasing some pitches I shouldn’t have,” Harper said.
Over his three plate appearances, Harper saw 16 pitches and Cahill threw him 10 off-speed pitches.
“Everybody is going to try to throw me the off-speed,” Harper said. “I’m not surprised about that all. I’ve been seeing off-speed my whole life. I should be able to hit it by now.”
Harper led off the fifth, the Diamondbacks having just taken a 1-0 lead after Desmond’s throwing error led to an unearned run. After he ran the count full, Harper ripped a sinker up the middle, through Cahill’s legs.
Harper thought he had a hit, and in, say, Rochester, he would have been right. But McDonald had shifted up the middle, in perfect position. Harper busted down the line, and McDonald’s throw beat him by a step. He had not seen a shift since college. “I was pretty upset,” Harper said.
In his third at-bat, Harper swung and missed one more time, capping his total for the night at five. He smoked another hard groundball, but right at first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who made the play.
Harper still contributed with his defense. He made two strong throws that prevented a runner from advancing. In the third, Gerrardo Parra roped a line drive the left field line, a possible double off the bat. Harper got a perfect jump, sprinted to his right and made a running catch along the foul line.
The Nationals (14-9) can play all the defense they want, but their offense is making it irrelevant. They entered Tuesday night ranked 27th out of 30 teams in runs. They didn’t score until the eighth inning, on Roger Bernadina’s pinch-hit double and Desmond’s RBI single.
“Obviously, something needs to change,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “Whatever that is I think is up to the individual hitter. Some guys are chasing, some guys are being too passive.”
In the ninth, Harper began the inning due up fourth. If one batter reached, he would have one more chance. LaRoche popped up. Jayson Werth struck out. Harper watched from the on-deck circle as Danny Espinosa struck out looking. Harper dropped his head and walked to the dugout steps, holding the barrel of his silver in his left hand.
Afterward, Harper was asked if he would remember anything in particular from the night. He shrugged and said, “Probably not.”