Matt Kemp drilled a walk-off home run off Tom Gorzelanny in the 10th, the Los Angeles Dodgers stole a 4-3 victory and one of the most delicious nights since baseball returned to Washington turned, after Henry Rodriguez’s ninth-inning implosion, into a moment that never was.
Harper produced memories, like the bullet throw from shallow left field to home plate in the seventh inning, the flipping off of his helmet on his first career hit. Stephen Strasburg operated at the height of his considerable powers. Vin Scully had the call. But the Dodgers scored two runs in the ninth inning after Rodriguez threw three wild pitches, including one that scored the game-tying run, and the crowd chanted “M-V-P!” after Kemp led off with a bomb to center.
Harper, the first overall pick in 2010, the youngest major leaguer since 2005, savored every moment but the last. The ball from his first hit rested in his locker. His family watched from the stands. He wondered when it would all sink in.
“Oh, man, this is beautiful,” he said afterward. “This is unbelievable coming out here. It’s just a blessing having this night.”
Before the game began, Harper sat in the dugout and thought, “Oh, man, I’m in the big leagues.” But he felt at ease, like he belonged. First baseman Adam LaRoche plopped down next to him, and Harper told him, “I feel really calm right now.”
“I didn’t have butterflies at all, really,” Harper said. “I think that’s really the first time I haven’t gotten butterflies.”
In one astonishing game, the Nationals’ two first overall picks validated all the hype attached the start of their careers. Harper, the youngest player in the majors since 2005, went 1 for 3 with a missile of a double off the base of the center field wall. As he sprinted to second, he flipped the helmet off his head. Strasburg, 23, allowed one controversial run over seven innings, striking out nine, including Kemp twice.
What did this game not have? What more could you want? The Dodgers smacked three consecutive hits and scored a run off Rodriguez. In the middle of that, a fan jumped out of the right field bleachers and sprinted across the outfield toward Harper before a dozen cops tackled a few feet away from the left fielder. Harper stood still.
“I probably would have leveled him if he came up to me,” Harper said.
But the craziest moment for Harper in left happened in the seventh, with the Nationals leading, 1-0, on LaRoche’s solo homer. A.J. Ellis rolled a single through the left side of the infield. Jerry Hairston wheeled around third base as Harper leaned down and scooped the ball, the tying run steaming toward the plate. Harper crow-hopped and unleashed the arm that, in high school, threw 96-mph fastballs. The ball zoomed on a laser to catcher Wilson Ramos, a perfect strike. Ramos tagged Hairston, a perfect play at the perfect time . . . until the ball trickled away from Ramos.
What happened? Ramos has a history of dropping the ball on tag plays at the plate, but Hairston, the cheeky former National, may have played a role. As he slid into the plate, clearly not in time, he swiped at Ramos’s glove. Manager Davey Johnson pleaded with home plate umpire Mark Carlson to ask other umpires for confirmation that Hairston had intentionally whacked the ball of Ramos’s glove, which is illegal.
“He smacked the ball,” Johnson said. “He’s out. You cannot move the ball. You’re out.”
In the ninth, baseball seemed to deliver like only baseball could. The entire night led to Harper, wearing bright red stirrups, walking from the on-deck with a man on base. Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly had called in closer Javy Guerra, a right-hander, to face him. LaRoche and Danny Espinosa had singled, with a failed sac bunt by Rick Ankiel thrown in, to put runners on the corners. Harper cocked his silver bat behind his ear. On the first pitch he saw, he smoked a laser to left field, scoring Ankiel.
“I think he’s got a great head on his shoulders,” Strasburg said. “He’s still got a lot to learn. But, you know, he knows he’s going to get booed. I thought he handled it very well.”
Harper first showed off his bat in the seventh, with the bases empty, after he had started the game 0 for 2. He ran the count to 3-2, refusing to chase a fastball just off the edge and a change-up off the plate. Starter Chad Billingsley tried a 93-mph fastball over the ball, and Harper whipped his bat through the zone with ferocious speed. The ball rocketed to straightaway center, off Kemp’s head and off the base of the wall. Harper bolted out of the box and, on first way from first to second, flipped off his helmet, revealing his messy faux-hawk. He stopped at second with his first career hit.
“When I hit a ball like that, I’m always thinking three” bases, Harper said. “When I hit single, I always think two. That’s the mentality I have.”
The second inning began with Harper due up third, what would be the first of at-bat his career. He paced the dugout with his helmet on and his bat in his hands. He grabbed a cup from the water and, as he took it to his mouth, it splashed his batting gloves. After he dried them off on his pants, he walked to the on-deck circle, gray pants rolled up to reveal red stirrups.
Only Espinosa separated Harper, the first overall pick in 2010, from his maiden at-bat. Espinosa struck out, and Harper removed the batting doughnut from his silver Marrucci. The public address announcer blared, “Coming to the plate, making his major league debut, left fielder, Number 34, Bryce Harper.” The Dodger Stadium crowd responded with loud boos and a few cheers.
Harper stared out at Billingsley and, beyond the pitcher’s mound, the San Gabriel Mountains. Harper took a 91-mph fastball for strike one, and catcher A.J. Ellis rolled the ball out of play. Billingsley threw a 2-1, 88-mph sinker and Harper chopped it on one hop it back to Billingsley. Harper bolted down the line, but Billingsley made the easy play.
Later, as the game slipped away from Rodriguez in the ninth, he came back to strike out A.J. Ellis on a 100-mph fastball. He induced a groundball, and first baseman Adam LaRoche cut down the would-be tying run at the plate. All Rodriguez needed was one more out. He got ahead, 0-2, on Dee Gordon, threw a ball and then uncorked a wild pitch way inside. Juan Uribe scored, and the Dodgers had tied the score.
Rodriguez struck out Gordon, except this pitch was wild, too, squirting away from catcher Wilson Ramos. Gordon reached first base, and the winning run moved to third. Johnson summoned Gorzelanny, and after a long at-bat, Tony Gwynn Jr. smashed a line drive . . . right at LaRoche. Exhale. Extras. But only for so long.
After Harper’s father, an ironworker named Ron, learned of Harper’s call-up, he told his son, “It’s the same game you’ve been playing your whole life.” Lord knows Harper had never played a game like this one before.
Afterward, Dodger Stadium emptied out and stadium workers swept popcorn and plastic cups. Harper’s family lingered by visitor’s dugout. Harper emerged from the clubhouse clad in a blue button-down and carrying the lineup card, folded in half. He handed it to his sister, Brittany, who had flown in from Wyoming. The lights dimmed. His family followed as Harper walked into the bowels of the stadium, toward the rest of his life.