The Nationals needed to so much to happen before they could mob the 19-year-old who won’t act his age. They had blown a three-run lead. Ian Desmond drove in three game-trying runs. The Nationals fell behind in the 10th inning on a wild pitch from a reliever. They fell behind again in the 12th when Ross Detwiler, the eighth pitcher they used and the last one out of their bullpen, gave up a home run. But they would wake up in first place Wednesday morning because of Harper.
“I don’t think of him as a 19-year-old kid, but that’s exactly what he is,” Detwiler said. “He’s going to be around a long time. It’s pretty cool to see the beginning.”
The rally that led to Harper’s hit started against Elvin Ramirez, a Rule 5 pick the Nationals returned to the Mets this winter. Michael Morse led off the 12th with a double off the out-of-town scoreboard. Desmond delivered his biggest hit, chopping a double down the third base line, and Morse raced home with ease.
After Danny Espinosa flied out, Desmond moved to third on Ramirez’s wild pitch. With Detwiler on deck and no more relievers in the bullpen, Ramirez intentionally walked Jesus Flores — and in the process, in an ode to the nature of the game, nearly threw ball three over catcher Josh Thole’s head.
The move backfired when Ramirez could not throw three strikes to Detwiler, perhaps the Nationals’ most hopeless hitter. Detwiler’s walk loaded the bases for Xavier Nady. He worked the count to 3-2 before hitting roller to first baseman Ike Davis, who cut down the potential winning run at the plate.
The game had come to Harper. In the 11th, Ramirez had struck out Harper chasing a pitch out of the zone. Harper still treated his first two strikes as if they were found money, an opportunity to see a pitch he could maul. He took a vicious hack and swung through Ramirez’s first pitch. He took another fastball for strike two.
Harper spread his stance a little wider and told himself to just use his hands. He took the same approach with two strikes in the third inning, when he flared a single to left to drive in the Nationals’ first run off Mets starter Chris Young. Harper knew Ramirez could not walk him, and so he expected a strike, even down 0-2.