Harper went 1 for 3 with a walk and a single that nearly scored a game-changing run. With two outs and a man on third in the eighth inning, having already thrown more than 110 pitches, Hamels faced Harper for the last time. Harper pounded a change-up into the ground, and shortstop Freddy Galvis made the play. Hamels walked off the mound to a standing ovation.
“He had every pitch working for him,” Harper said. “Fastball, curveball, change-up, cutter, you name it, he had it. . . . He’s one of the best pitchers in baseball. He’s 7-1 for a reason.”
Hamels discarded the theatrics that caused Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo to call him “fake tough” on May 7, the day after Hamels hit Harper. The 2008 World Series MVP instead offered a quiet reminder that he remains one of the best pitchers in baseball. He lowered his ERA to 2.17. Against the Nationals this season, the lone run Hamels has allowed in 16 innings came when Harper stole home after reaching base on the intentional plunking.
When Harper dug in as the second batter of the game, the hype leading up to the at-bat suggested Hamels could do anything short of pulling a ninja throwing star from his back pocket and chucking it at Harper.
“That’s probably why we were ‘Wednesday Night Baseball,’ ” Harper said. “Pretty cool that we got to be on ESPN.”
Harper had repeated over and over that the plunking from his last meeting would have no bearing, and the heat of the moment did not change that. “Not at all,” he said.
Hamels started Harper with a 90-mph cutter on the outside for ball one. Harper fouled off the next pitch, then whacked another cutter to left field for the first out.
“I felt good up there against him,” Harper said. “I missed one to left. I think I should have hit that ball out, but it happens.”
Hamels allowed three walks in the first four innings, including one to a patient Harper in the fourth, on eight pitches. Harper used his considerable speed to reach third on two fly outs to center field. After the fifth, though, the Nationals still had no hits.
“When he’s throwing 93, 95, he’s got his cutter working, his change-up can be devastating,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said. “He was throwing hard tonight, and his change-up was around 82. When you have that much difference between your fastball and your change-up, that’s tough.”
Hamels’s mix of pitches befuddled the Nationals. A reporter asked Harper about his eight-pitch walk and pointed out Hamels had thrown him one fastball and seven change-ups. “Was it a slider or a change-up?” Harper asked. “He was funky tonight.”
After Hamels struck out Jackson to start the fifth, Espinosa ripped a double into the left field corner. After Espinosa broke up the no-hitter, the Nationals nearly took control of the game.
Harper followed by rolling a single into right field. Hunter Pence charged the ball as Espinosa sprinted to third.
Third base coach Bo Porter had a difficult choice. If he held Espinosa, Ryan Zimmerman, due up next, would have a chance to score him with one out, anyway. When Porter windmilled Espinosa home, he took a significant gamble.
“I don’t second-guess Bo,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “I’d rather know whether he’s going to be out or not, rather than hold him up. It took a heck of a play.”
Pence unfurled one of his funky, javelin-style throws. The ball skipped to Ruiz, a one-hop strike in front of the plate. Espinosa slid hard, feet first, and Ruiz tagged him on the shoulder before his foot reached home plate. Espinosa limped off the field, but stayed in the game. He wrapped his right ankle in ice afterward and said he was fine.
Johnson did take one issue with the play. Twice in his postgame briefing, unprompted, Johnson said, “Harper should have been on second base.” Instead, Harper stayed on first.
Harper, asked about the play only and not Johnson’s comment, said he would do the same thing again. He heard first base coach Trent Jewett yell for him to stick at first.
“He told me to stay, and that’s what I was doing,” Harper said. “I didn’t want to get thrown out. Ruiz has a great arm, so I don’t want to get thrown out in a situation like that.”
The Nationals had narrowly missed slicing the Phillies’ lead in half. The decision and the result became more painful when Zimmerman followed with a line-drive single, which only moved Harper to second. Despite a double, a single and another single in succession, the Nationals failed to score.
“If we score that run,” Johnson said, “it’s a different ballgame.”
On other nights, Jackson’s effort – three runs over seven innings – could have been good enough. In the ninth, Adam LaRoche annihilated a solo home run off Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon, but it came too late to mean anything.
Hamels was just too good. The Nationals had still won the series, but they will have to remember Hamels’s performance until the next time the teams again on the final day of July.
“We’re going to battle,” Harper said. “The NL East is really good. Great pitching. Great hitting. The Phillies are who we’re probably going to go after the next couple years. They’re good. And we’re good.”