During an idyllic afternoon at Nationals Park, Dan Haren earned his second win as he recorded an out past the fifth inning for the first time as a National. Center fielder Denard Span’s two spectacular, game-preserving catches highlighted a strong defensive performance. Despite wide-ranging contributions, Harper still managed to carry the Nationals, the way he has all season.
Nearing the end of a month in which he surpassed even the highest expectations of him, Harper set team records for most home runs and RBI (18) in April and raised his on-base-plus-slugging percentage to 1.236. In the span of one calendar year and precisely 162 games, he has evolved from a Syracuse Chief to not only the Nationals’ best player, but one of the very best in baseball.
“He probably expects that he’s having an off year right now,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “I talked to him last year, and even through the bad times, he had a great frame of mind. He expects a lot of himself. That’s a great trait.”
When the Nationals called up Harper, they discussed the possibility of sending him back down for more seasoning. He made a mockery of that notion. In his career, Harper has hit .284 with a .356 on-base percentage and a .519 slugging percentage with 31 home runs. Over that span, entering Saturday, he had produced more wins above replacement than all but 10 major league position players, according to the catch-all metric used by FanGraphs.com.
“It’s such a special thing, your first year,” Harper said before the game. “I’m up to the point where it shouldn’t be. Now it’s more of, I’m just going out there trying to play the game I’ve been playing my whole life, not worry about anything and having some fun doing it.”
Saturday, Harper gave the Nationals a 6-1 lead in the fourth inning when he launched a 1-2 cutter from reliever Alfredo Simon into the home team’s bullpen, giving him more homers than anyone this season except Justin Upton. The Nationals had already knocked out Reds starter Mike Leake after three innings.
Haren had only endangered leads during his first four starts with the Nationals, but Saturday he protected one. He didn’t dominate the Reds like rotation mates Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann the previous two nights – “I was kinda disappointed when I gave up the second hit today,” he said, laughing.
But, three weeks after the Reds bashed four homers off him in four innings, Haren allowed two runs over six innings on six hits. He struck out five and walked none, and his ERA shrunk from 7.36 to 6.29.
“I finally feel like part of the team,” Haren said. “I’ve got to be like this or better the rest of the year. There’s no excuse for me not to be.”
Span made Haren’s resurgence possible. In the sixth inning, Haren yielded a home run to Shin-Soo Choo and a single to Zack Cozart. The Nationals still led 6-2, but with Joey Votto walking to the plate the game suddenly seemed tight.
Votto clobbered a 1-2 splitter to deep to left-center field. Span’s excellent read and precise route closed the distance between himself and the ball with startling speed. He leaped and banged into the fence, snaring the ball to turn an RBI double into an out.
“I’d rather do that any day of the week just to help my pitchers,” Span said. “I feel like I’m a defender first.”
The Reds threatened again in the seventh, scoring one run and then loading the bases against left-handed reliever Zach Duke and setup man Tyler Clippard. Cozart roped a line drive into the left-center gap, the possible game-tying blow.
Span, though, had timed his jump to perfection. He chased it down so quickly the ball seemed to hang for him an extra second, like dust in a spotlight. Span made the catch on the run, not even needing to dive. The 38,903 at Nationals Park erupted. Clippard lingered by the dugout for a high-five.
Drew Storen quashed the Reds’ final rally with a double play in the eighth, and Rafael Soriano notched his seventh save in the ninth. The Nationals (13-11) have responded to a 3-9 stretch with three straight wins over the Reds, who are 13-12 but expected to contend. “It’s been good for our psyche,” Clippard said.
The victory allowed the Nationals, if they wanted, to marvel at Harper’s first full year in the majors. In 2009 with the Minnesota Twins, Span played with catcher Joe Mauer, who won the MVP award. “For the first month,” Span said, “that’s what I’ve seen out of Bryce.”
“It’s unbelievable,” Clippard said. “He doesn’t play like a 20-year-old. And when he got here last year, he didn’t play like a 19-year-old.”
Harper’s day could have ended with another first. The Washington Times invited Harper to Saturday night’s White House Correspondents Dinner. He declined. “The way we’re playing right now and stuff, I just want to focus on one thing,” he said.” I want to be able to get some rest, things like that.”
He wanted, as usual, to focus on what comes next.
“That whole first year, I feel like it just flew by,” Harper added. “I had a lot of fun last year. It was great. It’s just getting started.”