Bryce Harper built a reputation last year not only on his talent, but on his ferocity. He charged down the line every time, finished games with the dirtiest uniform on the field. Friday night, a moment that could have staved off the Washington Nationals’ 3-2 loss to the New York Mets pierced a hole in Harper’s hard-driving image. The Nationals’ eighth-inning rally died when Harper bounded a groundball to second base and did something antithetical to the scrappy ethos he has cultivated. He jogged.
The Nationals lost for only the second time in 10 games as nemesis Dillon Gee outdueled Jordan Zimmermann at Nationals Park. Manager Davey Johnson watched the final five innings from the clubhouse after he experienced a bout of light-headedness, leaving managerial duties to bench coach Randy Knorr. He was not in the dugout when the Nationals rallied in the eighth inning before Daniel Murphy fumbled Harper’s bouncer as Harper took it easy.
“He did it all last year, but he’s got a lot going on,” Knorr said. “It’s hard for me to say. I’m not 20 years old in the big leagues and all this stuff going on around me. It’s something that we’ve got to get to the bottom of and keep talking to him. Because eventually, we’re just going to have to take him out of the game.”
Earlier in the afternoon, Johnson had felt dehydrated during his daily walk. He felt dizzy during the early innings and, after trying to stay in the dugout, decided to relax back in his office. “I’ll survive,” Johnson said afterward as he walked out of the Nationals’ clubhouse.
Gee silenced the Nationals all night before an unlikely candidate brought them back to life. Steve Lombardozzi had hit one home run all season, but after Knorr sent him to pinch hit with two outs in the eighth, he golfed Gee’s 1-0 fastball off the back wall of the Nationals’ bullpen. The Nationals had sliced a two-run deficit in half.
Denard Span then hit a chopper to the left side and beat out an infield single. Ryan Zimmerman singled to left field, which brought Harper to the plate. Mets Manager Terry Collins summoned left-hander Scott Rice. Lefties from the bullpen had been Harper’s kryptonite all year, but he had made improvements lately. He exercised patience, watching three balls to begin the at-bat.
With the count 3-0, Knorr gave Harper the green light to swing. “Lefty-on-lefty, it might be one of the best pitches he’s gonna get right there,” Knorr said.
Rice threw an inside fastball, right on the borderline between strike and ball. “I thought I got a pitch that I could really handle,” Harper said. He took an aggressive hack but foul-tipped the ball at the catcher’s feet.
Harper bounced Rice’s 3-1 fastball to second. He put his head down, tossed his bat and trotted to first base. When Murphy bobbled the ball, Harper had only reached about a third of the way to first.
“He’s pretty good over there so, in that situation I think he makes that play every single day, so,” Harper said. “I guess I’ll learn from it.”
Murphy calmly gathered the ball and fired to first. On the on-deck circle, Jayson Werth flipped his bat and looked at first base. Harper had run down the line. He took his helmet off and banged it off the ground with both hands.
“When he got 3-0 and he let it go, I know that takes a lot of guts in that situation, lefty-lefty,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “Those same guts are going to be what makes us give this final push in this last month. It takes a lot of courage to let it fly right there, and I commend him for that. As far as the base running goes, it takes guts also to run out the ones that you think are going to be outs. He does it almost 100 percent of the time, and I think this one might’ve just got pointed out because the guy made a bobble or whatever.”
Even before Harper’s groundout, the notion that Harper had not been hustling like last year had seeped into the Nationals’ clubhouse. By coincidence, Knorr had broached the topic early in the afternoon. After praising Desmond and Zimmerman for running out grounders, Knorr pointed out that Harper no longer did every time.
“That’s just him,” Knorr said. “He’s just 20, and sometimes, he just pouts. Sometimes, he pouts. I don’t know why. That’s the thing about him. You can’t be this guy who says you’re going to play hard every time out and then not do it. You can’t do that. He’ll learn that. He’ll get better with it. He’s 20 years old. He’s still a kid, and sometimes kids pout if things don’t go their way.”
Against the rest of the league, Gee has been solid. Against the Nationals, he has been a force. In five starts against the Nationals, Gee has a 2.16 ERA and has beaten them four times. Against the rest of baseball, Gee has a 3.97 ERA and six wins. Friday night, he allowed the Nationals two runs in 7 2 / 3 innings. Friday night, the Nats pounded 14 groundouts and just one flyout.
“He’s got good stuff, but he’s extremely smart on the mound,” Desmond said. “There’s not really a pitcher comparison I can give to him. Like [St. Louis Cardinals catcher] Yadier Molina, when you hit against [a pitcher he is catching for], you can’t think along with him. And so much of hitting is mental. Your mind, you’re trying to think along with the pitcher and you’re really trying to — it’s not guessing, it’s more anticipating, looking for a ball in a certain zone. But he mixes his stuff up a lot, and tonight, when he’s especially sharp like that, it makes him even tougher.”
Wilson Ramos blasted a solo homer into the visitors’ bullpen for the Nationals’ first hit in the third inning. Ike Davis gave the Mets the lead the next inning, when he crushed a two-run homer on Zimmermann’s first-pitch hanging change-up. “If I get it down,” Zimmermann sad, “he rolls it over.”
With two outs in the eighth, the Mets created what became a decisive insurance run. Murphy smoked a double into the left field corner. Andrew Brown followed with a sharp grounder down the third base line.
Zimmerman made a backhand stab behind the base. Running on any contact, Murphy barreled around third base. With his momentum carrying him toward the visitors’ dugout, Zimmerman heaved the ball across the infield. The lob never had a chance. Adam LaRoche ran off the base to try to scoop the ball and fire home to stop Murphy from scoring. But LaRoche couldn’t glove it, and Murphy slid in uncontested with the Mets’ third run.
“I’ll throw that every time,” Zimmerman said. “If Rochie fields it cleanly — I mean, he did everything right. It just took a funny hop. But that guy’s out by 89 feet at home plate. I got the ball clean and threw it.”