Bryce Harper entered Tuesday night with great anticipation. Dodger Stadium felt more alive to him because of the presence of Clayton Kershaw, the excitement dialed up from the night before. “That’s a guy we have to go out there and try to beat,” Harper said. “We’re going to see him in the postseason, probably. It’s going to be a lot more hectic. Hopefully we’re going to be ready for that.”
The Nationals would have been shut out Tuesday if not for Harper. In his third at-bat against Kershaw, in the seventh inning, Kershaw threw him a first-pitch, 94-mph fastball low in the strike zone. Harper destroyed it with an efficient, violent hack, and the ball landed halfway up the first section of right field bleachers
“He’s the best pitcher in baseball, hands down,” Harper said. “He goes out there every single night. He locates his pitches – he has his fastball, his curveball, his change-up, slider. He’s very, very good. He’s definitely the best pitcher in baseball, I think.”
Kershaw, who would lower his ERA to 1.70 to go with his 17-3 record, had not allowed a home run to a left-handed batter all season. He had not even allowed an RBI to a left-handed batter all year.
“To hit a homer against a Cy Young guy, of course, that’s pretty awesome,” Harper said. “But I think in my career I’m like 1 for 9 with six strikeouts. He’s winning the battle right now. You just got to tip your cap to a guy like that. To be able to hit a homer against him is pretty fun.”
Actually, Harper is 1 for 6 with three strikeouts in his career against Kershaw. In Harper’s first at-bat Tuesday, Kershaw challenged Harper with five fastballs. Harper took two close ones and whiffed at two before he popped up to shallow left. Harper tossed his bat away as if he had just missed the pitch.
“I felt pretty good in my first AB,” Harper said. “I thought I had a great at-bat. He challenged me with some heaters.”
The second confrontation was a different story. Kershaw alternated between fastballs and curves and struck Harper out on four pitches, three of which he swung at and missed. Kershaw finished him off with a curve in the dirt.
“The second AB, he made me look pretty dumb with a curveball – probably the best curveball I’ve ever seen in my life,” Harper said. “To go up that next AB, I was just trying to look for something in the zone, trying to really make something happen.”
Kershaw threw Harper the fastball he was looking for, and he drilled it for his fourth homer in five games. In his last 13 games, Harper is 16 for 48 (.333) with five home runs and a double. If you want to nit-pick, he has 15 strikeouts and only one walk over that span. But his swing looks better than it has since early 2013, both controlled and violent, a product of better health and strength returning in his surgically repaired left thumb.
“Again, he’s finding his strength in his hand,” Manager Matt Williams said. “It’s coming back to him. So his bat speed is much better. He doesn’t have to try to generate with his lower half. All of those things that are important for a hitter. And he’s got good bat speed. He got a good pitch to hit, and he delivered it. So it’s good for him.”
FROM THE POST
Dominican players have a tradition of sharing food with visiting opponents, James Wager writes. Great story.
Clayton Kershaw beat the Nationals with his pitching and base running in a 4-1 Nationals loss.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
There were no games. Syracuse, Potomac and Hagerstown begin playoff series Wednesday night.