Bryce Harper emerged from the home dugout at Nationals Park on Saturday afternoon as his team took the diamond and made a beeline to right field. It was out of habit. Right field has been his home for years. But right field wasn’t his domain Saturday. So when he snapped out of the muscle memory, right before crossing the first base line, he pivoted. He was a center fielder Saturday.
Harper was in center because Adam Eaton returned from the disabled list, creating an abundance of qualified outfielders most clubs would envy. It was on Nationals Manager Dave Martinez to figure it out, and Martinez, after a restless night sorting through the possibilities, decided to put Eaton — just four weeks removed from ankle surgery — in right field, shift Harper to center for the first time since 2015 and move Michael A. Taylor to the bench.
By sitting Taylor against a right-handed pitcher, Martinez traded defense for offense. The result was the kind of offensive performance the Nationals have produced infrequently and a timely output to overcome a rare hiccup by a starting pitcher in a 7-5 victory over the San Francisco Giants.
In his first game since April 8, Eaton, batting leadoff, went 1 for 4 with a hit-by-pitch before coming out of the game as part of a double switch after the seventh inning. He reached base twice and scored twice — sprinting from second base the first time — in the first two innings. He moved smoothly in the outfield, too, though he seemed to have trouble stopping.
“I was so tired. I’m so out of shape, it’s unbelievable,” Eaton joked. “I’m pretty tired right now as well. It’s good, though. The [ankle] reacted really well.”
Harper, meanwhile, passed his first test in center field in the first inning, making a retreating catch after initially turning the wrong way. He looked more comfortable when he made a diving catch to end the third inning. At the plate, he finished 2 for 5 with a towering home run.
Before the game, Martinez said Harper was enthusiastic about playing center field, even commenting that he believed it was the easiest of the three outfield spots. Harper had some experience there, appearing in 121 games over his career in center, but he hadn’t played the position in nearly three years. Asked whether it could become a more regular occurrence, Martinez said it was possible.
Eaton was Washington’s Opening Day center fielder last season and played the position during his rehab assignment. But he was a standout right fielder with the Chicago White Sox in 2016, and the Nationals want to lighten the load on Eaton. Playing him in right and giving him the occasional day off would help accomplish that.
As for left field, Eaton’s position on Opening Day this year, Martinez indicated Juan Soto, the Nationals’ 19-year-old everyday left fielder for nearly three weeks, has earned playing time because he has had success against both right-handers and left-handers. Then there’s Taylor, who is slated to be back in the lineup Sunday against a left-hander, and Brian Goodwin, the team’s fifth outfielder who was instrumental for stretches last season.
“We’ll figure out all this other stuff as the days go on,” Martinez said. “But it’s a good problem to have.”
A potentially bad problem surfaced in the eighth inning Saturday, when setup man Brandon Kintzler, after surrendering a double to Buster Posey, abruptly exited after a brief visit from the team trainer. Sean Doolittle entered to complete a four-out save, but the Nationals’ bullpen, among the league’s best over the past few weeks, may be facing another setback. After the game, Martinez said Kintzler departed with a “tight forearm” and will undergo an MRI exam Sunday.
The injury dampened a festive day that initially belonged to the Capitals. At 11:46 a.m., after the Capitals and Nationals convened for photos in the home clubhouse, Alex Ovechkin walked onto the field with the Stanley Cup, hoisting it behind the mound to a ferocious roar from fans packing the stadium before the 12:05 p.m. start to witness the trophy’s next stop. The entire Capitals team followed their captain and watched as Ovechkin, a left-handed thrower, sailed the ceremonial first pitch over Max Scherzer’s head. Ovechkin asked for the ball back and tried again. The second pitch was lobbed over the plate.
The Capitals ended up in a suite along the left field line, beer flowing, periodically snatching attention from the game when a player surfaced with the Cup. Ovechkin lifted it during the third inning, basking in cheers, while Gio Gonzalez labored to hold a five-run lead the Nationals (36-26) had built against Giants right-hander Dereck Rodriguez, who was pitching with his father, Hall of Famer and former Nationals catcher Ivan Rodriguez, in the crowd.
Gonzalez never found a rhythm. His tempo was off. His body language wasn’t encouraging. Eventually, he couldn’t put hitters away in the third inning. First, he went up 0-2 on Buster Posey only to walk him. Later, with two outs, Even Longoria singled after getting behind 1-2. Finally, Nick Hundley, after going down 0-2, belted a three-run home run. The left-hander escaped the inning without further damage but secured just one out in the fourth inning and was relieved after 97 pitches with the bases loaded.
“The control was a little bit off,” said Gonzalez, who allowed four runs and walked four in a season-low 3⅓ innings. “It was just trying to finish the inning and get through. Obviously, I was off.”
Gonzalez’s early exit forced a bullpen that logged seven innings Friday to absorb another heavy workload. Justin Miller was the first called on. He allowed an inherited runner to score on a sacrifice fly but shut the door after that to keep the Nationals ahead 5-4. Harper quickly doubled the margin, swatting a slider over the plate from left-hander Ty Blach to right-center field in the fourth inning for his National League-leading 19th home run. Spencer Kieboom’s RBI double in the seventh — his first career extra-base hit — gave Washington’s relief corps a two-run cushion.
Then, before the eighth inning, Martinez told Harper he was putting Goodwin in center field and moving Harper to right. Harper protested. He wanted to stay in center. But Martinez didn’t relent. He told him to relax a bit. He will be back there soon enough anyway.
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