The night before, and for days before that, Harper had looked frustrated with teams pitching around him and began swinging at pitches he wouldn’t normally hunt. Under different circumstances, a manager might give Harper a day off to reset while slumping like that, but Dave Martinez couldn’t afford such a move — not with so many players injured.
So Monday night, he called Harper into his office. Harper had not even finished changing and was shirtless at the time, still in his baseball pants when Martinez offered a proposal. What if he moved him to the leadoff spot? Harper assented, convinced by the same logic Martinez said convinced him to suggest the move in the first place.
“I came to the conclusion,” said Martinez after watching his team struggle to score runs for weeks, “that why not?”
Perhaps it was change for change’s sake. But it worked. Not only did Harper break a 5-for-37 slump with his first home run in two weeks, but the Nationals’ offense exploded with him, scoring more runs in one night than it had in the previous three combined. Matt Adams homered twice. Trea Turner drove in three runs. The Nationals entered Tuesday having scored exactly three runs in three straight games and in five of their last eight. Even with a starting rotation as reliable as theirs, three runs per game is not the kind of scoring pace that facilitates a win streak.
For the first time all season, Max Scherzer took the mound following a win the night before — circumstances that do facilitate win streaks. He was dominant in 6⅓ innings in which he struck out eight and allowed three hits, including a late homer. He improved to 6-1, and the Nationals won their third straight to move within two games of .500 at 14-16. The last time they won three straight games was at the start of the season.
As much as the offense needed Tuesday night’s outburst, the bullpen needed it more. Exhausted Nationals relievers — particularly Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle — had been rooting for a blowout to ease their workload for weeks. They finally got one. Tuesday’s blowout will have ripple effects on that group for days.
“It was awesome,” Martinez said. “We get to rest our big three a little bit.”
Martinez moved Harper to the top of the order despite the fact that he had not hit there since 2013, though he did have a 1.007 on-base-plus-slugging percentage there in 17 career games. In addition to moving Harper to the leadoff spot, Martinez chose to hit Scherzer eighth, putting Wilmer Difo in the ninth spot. Before the game, he told Difo his job was to get on base. Difo homered in his first at-bat. Then he told his manager “I got this guy,” offering the confident suggestion that Martinez could chuck the “getting on base” advice out the window and start expecting more homers.
“I said, ‘Great, good job,’ ” Martinez said with a smile, as if his toddler had just declared he would be president someday, or something like that. “Yeah, he had a good day. It’s hard not to like Difo.”
Difo ended up reaching base four times in four plate appearances, following that homer with two walks and a single that meant Harper came to bat with runners on repeatedly.
Harper homered after Scherzer reached on an error and Difo walked in the fifth, by which time Matt Adams had hit his first home run of the game to give the Nationals a 2-0 lead. He would hit another, then single home a run later. But at the time Harper walked to the plate in that fifth inning, the Nationals still looked doomed for another white-knuckle evening.
The Pirates had a base open if they wished to fill it with him, but they decided against it. Harper hit a towering home run to left center, his first since April 16, his ninth of the season. High-fives chased him from the on-deck circle to the dugout stairs, but when he got to the bottom, he found Martinez waiting with a hug.
“I think it all starts in that manager’s office every night. He believes in our team. He believes in us as a group, and we believe in him as well,” Harper said. “He’s one of the best managers I’ve ever been around.”
An inning later, the Nationals exploded for six more runs. Scherzer singled home a run. Turner, Martinez’s latest attempt at protecting Harper, doubled home three. Adams finished 3 for 4 with three RBI. Their previous home scoring high was six. They doubled it.
Harper won’t lead off forever. Ideally, when Anthony Rendon returns and Harper finds his stride, Martinez could slide him into the second spot. But when asked if he would consider leading Harper off again, Martinez chuckled.
“We’ll let it ride for a couple days,” he said. After a night like this, he finally felt no need to tinker.