Before Saturday’s 5-4 win over the San Diego Padres, Manager Davey Johnson and Bryce Harper had a talk. After his recent mini-slump grew to five days Friday, Johnson wanted to rest Harper for the rest of the weekend because he was “grinding too hard.”
Harper sent Johnson a text message Friday night that read, “play me or trade me,” and on Saturday morning Harper explained why he wanted to be in the lineup. He talked his way in, and his three RBI helped power the Washington Nationals to their third straight win, one in which the Nationals overcame a rare spell of inconsistency from starter Jordan Zimmermann, who battled hot weather and a stiff neck. Ryan Zimmerman delivered the game-winning hit, and nifty defensive plays by Anthony Rendon and Adam LaRoche sealed the win in a wild ninth inning pitched by Rafael Soriano.
The victory pushed the Nationals’ record to three games over .500 for the first time since May 18, perhaps a sign this team is starting to pull out of a months-long bout of maddening inconsistency.
Harper helped pave the way to the recent improvement with his bat. He also made a nice diving play in the fifth inning to prevent a base hit in shallow left field. He entered the game in an 0-for-18 slide since he homered in his first at-bat back from the disabled list Monday. Johnson was worried mostly about Harper’s body language, which perhaps suggested he needed a mental and physical break, but Harper explained to him he was healthy and just needed more at-bats to get his timing back.
“I was pretty serious about what I said [in the text],” Harper said after the game. “I want to play. I wanted to play every single day. I think if he wants to put me in the lineup, then I want to be in the lineup. If he doesn’t, I’m going to try to make him put me in the lineup. It’s something that I want to do every day. I’m going to grind through everything that I do, play as hard as I can, and good things will happen.”
Harper finished 1 for 2 but delivered productive at-bats. He drove in a run with a bases-loaded walk in the third inning by spitting on a close 2-1 change-up and outside 3-1 change-up from Jason Marquis, the former National making his first start in Washington since his 2011 trade. Harper drove in another run with a single in the fifth.
But Harper’s sacrifice fly in the seventh inning — off left-handed reliever Joe Thatcher, who came in to face just him — knotted the score at 4. Zimmerman followed and smacked a single off right-hander Luke Gregerson that put the Nationals ahead, 5-4. The comeback spared the Nationals a loss in a game started by Zimmermann, their best pitcher this season.
Zimmermann, named to the All-Star Game along with Harper during the game, had been experiencing some minor neck stiffness in recent starts, and the hot weather wore him down. (“I’ll be fine,” he said.) He wiggled out of runners in scoring position in each of the first three innings, but it drove up his pitch count. He allowed a run in the fifth and convinced Johnson he could pitch the sixth.
But Zimmermann allowed two one-out singles and was relieved by Ross Ohlendorf, who coughed up a three-run home run to Jesus Guzman three pitches into his appearance. Zimmermann lost his bid to become the second 13-game winner in the majors, was charged with three runs and tossed 101 pitches over 51 / 3 innings. It was only the third time in 18 starts this season Zimmermann hasn’t completed the sixth inning.
Other than Guzman’s home run, the Nationals’ bullpen reversed a recent stretch of inconsistency that made Johnson “gun shy,” in his own words. Drew Storen tossed a powerhouse eighth inning, needing only five pitches to get three outs, the type of aggression Johnson has wanted from him. Then came the wild ninth inning.
Soriano, seeking his 24th save, allowed two one-out singles. Pinch-hitter Mark Kotsay drilled a ball back to Soriano, which hit him in the stomach, a potential double-play ball. Rendon quickly reversed direction, scooped up the ball and made a snap throw to nab a diving Kotsay at first.
Everth Cabrera, a speedy runner, then smacked a grounder toward the first base hole, seemingly headed toward right field to tie the game. LaRoche, the NL’s reigning Gold Glove first baseman, dove to his right to stop the ball. From his knees, he flipped the ball to Soriano racing to cover first, and he beat Cabrera by a step. “That’s the fastest I’ve seen him run,” Zimmerman said of Soriano.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Soriano said of his teammates’ defensive gems. “I know this team has great defense. And I know that any way they’re going to try to make the play. We have a great team, and it’s just about winning more games, and I know we can go far.”
Soriano pounded his glove and untucked his shirt after the win, joined by LaRoche. The Nationals slapped hands on the field, only the sixth time this season they have won three games in a row. This time, however, their lineup is healthy. And with Harper pulling out of his recent skid and in the lineup every day, the Nationals have perhaps found more hope.
More on the Nationals:
Nationals Journal: Detwiler going on DL; Haren coming back Monday
Nationals Journal: Harper to start All-Star Game
Nationals Journal: Zimmerman makes first all-star team
Nationals Journal: Desmond among those in NL final vote
Nationals Journal: Nationals shows interest in Cubs’ Garza
Nationals Journal: Harper talks his way back into lineup