ATLANTA — Bryce Harper is a dangerous hitter, at times the most dangerous in baseball. It’s how one is named an MVP and makes four all-star teams by his 24th birthday. But the threat level rises, from orange to bright red, when the Washington Nationals right fielder sees Julio Teheran standing 60 feet, six inches away. Then, Harper seemingly goes from mere transcendent slugger to nearly impossible out. He has destroyed Teheran since breaking into the major leagues and he destroyed him again Wednesday night, continuing his torrid April in the Nationals’ 14-4 win over the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park.
Harper smacked two home runs off Teheran in his first two at-bats. The first was a solo shot. The second was his third career grand slam. It was his 12th career multi-home run game, and his fifth and sixth home runs of the season. He later added a walk, a single and a double in leading the Nationals’ outburst as they improved to 9-5.
“He can be a really good player at times,” Nationals left fielder Jayson Werth said.
Ryan Zimmerman delivered his own grand slam in the eighth inning — the sixth of his career and his first since Aug. 25, 2015 — to continue his resurgence and blow the game open. It was the first time the Nationals slugged two grand slams in the same game since July 27, 2009. Washington tallied a season-high 20 hits. Every player with an at-bat had at least one except starting pitcher Joe Ross and Daniel Murphy, who entered the night second in baseball in hits but went 0 for 4 to drop his batting average to .344.
The deluge was more than enough for Ross, who yielded three runs over seven innings in his 2017 Nationals debut, and afforded the maligned Nationals bullpen two stress-free innings. About the only negative development for the Nationals was Werth’s exit in the third inning with groin spasms during his second plate appearance. Werth said he doesn’t expect the injury to sideline him for more than a couple days, but he won’t know for sure until he wakes up Thursday. Chris Heisey replaced the 37-year-old left fielder and went 2 for 5.
Harper didn’t waste time in obliterating Teheran. He pounced on the first pitch he saw from the Colombian right-hander — a 91-mph fastball over the heart of the plate — and swatted it over the wall in right-center field in the first inning to give Washington a 1-0 lead. He played the long game his next time up with two outs in the second inning, taking one pitch before smashing the second over the wall in dead center field for the first grand slam in the history of the Braves’ new digs in unincorporated Atlanta.
Teheran walked Harper intentionally in their third meeting in the fourth inning to avoid further destruction and keep Harper to seven home runs in 39 plate appearances against him. The ratio is equivalent to 112 home runs in 608 plate appearances, which is standard for a season. The seven home runs are the most Harper has hit off any pitcher. He boasts a .454 batting average and 1.708 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against Teheran.
“I just try to go up there and respect the guy on the mound, of course, and try to have good at-bats,” Harper said. “I try to see a pitch over the plate and get it done.”
The grand slam broke a 2-2 tie after the Braves (6-8) had welcomed Ross with two runs in his first inning of 2017, but Ross settled in after the 20-pitch frame, keeping the ball down to avoid solid contact. He yielded one run over the next six innings — on a Freddie Freeman home run — and exited after seven having thrown 100 pitches. He allowed six hits, struck out seven and walked one.
“I just tried to work quick, get groundball outs, work on my sinker,” Ross said. “And it kind of paid off.”
His counterpart Teheran exited after surrendering seven runs in four innings, but Harper didn’t limit his demolition to the starter. He singled off right-hander Josh Collmenter in the sixth and lined a double off left-hander Ian Krol in the eighth to reach base for the eighth consecutive plate appearance going back to Tuesday. Two batters later, Zimmerman smashed a grand slam to right-center field for his fourth home run of the season.
“Whenever I’m going good I’m hitting the ball to all fields,” Zimmerman said. “That’s kind of been a strength during my career.”
Like Zimmerman, Harper is back to his best. By the end of the night, he was batting .404 with a 1.362 OPS. He has 18 RBI in 64 plate appearances.
It is far too early to declare the 2015 version of Harper, the one with the Ruthian production, is back from whatever 2016 was. The Nationals haven’t completed 10 percent of their regular season schedule, and Harper, remember, was named the National League player of the month for April a year ago before resembling an average hitter over the remainder of the campaign while dealing with nagging injuries.
But two realities are clear 14 games into the season: Bryce Harper is as dangerous as he has ever been in the batter’s box, and he still destroys Julio Teheran.