The routine goes something like this: Bryce Harper swings and follows through, then stands tall, with both hands still gripping the bat. He takes a few steps toward first, bat in hand, then tosses it away before he jogs the rest of the 360 feet most of his hits have required lately. He can afford to stand and watch for a second — no need to hustle just in case — because recently he has left no doubt.
After he hit three home runs Wednesday, Harper hit two more in Friday’s 9-2 win over the Atlanta Braves, lifting the Washington Nationals (15-15) back to .500 for the first time since April 21. That’s five homers and 10 RBI in eight at-bats, making him the first player in franchise history and the youngest player in major league history to hit five home runs in a two-game span.
“Don’t touch him. You might get third-degree burns,” starter Gio Gonzalez said. “That guy’s on fire.”
Harper is now tied for the National League lead with 10 home runs. Danny Espinosa is second on the Nats with four — two of which also came Friday night. Jayson Werth homered but only once.
“I lost the derby,” he said afterward.
Espinosa did not win the derby, either. His home runs snuck over the wall. Harper’s homers had hardly begun their descent when they crossed its plane. The first came on a fastball from Eric Stults, which he drove high and deep to dead center for his first home run. That one gave the Nationals a 3-2 lead.
“I don’t even want to talk about mechanics. I don’t want to talk about anything really,” Harper said. “I just want to go up there and have good ABs. Like I said, like I’ve been saying, if I’m healthy, if I’m going the right way, that’s what you’re gonna get out of me, hands down. That’s just the way I am.”
The beneficiary of the Nationals’ impromptu home run showcase was Gonzalez, who pitched seven strong innings, striking out eight. Gonzalez was a wiry 26-year-old when he first joined the Nationals in 2012, a lanky lefty who threw hard enough to win 21 games but who looked like he might topple off the rubber if a breeze off the Anacostia gusted in his direction.
He arrived at spring training this year heavier than ever by design. A bigger and stronger lower body would take pressure off the shoulder that troubled him last season and perhaps generate more power, too.
In Friday’s win, Gonzalez got stronger as the innings passed. His fastball, which normally sits around 92, jumped to 94 in the fifth and the sixth innings and on his 100th pitch of the game.
Gonzalez struck out eight or more batters four times last season, but has now done so in three straight starts. Over his past two starts, including his scoreless masterpiece at Citi Field last weekend, he has pitched 14 innings, struck out 17 and walked three. On Friday, he beat the Braves for the first time since 2012.
Afterward, he explained what worked so well: “The nine runs, five home runs, that works more than anything,” he said.
Werth gave the Nationals their only run entering the sixth inning. His right shoulder, operated on in January, has ached in spurts and is still gaining strength. He was hitting .176 when the shoulder acted up earlier this week. He was hitting line drives to the outfield but no further and had just two extra-base hits all season. Nationals Manager Matt Williams sat Werth on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the team did not play Thursday — three days off, the most he has had since being activated from the disabled list April 13. Werth, apparently rejuvenated, hit a fastball into the left field stands in the fourth inning. Then Harper and Espinosa traded shots.
Espinosa trained throughout spring training with the intention of hitting only right-handed this season. He struggled from the left side last season, and the Nationals asked him to try to convert. He did not feel comfortable by the start of the regular season and opted to keep hitting left-handed against right-handed pitching.
On Friday, he struck out twice from the right side against Braves lefty Stults. He homered twice from the left side, both to the opposite field, which is indicative of good left-handed power and seeing the ball deep into the strike zone. All four of his home runs this season have come left-handed.
“I’m just trying not to do too much, just trying to stay within myself,” Espinosa said. “I’m just trying not to over-think things, stay in rhythm, hit what’s given to me and not try to create something. Really just trying to stay within myself.”
Harper’s second came in the eighth at the expense of Braves reliever Williams Perez, who was making his major league debut. The right-hander allowed singles to Yunel Escobar and Werth ahead of Harper. Harper was not sure Perez would pitch to him but readied himself for a first-pitch strike all the same. It landed deep in the right field stands, and Harper earned his second curtain call in two days.
“Hopefully I hit two more tomorrow,” Harper said.
More on the Nationals and baseball:
Nationals Journal: Strasburg’s status remains uncertain for Monday
Nationals Journal: Johnson expected to resume baseball activities in 12 weeks
Nationals Journal: Werth returns from resting shoulder
D.C. Sports Bog: Robinson getting his Ring of Honor
Nationals Journal: Barrett earning heavy workload
McCutchen among stars starting slowly
Nationals Journal: Ward another big, young prospect at Potomac