By the time Drew Storen struck out Alex Rodriguez to end the Washington Nationals’ 3-2 win over the New York Yankees on Wednesday night, Bryce Harper had long since tossed his uniform into the wash and finished his daily lift. Home plate umpire Marvin Hudson ejected him in the third inning for arguing balls and strikes — or perhaps for not being in the box or maybe for no reason at all, depending on who you talk to. He ejected Nationals Manager Matt Williams, too.
“Doggone it, he’s our best player and arguably the best player on the planet right now,” Williams said. “And we need him in the game.”
But these days, the Nationals cannot help but win, so even without Harper and his 15 home runs and 38 RBI, they won anyway. They are hurtling to the top of the National League.
With Michael A. Taylor heading to right instead of Harper and Randy Knorr managing in Williams’s place, they barreled on anyway. The Nationals swept the two-game series with the Yankees, their seventh straight series victory. They have won 17 of their past 21 games, and with the New York Mets’ 9-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, they are alone atop the NL East at 24-17.
“Got my lift in early. That was good,” Harper said. “Of course, I want to be on the field. I don’t need to be in here watching the game on TV. I need to be on the field and helping my team win.”
Harper has been the story during the Nationals’ streak to the top, but he has not always carried them. They carried on just fine without him Wednesday.
Hudson’s strike zone troubled the Nationals all evening, in particular on the low slider he called a strike that led to Harper’s ejection, then Williams’s. Four Nationals struck out looking. Denard Span was not one of them.
Span says he abandons the patience his leadoff duties require when he comes to bat with runners in scoring position. In those situations, when the pitcher is already laboring, seeing pitches does not help as much as hitting them — so he swings often.
Span took that approach into his seventh inning at-bat, which came with the bases loaded and the game tied at 2-2. Given the day’s events, perhaps he was wise not to leave things up to Hudson. He swung through a first-pitch fastball from Yankees reliever Justin Wilson. Two pitches later, he swung again and chopped a single through the left side to score Wilson Ramos, the go-ahead run.
Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann remained unaffected by the commotion, not engaging in the debate. Zimmermann pitches bluntly, attacking so hitters must swing. He battered the first three Yankees hitters with nothing but mid-90s fastballs. Two of them got hits and eventually scored, but Zimmermann continued his barrage. No Yankees scored in the rest of his seven innings. Only one more runner reached second base.
One early fastball bore in on leadoff man Brett Gardner’s hands but not enough, and Gardner blooped it to right. Carlos Beltran sent another one into the gap in right-center. Span, who has repeatedly flashed glimmering defense since returning from the disabled list, misplayed the ball, and Gardner scored. Beltran scored on a sacrifice fly from Brian McCann.
From there, Zimmermann allowed three more hits and struck out six on 88 pitches in seven efficient innings.
Lately, the winning template for the Nationals has included early deficits. They followed that blueprint again Wednesday. For the second straight night, shortstop Ian Desmond homered in the first inning, with this one making the score 2-1.
On Wednesday, Williams chose Tyler Moore, a right-handed hitter against right-handed Yankees starter Adam Warren, to fill in for injured Jayson Werth in left. He liked the way Moore had been swinging the past few games, which included a double in San Diego on Sunday and a home run in Arizona last week. With the Nationals still trailing in the fourth, and Williams watching in the clubhouse, Moore lined a 2-2 Warren pitch over the left field wall to tie the game.
That Desmond and Moore provided power was important because after the third inning, Harper was unavailable. Harper said Hudson told him to get in the box, but when he got there, Hudson was not wearing his mask, hollering to Williams in the dugout instead, discussing the low strike.
Harper then stepped out — if Hudson’s mask was not on, play would not resume — and Hudson told Harper to get in the box. Hudson said later he ejected Harper for arguing balls and strikes, that it “had nothing to do with the box,” that Harper “said something he shouldn’t have.” Williams said the ejection was unwarranted. Harper said he couldn’t believe he was tossed.
“Once I put my foot back in the box. I said, ‘This is where I was.’ He rung me,” Harper said. “He tossed me. I don’t think 40,000 people came to watch him ump tonight. Plain and simple.”
Whatever they came to see, those 40,000 saw a Nationals win because the game settled after the ejections. In the seventh, Ramos reached on an error. Moore walked. Danny Espinosa tried to bunt but popped it to Chase Headley. Dan Uggla pinch-hit for Zimmermann and walked to load the bases for Span, who delivered the game-winner.
Rookie left-hander Matt Grace handled the heart of the Yankees’ order in the eighth, the second straight night he did that. Storen earned his 12th save with a scoreless ninth. He struck out Rodriguez looking to end it. Rodriguez did not like the call.
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Box score: Nationals 3, Yankees 2