Strasburg allowed one run over seven innings, and then he watched a victory slip away. Rafael Soriano blew a save in the ninth. In the 10th, Yunesky Maya, fresh from Class AAA Syracuse, allowed a gargantuan, two-run, walk-off homer to Pablo Sandoval. Both could have been avoided if Harper had overcome an instinct to recall last week. He thought about his frightening collision with the fence at Dodger Stadium as he pursued Gregor Blanco’s line drive over his head with two outs in the ninth. He did not stretch out his arm for the ball, even though the entire warning track lay between him and brick wall, and it fell for a game-tying triple.
“I don’t want to hit the frickin’ wall full-on,” Harper said. “Of course that crosses your mind after you jam into a wall. It doesn’t really feel very good. It [stinks] that I couldn’t make the play. I totally put that loss on me.”
The Nationals walked off the AT&T Park field with one game remaining in what has been a ruinous road trip. They have lost six of nine, including four straight, out in California and now stand 23-23 for the year — a World Series favorite sitting at .500. They were outscored by 17 runs in the previous two days. On this night, they could choose what hurt more: a late-game meltdown or going scoreless in the final nine innings despite ample opportunity.
The final blow came when Sandoval hammered Maya’s 14th pitch, a hanging changeup, 464 feet to right-center field. The crowd rose as the ball screamed through the air, never a doubt. One night earlier, Maya, the Cuban defector signed in late 2010, had been in Toledo, preparing for a start for the Syracuse Chiefs. Now, he walked off the field, eyes to the ground.
“I don’t feel good,” Maya said through teammate Fernando Abad, who translated. “I wanted to put up a zero.”
Overcoming an uneven beginning and offering further proof the rocky start to his season was a blip, Strasburg fired seven strong innings, allowing just one run in a duel with Giants right-hander Matt Cain. Strasburg struck out seven, including four of his final five batters. Giants clogged the bases for the first three innings as Strasburg adjusted to the wind, which wreaked havoc on his bullpen warmup. Then Strasburg retired 14 of the final 15 hitters he faced, including six via strikeout.
“As the game went along, I was able to get more command of my pitches,” Strasburg said. “It was tough early, but I had to go out there and keep battling. I just got more comfortable out there.”
After Tyler Clippard pitched a scoreless eighth, the Nationals gave Soriano the chance for his 13th save. Buster Posey led off with a rocket of a one-hopper off Soriano’s glove. He deflected it toward shortstop, and the ball settled in no-man’s land for a single. Hunter Pence flied out to center field, then Brandon Belt lofted a pop to right.
Next came Blanco, who became a postseason hero here last year after spending the majority of 2011 at Syracuse, yearning for a chance that never came. Soriano jumped ahead of him, 0-2, then rifled a fastball so high Kurt Suzuki had to leap up from his crouch to catch it. Soriano tried to finish Blanco off with a 1-2 slider. It stayed up, and Blanco bashed it to right field.
Harper had been playing back in “no doubles” alignment. Harper sprinted back, looking over his left shoulder, tracking the ball. It traveled on more of a line than the ball that drove him into the wall in Los Angeles, and Harper never twisted around.
“The ball was hit well,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “He could have had another one of those deals where he ran into the wall.”
Harper had not even reached the warning track, though, when he jumped. As the ball traveled over his head, he put his hands down as if to protect himself and glanced at the wall, a good 15 feet away. The ball posed no threat.
“I should have caught it,” Harper said. “I just, I don’t know. I should have caught it. I put that whole loss on me. It really [stinks].
“I make that play any day of the week. It’s not a play that you should not make. It’s 15, five feet from the wall. It’s really a play you should make any time of the day.”
It one-hopped the brick wall as Blanco tore around the bases. He slid into third as pinch runner Andres Torres cruised home with the tying run.
“You got two outs and you play away, if a guy hits a ball, it’s got to be in front of you,” Soriano said. “Not like what happened tonight. I think we can play a better game than that.”
Afterward, Harper flogged himself and vowed to not let the threat of the fence deter him on balls hit over his head.
“Or I’m going to be in Triple A,” Harper said. “That’s how I feel. I better figure it out soon. I need to really try to catch those balls next time.”
But how could he practice such a risky play?
“I really don’t know,” Harper said. “It’s something I got to get over and really try to bear down and do better out there and try to learn every day.”
The Nationals would not have needed Harper’s catch if they had broken their offensive drought. During the afternoon, Johnson had walked off the AT&T Park field, where a handful of Nationals hitters had finished taking some early, extra batting practice, their latest effort to snap their team-wide hitting funk. In the visitors’ dugout, he happened upon a conversation between Denard Span and Harper about Washington’s batting order.
Harper mentioned an idea Johnson had already mulled. He told Johnson that he and Ryan Zimmerman had discussed reverting to last year’s mix, when Harper batted second and Zimmerman hit behind him. “If you guys are good for it,” Johnson said, “I’m good for it.”
The lineup change led immediately to the rarest of commodities for the Nationals: runs. Span led off the game with a single up the middle. Harper is anything but a traditional No. 2 hitter, but tonight he acted like one: he dropped down a sacrifice bunt, giving away an out and pushing Span to second. Zimmerman smashed a double off the wall, a hit that likely would have scored Span from first, anyway.
“I was trying to get guys in scoring position and try to get runs on the board,” Harper said. “Zim’s really swinging it hot right now, and LaRoche is, too. I’m trying to get guys over and I’m trying to get guys in scoring position for those guys. That was something I felt like I needed to do tonight.”
With Zimmerman still on second with two outs, Ian Desmond walked to the plate 0 for his last 17. He roped Cain’s 1-1 slider into the right-field corner, an RBI double that sent the Nationals ahead, 2-0. For Strasburg, that would have to be enough. And it almost was.
Washington loaded the bases with one out in the fourth inning, but failed to score after Suzuki tapped back to Cain and Strasburg struck out.
“We just haven’t had a lot of guys hitting,” Johnson said. “We just got to get better. That’s all.”
In the seventh, the Giants exploited the one flaw in the Nationals’ new lineup, the bunching of lefties Span and Harper. Span led off the eighth inning, and Giants Manager Bruce Bochy summoned lefty specialist Javier Lopez. Span flicked a bloop double to left field, putting a crucial insurance run on second with no outs.
For the second time, Harper made sabermetricians smash their laptops. He dropped another sac bunt, pushing Span to third. Like the first inning, Harper had bunted on his own, not under orders from Johnson.
“He looked over there,” Johnson said. “I said just pull the ball. He’s not seeing the ball that good either, I guess. He’s just trying to help.”
Bochy still controlled the match-ups. He ordered an intentional walk of Zimmerman, allowing Lopez to sling his submarine sliders at Adam LaRoche. He struck him out, and Bochy inserted right-hander Jean Machi to face Desmond. After a long at-bat, Desmond tapped back to the pitcher.
And so the Nationals bullpen needed to protect a one-run lead. Clippard tossed up a scoreless eighth, pitching around Marco Scutaro’s two-out double. In came Soriano, and another mess unfolded, and Harper seemed a little more human.