DENVER — The minuscule grows mountainous when analyzing a struggling superstar like Bryce Harper. When waiting for a turnaround that feels inevitable, nagged by the question of whether or not it actually is, each line drive feels like a reason to believe, every good swing looks like a sign of a revival.
But not every well-hit ball indicates several more to come. In fact, at several points this season, Harper seemed near to finding himself again, only to slide back into the slump. For nearly three months, he and the Washington Nationals have been grasping for signs, clawing for consistency, hunting for Harper of old.
But something about the double he hit in the seventh inning Monday — the way he rounded first at full speed to seize scoring position, the way his helmet flew off and bounced away halfway to second, the way he flicked his hair back and called time as the go-ahead run scored — felt significant somehow. Whether or not he regains his 2015 form, or slips back into inconsistency again, the Nationals have not seen many moments like those this season. That double gave them the only lead they had all night, and the only one they would need in a 5-4 win .
“We’re in first place right now. That’s the biggest thing for me,” Harper said. “As long as we can stay there, and I can get going through August and September and October, I think we’ll be okay.”
Thanks in large part to Harper’s go-ahead double, the Nationals moved to 23 games over .500 for the first time all season. They are 8½ games ahead of the Miami Marlins in their division. They have not survived without their reigning MVP producing like he did last year. They have thrived.
Monday, as all season, they did it because of a variety of contributors. Jayson Werth had two hits, including his fourth home run in his last nine games. Wilson Ramos hit a game-tying home run in the sixth. After Max Scherzer struggled through his shortest outing of the season, the bullpen worked five scoreless innings to hold down one of the better offensive teams in the league in the friendliest offensive park around.
“[Harper] is getting some hits. He laid off some tough pitches. It’s great to see him swinging the bat,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “. . . but the story, really, was our bullpen.”
Scherzer clawed through a four-inning grind in which he threw 97 pitches and allowed four earned runs on seven hits . Three of those runs came in the first, an often troublesome inning for the right-hander, whose 5.76 first-inning ERA is his highest in any inning but the ninth.
Scherzer does not pitch well at Coors Field, either, though few starters can say they do.
After Monday night, he has a 5.54 ERA in five Denver starts, his highest ERA anywhere except Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. His 1.95 walks-plus-hits-per-inning-pitched at Coors Field is his highest at any park.
“I just didn’t pitch efficiently. I just didn’t do a lot of things right tonight. Just couldn’t get in a groove,” Scherzer said. “They made me work for it.”
When Scherzer left, the Nationals only trailed by two because Werth had walked and homered by the fourth inning. His first-inning walk extended his on-base streak to 43 games, tying Ryan Zimmerman’s team record. The franchise record (Expos included) belongs to Rusty Staub, who reached in 46 straight games. His third inning home run was his 16th of the season, tied for the most he has hit since 2013.
In the sixth, Wilson Ramos hit a high flyball to right that carried out for his 19th home run of the season. Seven of Ramos’s last 10 home runs broke a tie and put the Nationals ahead. This one tied the game for the first time. An inning later, Harper came to the plate with two men on, and the game tied.
Harper missed all of last week with a stiff neck. It kept him out so long, some speculated that the trouble might be worse. But he returned to the lineup Sunday and doubled in a 1 for 3 showing.
By the time he came to bat in that seventh inning Monday, Harper had walked twice and doubled. He had chased a few balls in to the edge of the infield, slid and made the play. He had jumped up against the right field wall and seen a ball bounce off his glove. Everything seemed just fine.
“Tonight I felt great,” Harper said afterward. “Arm, head, neck, everything. Left arm, right arm, legs, abs, everything.”
Against tough lefty Boone Logan, he proved it. Harper doubled again — turned a sure single through the right side into a hustle double — and gave the Nationals their first lead. Harper had two RBI in the 13 games he played before sitting out last week. He has two in the two games since.
“I didn’t really care to think about baseball or anything like that,” said Harper, asked what he focused on when he was out. “I just wanted to get healthy. If I can get healthy and know I can be healthy and playing pain-free, I’ll be okay.”
Blake Treinen induced another key double-play ball — this one from all-star Nolan Arenado — to escape a jam in the seventh. Shawn Kelley pitched a scoreless eighth. Colorado native Mark Melancon worked a four-pitch, 1-2-3 ninth.
In Harper’s last at-bat, in the top of the ninth he fouled a ball off his left foot and fell to his knees, pained at home plate. Trainer Paul Lessard jogged out to check on him. Harper leaned over for a few seconds before picking up his bat and stepping back in. Then he singled through the right side, clinching his first three-hit game in more than two months. He reached base five times for the first time since May 8, when the Cubs walked him six times — the day some believe this whole slump began in the first place.