The day before this National League Division Series started, Mike Rizzo stood on the field at Nationals Park, the sun shining, nothing but possibility ahead. He assessed his team, its chances, the ingredients necessary.
“People say, ‘Don’t try to be a hero,’ ” said Rizzo, the general manager of the Washington Nationals. “No. No! Be a hero.”
Calling Bryce Harper, made for the moment. Oh, and you, Ryan Zimmerman.
The two of you, pry loose the Chicago Cubs’ grip from around the Nats’ throat. Be heroes, for a night. Flip a series. It was all but over, Cubs in a walk. Now, who knows when it will be done — or who will win?
Zimmerman’s three-run homer provided the difference in a 6-3 victory Saturday night. But three batters before came Harper, facing Cubs reliever Carl Edwards Jr. Zimmerman doesn’t get his chance if Harper doesn’t make the most of his. Zimmerman can’t be a hero unless Harper is before him.
And so Harper dug in.
“I believe that he’s built for those moments,” said his father, Ron.
Before the eighth inning at Nationals Park, the Nationals were shriveling. They had been reduced to flies burning as the sun shone through a magnifying glass, the lens held by the merciless Cubs. In their 16 turns at-bat over two evenings to open the series, the Nationals had gone 4 for 52, a cool — make that frigid — .077 average. Not once had they collected more than a single hit in a frame.
Where were the heroes? Worse: Would there ever be one?
And then Adam Lind singled, and with one out, Harper came to the plate. The Nats Park crowd of 43,860 stood.
This is their guy. This is his time. He is a star. Do what stars do — or the biggest decision might be whether to endure the torture of watching Game 3 Monday.
“There’s this expectation for him,” said Nats closer Sean Doolittle, a teammate for less than three months. “There’s this pressure for him. It’s monumental.”
Before Game 2, Harper was asked to consider the Nats’ situation, which from the outside seemed, well, bleak. They had wasted a dominant effort from right-hander Stephen Strasburg in the series opener. They didn’t have Cy Young winner Max Scherzer slated to go until Game 3 in Chicago. And on the mound was lefty Gio Gonzalez, whose season was solid but whose constitution is not.
“I’ve played in a lot of bigger games, I feel like, than this,” Harper said. “Game 2 of the postseason . . . I don’t know. I don’t want that to come off bad. But growing up, playing in front of 15,000 people at 10 years old, it’s kind of the same thing to me.”
His point, however indelicately: Dire spot for us? Puh-leeze. He is nine days shy of 25 years old, and circumstances that make others buckle make him bold.
“I’ve seen him do some special things when he was 12 years old that I’ll never forget in my life,” Ron Harper said.
Now, 43,860 can join Ron Harper in saying they saw something from Harper, at 24, that they’ll never forget.
There was, first, the issue of the at-bat. Harper had one of the Nats’ two hits on Friday night, but Cubs lefty Jon Lester had toyed with him in his first three plate appearances Saturday — a strikeout in the first, groundouts in the fourth and sixth.
But because the Nats’ lineup has left-right balance, after Lind’s single, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon had to choose what to do: bring in lefty Mike Montgomery to face Harper, knowing right-handed hitting Anthony Rendon — with a homer earlier in the night — waited behind him. Or stick with Edwards to face Harper, the Cubs still in control, up 3-1. Maddon stuck with Edwards.
And with a first-pitch curveball in the dirt, it looked like the right move. Harper flailed.
“Great swing on that pitch,” Harper said. Eyeroll implied. Feel free to laugh.
It was, though, a sign of where Harper is in his return from a bone bruise in his left knee. Because so much is expected of him, it’s easy to forget this is his seventh game since Aug. 12 — the night he tumbled to the ground after slipping on a soggy first base in this same ballpark.
So that ugly swing? “That’s gonna happen when you’ve had time off,” Ron Harper said.
It’s a clear indication, though, that he needs more at-bats to be Bryce Harper pitch after pitch after pitch. But even if his timing is not yet set by Rolex, he’s still Bryce Harper at his core. And that person needs just one pitch to emerge.
“If he’s got a bat, if he’s in the box, he’s never out,” veteran outfielder and noted Harper whisperer Jayson Werth said. “He’s always got a chance. Right man, right spot.”
So Harper hung in. Edwards came with three high fastballs, and Harper laid off each one. At 3-1, what would be next?
“Didn’t think he was going to throw a pitch over the plate, to tell you the truth,” Harper said. “I thought he was going to throw a curveball back down in the dirt. I thought about taking the whole way. And then I saw the loop in the curveball, and said, ‘Why not? Swing as hard as you can.’”
Harper’s hardest swing can be the most ferocious, devastating swing in the game. This one salvaged a season and may have turned a series. The ball all but scoffed at the lower-bowl seats as it made its way out to right. The picture of Scherzer that sits well back on the second deck — one eye blue, one eye brown — has long seemed a preposterous target. But after seeing Harper’s ball detonate midway up the second deck, who’s to say what’s possible?
“From Day One, there’s an enormous amount of pressure on him,” Zimmerman said. “Maybe more than on anyone — ever.”
Maybe that’s true. But he would also have it no other way.
“I’ve never seen him back down from it,” Ron Harper said. “That’s the thing.”
The Nationals needed a hero Saturday night. If they are to beat the Cubs and — finally — advance another round in the playoffs, they will need one again. Who’s going to bet Bryce Harper won’t be at the casting call, reading for the role of leading man, the only role he has ever known?
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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