Bryce Harper stepped away from home plate, and the Nationals Park fans rose both in anticipation and appreciation. Just beyond Jonathan Papelbon, Harper could see Adam LaRoche, the tying run, on second base. Harper had resisted Papelbon’s fastballs an eyelash off the outside corner. He had flicked foul splitters intended to fool him. He had stayed alive long enough for one more pitch, the ninth of the at-bat.
At the end of a maddening offensive night for the Washington Nationals, Harper’s showdown with Papelbon provided a flicker of hope. It only added another dollop of frustration to the Nationals’ 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. With the count full and the crowd frothing, Papelbon’s 88-mph split-fingered fastball darted under Harper’s swing for a third strike. The roars turned to groans.
One batter later, second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera struck out to end his first game in a Nationals uniform. The first-place Nationals dropped their second straight game to the last-place Phillies despite Doug Fister’s exquisite seven innings, marred only by Harper’s second-inning misplay and Marlon Byrd’s game-winning, opposite-field homer in the sixth inning. Philadelphia right-hander Roberto Hernandez allowed one unearned run in eight innings as a cavalcade of line drives zipped into leather.
The Nationals will play most of the remaining regular season without Ryan Zimmerman, which means either they have plenty of time to adjust or they’re in real trouble. In the nine games since Zimmerman injured his hamstring, the Nationals have gone 3-6 and scored 27 runs.
“You just can’t replace a guy like Ryan Zimmerman,” said right fielder Jayson Werth, who cut down a run at the plate with his sixth outfield assist. “So yeah, we’re going to miss him. But we’re going to have to pick [it] up. We’re going to have to make do. We’re going to have to win games without him. It’s just what good teams do. They make adjustments and pick each other up.”
The Nationals acquired Cabrera from the Cleveland Indians not to replicate Zimmerman’s production, but to provide a lift with him out. Cabrera ripped three line drives in his first three at-bats, all of them right at defenders, before striking out to end the game. In his first game at second base since 2009, Cabrera made a slick, sliding play and manned the position like a natural.
“My first inning, I felt a little weird,” Cabrera said. “But after that, I felt confident again. I think if you play shortstop, you can play any position in the infield.”
The Nationals have not hit a home run in any of the nine games they’ve played without Zimmerman. Friday night, they found the biggest problem with not pounding the ball over the fence: it might find its way into a glove.
The Nationals smashed line drives at fielders all night — nine of the 24 outs Hernandez recorded resulted from lineouts or flyballs to the warning track. In the eighth inning, Denard Span ripped a line drive at Hernandez’s chest. When he caught it, mostly in self-defense, it made Hernandez both the luckiest pitcher alive and a pitcher lucky to be alive. Anthony Rendon followed with a flyball that pushed left fielder Grady Sizemore’s heels to the fence to make the inning-ending catch.
“I think Susan Sarandon said it: ‘Hit ’em where they ain’t,’” Manager Matt Williams said, referencing the classic baseball film “Bull Durham.” “We didn’t do a very good job of that tonight. But it’s like, what can you do? Once you hit it, you can’t steer it.”
Once Hernandez left, LaRoche and Ian Desmond sparked a one-out rally in the ninth inning with line-drive singles to left field. The key at-bat fell to Harper, but his search to find his swing remained fruitless. He continued toggling between stances Friday, and even with a line-drive single in his first at-bat in the second inning, Harper is 20 for 86 with five extra-base hits since coming off the disabled list. He exited the Nationals clubhouse Friday night as reporters were walking in.
“The more he sees, the better it is — we hope,” Williams said. “He had a nice at-bat. Unfortunately it didn’t turn out for him, but he saw a lot of pitches, he took balls off the plate, he fouled a few off. So yeah, it was a good at-bat.”
The Nationals may have headed to extra innings if not for Fister’s one mistake. With two outs in the sixth and the game tied at 1, Byrd strode to the plate. Fister had struck him out twice, working with his sinker high in the strike zone. Fister changed his plan and tried to jam Byrd with an inside fastball. But it stayed over the plate, and Byrd smashed it over the right field fence.
“I left it over the plate a little too much,” Fister said. “I was kind of surprised he took it the other way. It’s definitely one of those pitches I need to make sure is in. I was trying to go off the plate. I left it over the plate a little bit. That’s what he does.”
Fister steamrolled through Philadelphia’s first five batters, and with two outs in the second Sizemore lashed a drive to left field. Harper turned over his left shoulder and sprinted toward the visitors’ bullpen. Harper and outfield walls share a sordid history, most infamously when he plowed into the Dodger Stadium fence last year. As Harper neared the warning track, he peeked at the fence and lost track of the ball. He took an awkward stab at the ball, and it grazed his mitt on its way to the dirt.
The official scorer credited Sizemore with a double, and Fister still needed one more out. He rushed his delivery and walked Carlos Ruiz on four pitches, then yielded an RBI single to Cody Asche. The Phillies had taken advantage of Harper’s miscue and grabbed a 1-0 lead.
The Nationals answered by scoring on one of the few balls they didn’t smoke. In the second, LaRoche sliced a popup between the mound and third base, contact so harmless LaRoche had no idea where the ball went after it hit his bat. He trotted to first as Hernandez and Asche converged. Each counted on the other to catch the ball, and they were looking at each other as the ball plopped to the turf.
LaRoche had yet to reach first, and Asche panicked. He scooped the ball and flung a sidearm throw wide of Ryan Howard. The ball scooted down the right field line, and LaRoche lumbered all the way to third, all after a ball that traveled maybe 70 feet off his bat. Desmond rolled a single up the middle, and the Nationals had tied it at 1.
They caught no breaks the rest of the night, aside from perhaps the San Diego Padres taking an early lead over the Atlanta Braves out west.
“We’ve still got a chance to split the series and get the next two,” Werth said. “We’ll be all right.”