ATLANTA - Bryce Harper got a villain's welcome in Atlanta this weekend.
He got hit by two pitches in the first game of the series. He heard fans applaud after those two plunkings, even the one that came on a pitch near his head. He got booed every time he came to the plate or recorded an out in the field.
But all that didn't seem to affect Harper's view of the Braves' fan base in general.
"I love these fans. I really do," Harper said after today's 2-1 Nationals loss. "These people are absolutely unbelievable for their team. If I was playing for a team like this and had a crowd like that, I'd be stoked to play here every night, too. I love playing at Nats Park. We have a great crowd, too. Going to Philly. Going here. Fenway. New York. There are so many great crowds. This is a fan base and organization that really loves the Braves.
"I love when the crowd goes crazy and they boo me. I live for that situation. I think a lot of guys do. Just like the old commercials, 'We live for this.' Live for the booing, and (when) they're going crazy, it makes me a better player."
Braves fans cheered at Harper's expense after the Nats left fielder was called out on an attempted check-swing today in the top of the ninth. Third base umpire Marvin Hudson - the same umpire who ejected Stephen Strasburg last night - ruled that Harper did not hold up on a 1-2 pitch from Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, and rung Harper up for the final out of the game.
Harper didn't like the call and shouted down at Hudson as Braves players spilled onto the field to celebrate another win over the Nats.
"I think in that situation you can't really call that, especially when the home plate umpire says no about three times and doesn't want to check," Harper said. "And they obviously check and they bang me. That's one less pitch I get to see against him, possibly a 2-2 fastball. Kimbrel is a great closer. I think trying to see as many pitches as you can against him is huge and the deeper I get in the count it makes me stronger."
What exactly was Harper shouting down to Hudson?
"I just told him how good he was and how good he looked," Harper said, tongue planted firmly in his cheek.
For what it's worth, Harper declined to comment on whether he felt the Braves went after him on Friday night.
Gio Gonzalez delivered seven big innings today for the Nats, saving an exhausted bullpen that worked overtime last night in the Nats' 15-inning win.
"It's a great feeling to give your team a chance to recuperate and recover," Gonzalez said. "Especially with a 15-inning game, (getting) the chance to have one (reliever) up today is a big thing for us. It gets us going for the next series."
As solid as Gonzalez was on the mound, he again struggled to get down a sacrifice bunt, one that could have put two runners in scoring position with two outs in the second inning. After going 9-for-10 in sacrifice bunt attempts last season, Gonzalez is 6-for-12 in that department this season.
"I think that I've got to go back to square one, back to the beginning," Gonzalez said. "Go out there and go to the cages and keep working on what I need to work. Obviously it's my bunting and I take full responsibility for not moving the guys over."
Gonzalez didn't get runners over in that spot, but he wasn't alone. The Nats as a team struggled mightily moving runners over and getting them in today.
"Just tough, man," Denard Span said. "We've let a lot of games slip for us and another one to add to the tally. ... Only thing that I can come up with, I think some of us or myself are putting too much pressure on ourselves when runners are in scoring position. I think we've got to remind ourselves that when runners are in scoring position, the pitcher is on the hook. He's the one that has his back to the wall, and I think sometimes, we just get a little bit over-aggressive and get away from our plan."
The Nats' missed opportunities in the first three innings, when they went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position and stranded six, were tougher to stomach because of Atlanta's dominant back-end of the bullpen. With Kimbrel, Jordan Walden and David Carpenter, among others, putting in dominant work in the late innings, it's important for teams to get to the Braves in the early innings.
"They're unlike other teams where you want to get to other teams' bullpens early," Span said. "Even if you knock their guy out of the game early in the game, they're still deep (in the 'pen). ... The guys that they don't put in when they're winning are still pretty tough. So there's no question if you don't have the lead by the seventh inning, it's gonna be pretty tough to get the lead."