Jayson Werth looked at Bryce Harper at some point this afternoon, having already seen his teammate hit one home run and deliver another opposite-field single to beat the opposition’s shift. Harper, the 2012 National League Rookie of the Year and the 2015 league MVP, entered the day batting .300 and slugging .500, basically having done just about everything he could by age 24 to establish himself as one of the best players in baseball.
Werth, though, is not as easily impressed as others. And the 37-year-old has always tried to hold Harper to a higher standard, never letting the cocksure kid get too complacent with his accomplishments.
So the veteran had a message for Harper.
“I was telling him earlier in the game that in another four or five years he’s going to be a pretty good player,” Werth said. “I think he proved me wrong once again.”
Well, yeah. Not that Werth was complaining after Harper launched his second homer of the game, this one the three-run blast to center field with two outs in the bottom of the ninth that gave the Nationals a 6-4 win over a Phillies team that had been one strike away from emerging victorious itself and leaving town with another series win over its supposedly superior rivals.
“That was huge,” Werth said. “Bailed us out big time.”
Harper has done plenty of big things in his five-plus seasons in D.C. and has achieved plenty of individual glory. These are the moments, however, that ultimately define him as a player and his tenure with the Nationals. The moments in which he uses his elite skills to win games for his team that otherwise look lost.
That was the case today, because despite carrying a 3-1 lead into the eighth inning, Harper came up to bat in the ninth with his team trailing 4-3 and down to its last out. A combination of poor relief pitching and poor defense conspired to leave the Nationals on the precipice of a truly demoralizing loss in advance of a daunting road trip that will see them play 10 games in 10 days in Atlanta, New York and Denver.
As nightmarish as the top of the eighth and ninth were, though, the silver lining was that the Nationals emerged from the chaos still trailing by only one run after Shawn Kelley escaped a bases-loaded jam.
As Matt Wieters put it: “One’s way easier than two or three or four.”
Yes, indeed. The Nationals went to the bottom of the ninth needing only to get somebody on, get him over and then get him in. Chris Heisey got that process started when he drew a one-out walk off Phillies veteran Joaquin Benoit, named closer by manager Pete Mackanin after Jeanmar Gomez gave up a homer to Ryan Zimmerman one week ago in Philadelphia.
“A walk’s as good as a hit,” Heisey said. “Get on base, anything can happen from there on out.”
Adam Eaton continued the rally when he shot a base hit to left, advancing Heisey to second, but then Anthony Rendon lined out to right for the second out, bringing Harper to the plate as the Nationals’ last hope.
If you’re going to be down to your last hope, you could do a lot worse than Harper, who already owned three walk-off homers in his career and two nights earlier had scored the winning run in a walk-off victory over these same Phillies. Clearly, this was the guy Dusty Baker wanted at the plate in this moment.
“The key is his sheer determination,” the manager said. “You have to be determined, and he was determined not make the last out.”
Harper did put himself in quite a hole, though, fouling off Benoit’s first two fastballs to fall behind in the count, 0-2. He laid off the next three pitches, though, working the count full and bringing the crowd of 29,774 to its feet.
As Heisey and Eaton took off from their respective bases, Benoit tried to power a 97 mph fastball past Harper. His pitch, though, was right down the pipe. And Harper isn’t missing pitches down the pipe these days. He hammered it to straightaway center field, sending Aaron Altherr back to the fence as everyone inside the park waited breathlessly to see where it would come down.
“When he hit it, I was pretty confident it was gone,” Heisey said. “The pitcher actually just walked off the mound. So he was more confident than I was.”
Benoit had almost reached the third base line when the ball landed safely in the dark green turf of the batter’s eye beyond the center field wall, some 423 feet away. Amid the din, Harper calmly trotted around the bases, received a high-five from Bob Henley as he rounded third, signaled to his wife in the stands and then leaped onto the plate, where a mob of teammates doused him in water and surrounded him with congratulations.
“It’s fun,” Harper said. “I think the biggest thing for me is, it’s Easter Sunday. You always expect to be with your family, and I know they’re all watching back home. And my wife is here as well. It’s one of my favorite days to spend time with the family and remember why it is Easter. So big day for the team, big day for the club. But all about the family today.”