Harper’s walk-off homer brings Nats back for thrilling 6-4 win

Their bullpen and their defense had conspired to leave them in position to suffer yet another demoralizing loss late. Then Bryce Harper decided to take matters into his own hands and completely flip the script for the Nationals.

Harper’s three-run homer on a full count with two outs in the bottom of the ninth brought the Nats back from the dead and gave them a 6-4 victory that already stands as their most inspired of the young season.

Trailing by a run when the final frame began, the Nationals created a threat when Chris Heisey and Adam Eaton produced back-to-back, one-out singles off Phillies closer Joaquin Benoit. Anthony Rendon’s lineout to right momentarily saved things for Benoit, but then Harper battled back from an 0-2 count to make it 3-2 before hammering Benoit’s final pitch 423 feet to straightaway center field.

harper-opening-day-homer.jpgThe crowd roared as Harper circled the bases following his second homer of the afternoon and his fourth career walk-off blast.

Up a pair in the eighth, the Nationals had let the Phillies tie the game via three singles, a Jayson Werth error and a Koda Glover wild pitch that perhaps could have been prevented by catcher Matt Wieters. Tied in the ninth, they let the Phillies take the lead on Aaron Altherr’s leadoff double off Blake Treinen, an advancement to third on a slow ground ball and then Wieters’ drop of Daniel Murphy’s throw to the plate after Treinen induced a perfectly placed grounder to second.

On the critical play, Murphy (who along with the rest of the infield was playing in with a man on third and one out) fielded Freddy Galvis’ ground ball and immediately threw to the plate. The throw was a bit low but beat Altherr, requiring only a clean grab and tag by Wieters. The veteran catcher couldn’t complete the play, dropping the ball as he swept to make the tag, bringing the go-ahead run home.

The crowd of 29,774 groaned after yet another late-inning meltdown in a season that already has too many of these after only two weeks. Little did they know what still awaited them.

Gio Gonzalez entered this game having been a model of effectiveness and efficiency since the day he first took the mound in spring training, but early in this one there was reason to wonder if he was reverting back into some troublesome old habits.

The left-hander opened his afternoon throwing two straight balls to César Hernández, then watched as the Phillies leadoff man drove his next offering deep to left for a quick 1-0 lead.

Gonzalez found himself pitching from behind in the count frequently after that, at one point issuing three walks in a span of five batters. (This from a guy who had been charged with only one unintentional walk in his first two starts combined.)

But he managed not to bunch too many baserunners together, got himself out of innings unscathed and at one point retire 10 batters in a row before Hernández singled with one out in the eighth.

Dusty Baker had to decide at that point whether to press his luck and leave his effective starter in, or whether to turn to his bullpen. The manager stuck with Gonzalez, who had reached the eighth inning only once the previous two years combined.

The lefty promptly gave up a sinking liner to Daniel Nava, which Werth let fall in front of them and then skip past him and roll to the wall, an error that let Hernández score all the way from first and Nava advance to second.

Baker then turned to Glover, who came out of the bullpen throwing strikes but then slipped a slider past Wieters, letting Nava advance to third. That ultimately put Nava in position to score on Tommy Joseph’s two-out single to left, the game-tying hit that served as another dent in the Nationals’ battered bullpen.

The Nats had staked Gonzalez to a 3-1 lead, prior to that, getting the first-inning run back immediately thanks to back-to-back doubles by Eaton and Rendon. They got the second thanks in part to Rendon’s hustle down the line in his next at-bat.

Rendon, whose early season struggles had been magnified by sloppy play in the field and less-than-100 percent effort on the bases, legged out an infield single with two outs in the bottom of the third, narrowly beating shortstop Galvis’ throw to first. A replay review was required to uphold the call, but that hit left Rendon with five hits in his last 10 at-bats, and it prolonged the inning.

Harper took full advantage of his opportunity to bat that inning, following up Rendon’s single with a two-run homer to right on a first-pitch slider from Jerad Eickhoff. Harper’s third homer of the season gave the Nationals a 3-1 lead.

His fourth gave them much more.

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