Once he had reached out and poked Jeanmar Gómez’s sinker to left field, and once he saw the ball safely hit grass and start rolling toward the corner, Daniel Murphy’s eyes shifted to the man running the bases in front of him.
“I’m watching Bryce,” Murphy said.
As were 38,664 fans, and everybody else inside a crowded Nationals Park on this rare Friday late-afternoon ballgame.
Bryce Harper, who was standing off first at the time of the pitch in the bottom of the 10th, didn’t hesitate once during his 270-foot romp around the bases. He rounded second in full stride, and though Bob Henley was waving him around third all along, he didn’t need to be told what to do next.
“I probably would’ve ran right through it,” had Henley put up a stop sign, Harper said. “I tried to score. ... You don’t want to play extras. A 4:05 game is kind of brutal for Friday nights. You know, I’m just glad we got out of there early.”
They did get out of there at a reasonable hour because Harper, who tossed his helmet as he approached third but then somehow managed to kick it up and off his noggin’ into the air, kept on running. He didn’t stop until he slid safely across the plate, where Jayson Werth pounced on him and rubbed his hair as teammates spilled out of the dugout to celebrate a 3-2 victory.
“Bryce,” manager Dusty Baker said, “he was haulin’.”
Harper was haulin’ because Murphy was doing what he does best, what he does better than just about anybody else in baseball at this point: He was hittin’.
It’s hard to imagine the All-Star second baseman could improve upon his remarkable 2016 campaign, when he hit .347 and slugged a league-leading .595, but 10 games in he is doing just that. After a 2-for-5 showing today, Murphy lowered his batting average to .444, his slugging percentage to .711. He has produced at least one hit in all 10 games he has played. He has produced multiple hits in seven of those 10 games.
This from a guy Baker worried would start the season cold after sitting idle for the better part of two and a half weeks while not playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic and then missing several days at the end of spring training with an illness.
“You’re never overly impressed with Murphy, because you’ve seen it day in and day out,” the manager said. “You don’t take him for granted. You realize this guy’s one of the best hitters in the world.”
Or, as reliever Shawn Kelley put it: “That guy is special. I want to be like him when I get older.”
Murphy’s clutch hit came in the bottom of the 10th, made possible by a teammate’s clutch hit three innings earlier.
Down 2-1 in the seventh, the Nationals needed to rally against the Phillies bullpen. They pulled it off thanks to Chris Heisey’s pinch-hit walk and advancement to second on a passed ball - “might’ve had the at-bat of the game,” Murphy said - and then Anthony Rendon’s two-out double to right-center, which brought Heisey home with the tying run.
It was a much-needed hit both for Rendon (who entered the day with a .133 batting average and zero extra-base hits) and for the Nationals (who entered the day hitting only .241 with two outs and runners in scoring position).
“It was nice to see Anthony swinging like Anthony,” Baker said.
The late rallies also were made possible by the three zeros that were posted by three members of the Nationals’ beleaguered bullpen. Koda Glover, Blake Treinen and Kelley each tossed a scoreless frame, knowing all along they were giving their lineup an opportunity to win the game in the bottom half of the inning.
Kelley, in particular, was well aware who was due up for the Nationals in the bottom of the 10th, well aware of that duo’s ability to win the game right then and there if presented the opportunity.
“When I’m out there warming up, I know where we are in the lineup, I know where they are,” Kelley said. “I know if I go out there and I do my job, that’s a big momentum shift with our guys coming up. I’ve seen enough baseball to know in extra innings, when the heart of order comes up at home, you got a good chance to win a game.”
Which is exactly what the Nationals did. Thanks to the best hitter in their lineup, and maybe the best hitter in the league.
“It’s a good win,” Murphy said in his typical, matter-of-fact tone. “Yeah, good win. Try to do it again tomorrow.”