Harper delivers in the clutch, propelling Nats to 5-1 record

It was cold, with a steady wind having been blowing in from left field all night. What remained of an already-sparse crowd of 18,378 was praying for something good to happen, for somebody to finally break through and post something other than a zero on the scoreboard for the first time all evening.

And then, with one well-timed swing from Bryce Harper, everyone inside Nationals Park was jumping up and down, the long wait on this chilly April night well worth it. Harper's two-out, two-run double in the bottom of the eighth broke the scoreless deadlock and ultimately lifted the Nationals to a 2-1 victory over the Braves.

At second base, Harper pumped his fist and let out a primal scream.

harper-fist-pump-white-intense-sidebar.jpg"I was just excited we didn't have to play extra innings," he said.

In the dugout, Dusty Baker yelled a couple words of celebration that weren't exactly fit for broadcast and figured to earn the 66-year-old manager a tongue-lashing from the only woman on earth who can still do that to him.

"I'm sure my momma will call me," Baker said. "I'm not kidding. She'll call me as soon as I get in the car."

This was merely the latest meaningful hit by Harper, who on the heels of his unanimous MVP season still is finding new ways to impress everyone paying attention.

"The guy is just unbelievable," said Gio Gonzalez, who tossed six scoreless innings in his season debut. "Every time he grabs a bat, you've got this feeling it's going to be unbelievable."

Harper made his mark last season so often by virtue of his remarkable patience at the plate. With opposing pitchers refusing to give into him, the young slugger had no choice but to grind his way through long at-bats, waiting for perhaps the one hittable pitch he was likely to get per plate appearance.

In this particular instance, Harper came through in the clutch by being aggressive. With runners on first and second and two out, Eric O'Flaherty entered from the Atlanta bullpen to face Harper. The veteran lefty had recorded Harper's first strikeout of the young season just 24 hours earlier via a high fastball called a strike by home plate umpire Dale Scott.

This time, Harper never let O'Flaherty have a shot at a two-strike count. He went right after a first-pitch slider, slicing it down the left field line and just past a diving Jeff Francoeur. Stephen Drew and Anthony Rendon both came around to score as Harper coasted into second base with his third double of 2016, not to mention his fourth and fifth RBIs.

"In that situation, he didn't want to get behind," Baker said. "He got the pitch up some. ... You keep hearing me say about (having) a good idea. He has a good idea what he's looking for and what to hit."

"I know O'Flaherty likes to get that first-pitch strike," said Harper, who had been 0 for his last 6 (with a couple of walks sprinkled in there). "So I was just trying to go up there and battle the best I could. I had some terrible at-bats the previous five at-bats, so just trying to get up there and do something and get it done."

The Nationals had struggled all night to take advantage of what few scoring opportunities they had. Braves starter Jhoulys Chacin needed only 69 pitches to complete six scoreless innings, scattering five singles along the way.

They ran themselves into a double play in the seventh when Daniel Murphy broke from first base on a pitch to Jayson Werth, then didn't realize Werth had lined the ball directly at right fielder Nick Markakis.

"That was my mistake," Baker said, revealing he botched the sign. "I inadvertently touched the wrong part of my body. That won't happen too often. I'm not going to tell you where I touched, but I was probably as surprised as you guys."

So when the golden opportunity finally arrived in the eighth, after Drew singled and Rendon drew a two-out walk, the Nationals were relieved to be sending the right guy to the plate at the right time.

"I think he lives for those big moments," said reliever Blake Treinen, who earned the win after recording four outs. "And I'll take them."

Harper was more than happy to oblige, giving the Nationals their fourth win of the season already via a rally in the seventh inning or later and giving Washington a 5-1 ballclub for the first time since 1951.

"Definitely excited, fired up about it," Harper said. "Really just wanted to get us on the board and win that ballgame. I really think as a team, we're fighting to the end, we're playing hard. And that's all you can ask for with the guys that we got."

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