Harper, Zimmerman carry Nats to Game 2 win, series tie

For nine innings Friday night and for seven more innings tonight, they pleaded with every batter who stepped to the plate wearing a curly W helmet to deliver a big hit, just one big hit, to turn not only this National League Division Series around but at least give this franchise an opportunity to turn around nearly six seasons of failures on the big stage.

And just when they were ready to give up on their forlorn ballclub, two of the most important players in Nationals history delivered those big hits, a one-two punch that not only gave them a 6-3 victory in Game 2 over the Cubs but might well be remembered someday down the road as the hits in which this franchise cast aside its growing reputation for October failure and at long last seized the moment.

harper-opening-day-homer.jpgBryce Harper was up first, launching a two-run homer to right off right-hander Carl Edwards Jr. that tied the game in the bottom of the eighth. Three batters later, Ryan Zimmerman lofted a three-run homer against lefty Mike Montgomery just over the left field wall to give the Nats their first lead of the series and send a sellout crowd of 43,860 into an absolute frenzy not felt around here since Jayson Werth's walk-off homer in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS.

The pair of blasts highlighted a brilliant eighth-inning rally that most in the park had to think would never come. Prior to that inning, the Nationals were 4-for-52 in the entire series, a paltry 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position. Then they went 4-for-5 with a walk and two homers, and just like that this series is knotted at a game apiece.

Sean Doolittle capped off a dominant performance by the Nationals bullpen, pitching the ninth to secure his first postseason save. The crowd stood for the entire inning. But really, nobody ever sat down after the eighth.

The winning rally was ignited by pinch-hitter Adam Lind, who after 5,029 career regular season plate appearances finally took his first postseason at-bat and promptly singled to left field. With 20-year-old Victor Robles pinch-running, Trea Turner then struck out to prolong his slump and leave the crowd muttering. But Harper changed everything moments later.

The star right fielder, in only his seventh game back from a significant left leg injury, launched a 3-1 curveball from Edwards into the second deck down the right field line, as the ballpark erupted.

Three batters later - after Edwards walked Anthony Rendon and Montgomery allowed a single to Daniel Murphy - Zimmerman sent his ball soaring deep to left and just over the fence. As the longest-tenured player in the franchise rounded the bases with the crowd roaring, one can only imagine what went through his mind, all the ups and downs he has experienced in 13 seasons now culminating with this October moment of a lifetime.

After a raucous Game 1, there was more nervous energy in the ballpark when the Nationals took the field for Game 2. Gio Gonzalez, though, quickly had everybody on their feet with a Strasburgian 1-2-3 top of the first that included strikeouts of both Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

And the place really got fired up when Rendon sneaked a 1-1 pitch from Jon Lester down the right field line and into the bullpen in the bottom of the first, an unlikely opposite-field homer that represented the Nationals' first run of the series (in their 10th offensive inning).

At last the Nats held a lead, giving folks an opportunity to breathe a little easier ... for about five minutes. Willson Contreras returned the favor by lofting Gonzalez's 0-1 fastball high to left and three rows deep to lead off the top of the second, and this game was once again tied.

Gonzalez was effective for three innings, but then he was victimized the same way Stephen Strasburg was in Game 1: via the Cubs' inseparable offensive tandem. Bryant led off the fourth with a double off the left field wall. Moments later, Rizzo sent a down-and-in curveball deep to right for the tiebreaking two-run homer.

The Nationals had a brief moment of hope of a reversal when umpires reviewed the play to see if a fan wearing a Cubs jersey interfered by reaching over the railing behind the wall, but it was clear the ball would have gone out regardless.

That blast left the crowd silent again for a while. Not that the home team gave them much reason to get excited. And when they finally did in the bottom of the fifth, they only left them in more agony than before.

Zimmerman's single gave the Nationals their first leadoff hit of the series (in their 14th offensive inning). And when, after flyouts by Werth and Matt Wieters, Zimmerman stole second and took third on a wild pitch, the Nationals had their first at-bat of the night with a runner in scoring position.

Michael A. Taylor and Howie Kendrick (pinch-hitting for Gonzalez) showed the composure to draw back-to-back walks, and that loaded the bases for Turner in the key at-bat of the night. But with the crowd in a frenzy, trying to will their struggling leadoff man to a clutch hit, Turner struck out swinging at a 2-2 fastball out of the zone, slamming his bat to the ground as the air in the ballpark was sucked out yet again.

For Gonzalez, this was a familiar October performance. In five career postseason starts, the left-hander has never allowed more than three runs. But he also has never reached the sixth inning.

The Nationals bullpen did its job, with Matt Albers, Sammy Solís, Ryan Madson and Oliver Pérez combining to toss three scoreless innings and keep the deficit at 3-1. All they needed now was for somebody - anybody - to deliver that one big hit that could change the course of this series. That anybody turned out to be two of the biggest somebodies of all.

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