Harper delivers late to propel Nats to 10-inning win (updated)

Harper-Swinging-White-Sidebar.jpgWhether the remaining month in the Nationals’ 2018 season carries significance from the team’s standpoint or not, there are individual performances aplenty to care about. Such is life when your roster includes a Cy Young Award candidate, a Rookie of the Year candidate and perhaps the final weeks of Bryce Harper’s tenure in Washington.

So while today’s 4-3, 10-inning victory over the Cardinals probably won’t make much difference in a National League playoff race the Nats have unofficially conceded - though the Braves and Phillies did each lose, allowing Washington to get back to within 7 1/2 games of first place at 69-69 - there’s no shame in rejoicing the exploits of Max Scherzer, Juan Soto and Harper. All had a hand in the outcome of today’s game.

Scherzer struck out 11 over seven innings and became only the second pitcher in MLB history to strike out 250 batters in five consecutive seasons, though two mistakes prevented the ace from earning the win to further boost his Cy Young candidacy in a three-way race with Jacob deGrom and Aaron Nola.

Soto reached base three times, all via walk, to raise his on-base percentage to .419 and further his case for National League Rookie of the Year in a tight race vs. Ronald Acuña Jr.

And Harper provided two more big-time highlights in a second half full of them, launching a game-tying, two-run homer off Bud Norris with one out in the bottom of the ninth and then delivering the game-winning sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 10th to cap a fine afternoon.

“Huge day for him,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Big pick-me-up for us.”

Trailing 3-1 when the ninth inning began, the Nationals rallied thanks in part to a leadoff walk drawn by Adam Eaton. After Trea Turner grounded into a fielder’s choice, Harper stepped to the plate representing the tying run. Fighting a bad cough for upwards of a week now - he could be seen today bending over at first base and hacking up something unpleasant - he hasn’t looked 100 percent healthy. But with the count 3-1, he found enough muscle to blast a fastball from Norris some 451 feet to straightaway center field, tying the game via his 31st home run of the season.

“My body doesn’t feel very good,” Harper admitted. “Every day you have to come in, of course it’s September ... so you’re not going to feel great. But I think I’m just trying to grind out every single day and not try to worry about it. But coughing, yakking, all that good stuff. Just trying to not worry about it.”

With a chance to then win the game in the ninth, Soto drew his third walk of the afternoon and advanced to second on Ryan Zimmerman’s single up the middle. After Chasen Shreve entered from the bullpen to replace Norris, Wilmer Difo drew a two-out walk to load the bases for Matt Wieters. But Wieters, unable to start any of the last three days due to a groin injury, struck out to strand three runners on base, the third time in this game the Nationals did that on a day in which they went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position and stranded 15 baserunners.

“Leaving (15) runners on base was not good, it wasn’t,” Martinez said. “We’ve got to start driving in runs when we can and seize the moment, really. We’ve got to seize the moment when it becomes available.”

No worries, though, because the Nats bullpen gave the lineup more and more chances to atone.

Justin Miller escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the eighth created by Jimmy Cordero, inducing a 4-2-3 double play out of José Martinez and then striking out Marcell Ozuna.

“Normally, I get myself in that situation,” Miller said with a laugh. “I get out of it, but sometimes I get a little more scathed. But this one, I was able to get out of it unscathed and help out Jimmy and help out the team.”

And Greg Holland tossed two scoreless innings against the club that released him earlier this summer, lowering his ERA to 0.75 in 14 appearances and setting the stage for a game-winning rally by his teammates.

“Turning the page and starting new and being welcomed here with open arms and fitting in right away has helped,” the veteran right-hander said. “Feeling healthy and repeating my mechanics, those are things I tried to do with St. Louis but for whatever reason it did not work out.”

All it took now was one final rally, which came in the bottom of the 10th, thanks to the contributions of several players. Pinch-hitter Mark Reynolds got it started with a double off the wall in right-center. Eaton put down a perfect bunt to leave runners on the corners with nobody out. Turner popped out to first, but that merely set the stage for Harper.

Facing his former teammate at the College of Southern Nevada, Harper managed to work Shreve to a 2-2 count and then lofted a slider deep enough to left field to score Michael A. Taylor (pinch-running for Reynolds) easily from third and set off a celebration on the diamond.

“If you watched him, he got to two strikes and he spread his legs out, and he almost had a two-strike approach, which was really really nice,” Martinez said. “He knew that he just wanted to put the ball in play, and he did a great job.”

On the heels of a laborious start in Philadelphia that lasted only five innings, Scherzer took the mound today with the heat index reading 101 degrees and quickly got himself into a jam. The Cardinals had two on with two out, and then the ace committed a rare gaffe.

With Yairo Muñoz dancing off second base, Scherzer appeared to get caught in between delivering the pitch or stepping off the rubber. He wound up doing neither, and was called for a balk after an awkward maneuver, allowing the runners to advance to second and third.

“When I lift my leg, I can actually turn still, and when I lifted it up I kind of caught him out of the corner of my eye,” Scherzer said. “I felt like he was going, but I had just committed to going home. I tried to get my foot all the way back over, because I know if I can at least get it over, it might not be a balk. But I just couldn’t sell it enough to make it look good.”

That proved significant, because it allowed both runs to score on Paul DeJong’s subsequent single down the left field line, giving St. Louis an early 2-0 lead.

Scherzer settled into a groove after that, striking out eight of the first 13 batters he faced. By the seventh, he had already notched his 15th double-digit strikeout game of the season. Nobody else in the majors has done it more than 11 times.

Scherzer, though, continues to be plagued by the long ball more than most elite pitchers of his caliber, and that came back to haunt him in the sixth. Up 0-2 in the count to Muñoz, he grooved a fastball over the plate and watched as the rookie outfielder lofted it just deep enough to clear the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center.

It was by no means a poor start by Scherzer, but he needed his teammates to make up for his two costly mistakes to get him off the hook for the loss. And for the majority of the afternoon, they could not do it.

Fortunately, they still had a last gasp late, thanks to one of the best reasons to continue watching this team through what otherwise could be a long September: Bryce Harper.

“He is one of those guys in the lineup you kind of circle, or you have to,” Holland said. “You can’t make any mistakes. He makes you work real hard every pitch. I’m not saying you are not trying every pitch. It seems like the bigger the situation, the better he is.”

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