The Washington Times - May 2, 2012, 01:41AM

Last July, after he played in the Futures Game in Phoenix, Bryce Harper stood in the clubhouse at Chase Field and was asked about a ferocious throw he’d unfurled during the game. It was a bit off target but a rope from left field to home plate. Harper, all of 18 years old then, shrugged. Just showing off the arm a little, he said. He’d played in more than one showcase before. He knew what they were about.

Harper’s arm has always been one of his greatest tools. For all the power he possesses with the bat, all the speed on the basepaths, it’s easy to forget this was a kid who once threw 93 mph off a mound and played catcher almost his entire life. It’s an obvious understatement, but I think by now it’s pretty clear Harper has a pretty strong arm.

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It was news to Jordan Zimmermann, though, who watched from the mound as Harper displayed it on two occasions Tuesday night, appearing to gun a runner out at home in the seventh but not getting the call and holding John McDonald to a single by throwing behind him as he was on his way to second on an RBI-knock in the fifth. 

“I didn’t really know Bryce had that good of an arm before I saw that one tonight,” Zimmermann said. 

“He’s got an unbelievable arm,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who trailed the runner to second as he’s supposed to but would have likely been able to double him off after Harper’s strong throw if he’d stayed at first base.

“He showed it a couple times. Another throw at the plate tonight that I don’t think anybody thought was going to be close, and he made it a bang-bang play. Quick release, strong arm – pretty good combination.”

Harper doesn’t need to look too far to find a good role model in that department. Not to be outdone, Rick Ankiel caught Justin Upton trying to stretch a single into a double in the top of the ninth inning for his first outfield assist of the season. It sounded strange as the words came over the pressbox P.A system. His first? After all the impressive throws we’ve seen Ankiel make already this season? Well, problem is, the word on Ankiel is out and runners rarely test him anymore, so, yes, it was his first.

– The Nationals’ 5-1 loss Tuesday night was their fifth straight, the longest such streak they’ve had since August 23-28, 2011, when they lost six in a row during a particularly dreadful stretch in late August. 

The tone in the clubhouse postgame was a somber one, lamenting missed opportunities and an offense that has picked up its stellar pitching staff rarely thus far this season. It was a moment of levity though when several players were reminded the Nationals, at 14-9, are still on pace to win 98 games this season.

Davey Johnson is fond of saying that a team is never as good as it looks when it’s winning and never as bad as it looks when it’s losing. It would appear the Nationals are seeing both ends of that spectrum fairly quickly this season. They’re expected to welcome back their third baseman and No. 3 hitter sometime this weekend, if not shortly thereafter, and it stands to reason that, eventually, they’ll begin to hit more in line with their potential. For now, all they can do is work and wait for that day.

“(Our pitchers) know they’ve got to be pretty good,” Johnson said. “I think the last five, six games, we’ve been averaging two runs or something. That’s just not going to cut it. You go through spells, but I have a lot of confidence in the talent. I keep looking for us to kind of break out. Tomorrow’s another day.”

– One of the Nationals’ biggest issues offensively thus far this season has been strikeouts. The Nationals are averaging almost eight strikeouts per game and one of their biggest culprits has been second baseman Danny Espinosa. Espinosa has stumbled out of the gate in his sophomore season. With 29 strikeouts (nine more than any of his teammates) in 23 games, Espinosa is in the top five in the major leagues in that dubious category.

That’s a trend he’ll have to cut down on if he’s to produce the way the Nationals feel he can. Johnson recently dropped Espinosa lower in the order with Steve Lombardozzi becoming a more regular player in Ryan Zimmerman’s temporary absence and profiling a bit better atop the order. Last year, Espinosa was up front about his comfort hitting lower in the order and with men on base, the hope is that some of those same feelings will come back to him this season.