NEW YORK — Citi Field opened in 2010. And while he hasn’t been a part of every game the Washington Nationals have played here since then, Craig Stammen has sat in the visitors’ bullpen in right center field enough times to know that what he saw on Saturday afternoon is not commonplace.
It’s not common for anyone to hit long enough or high enough to get it to travel over the bullpen. Nearly onto the footbridge above it?
“That was Adam Dunn territory,” Stammen said, shaking his head.
But it was not just the magnificent nature of the home run Bryce Harper hit as the shadows crept across the field, it was, as it always seems to be, the timing of it.
In the Nationals’ 7-6 victory over the New York Mets on a crisp spring Saturday in New York, Harper’s home run, his second of the game and seventh of the season, won the game — moments after the Mets tied it.
“Not only was that a huge home run, but that was a big time in the game,” said Stammen, whose contributions to the Nationals’ win should be held in just as high regard as he posted two dominant innings of work in the fifth and sixth innings when Gio Gonzalez was chased early. “(They’d) just tied it up, to come back first pitch and just put a stamp on it like that, it was nice.
“It seems like when Harper hits a home run it’s in a very important situation. He doesn’t ever hit ‘em when we’re down 10 or up 10. He always hits ‘em when it’s a close game. That’s just how special of a kid he is. It’s awesome to be playing with him. The kid knows when the lights are on.”
In 2012, when the Nationals were announcing their presence as a contender at seemingly every turn, they did it mostly on the back of a pitching staff that seemed infallible for long stretches. This season, that has not been as dominant a strength for them. With Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez combining for a 4.26 ERA and their bullpen struggling on several occasions, they’ve had to win games in different ways.
On Saturday, it was with power.
Five of Harper’s seven home runs this season have either tied the game or given the Nationals the lead. Saturday, he did the latter.
“Harper was amazing today,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “He crushed a couple balls. What a day he had. That last one he hit off (Mets left-hander Josh Edgin), that was sky high and still got out of here.”
Harper was not alone.
Gonzalez cruised through his first three innings, allowing the Mets just one hit. But the fourth, the 41-pitch, five-run, four-hit, three-walk debacle that was the fourth inning, was like a 12-car pileup on the the Beltway. The Nationals’ 3-0 lead, gotten on the backs of long home runs from shortstop Ian Desmond and the first of the day by Harper, was gone.
Gonzalez’s command faltered — two of his pitches even sailed over the head of left fielder Lucas Duda — and the Mets batted around, with help from all of those walks. As he walked off the field when the inning came to a merciful end, Gonzalez could only shake his head.
“I was sitting there, contemplating what happened,” he said. “It was one of those moments where you go back to the drawing board.”
That was the context in which Adam LaRoche’s third home run of the season dropped into the left field stands in the top of the fifth inning put the Nationals back up 6-5.
It was the context in which LaRoche’s swing — which came after Jayson Werth had worked a two-out walk and Harper doubled down the left field line — saved Gonzalez and the Nationals.
“There’s no give up in this crew here,” Johnson said. “We had a lead, we got down, we came back. That’s the sign of a good ballclub.”
“Everybody was really excited about (LaRoche’s home run),” Harper said. “Rochie hitting that three-run bomb really swayed the momentum.”
Then came Stammen’s two innings of work that featured six batters and five strikeouts. And an RBI-double by John Buck off Ryan Mattheus in the seventh that took that lead away from the Nationals yet again.
But Harper made sure it didn’t matter.
“He beats you in so many ways, “ said Mets manager Terry Collins. “He can hit the home run, but he can steal second base after getting a single.
“When this guy finishes playing, he’s going to set a lot of records.”