The Washington Times - April 7, 2013, 08:53AM

CINCINNATI — The Washington Nationals got beat bad on Friday night. So as they opened their matinee with the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday, they needed two things: a strong starting pitching performance and an early lead.

The got the first one, with six strong innings from Ross Detwiler. When Bryce Harper launched the first pitch from Mike Leake into the right field stands in the third inning, they got the second one. 

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Harper’s home run, his third of the season, put the Nationals up 2-0 as it scored Jayson Werth from second base. Harper said he was just trying to get Werth over to third base, looking for a pitch he could barrel up. He got one, and he became the first player in MLB history aged 20 or younger to hit three homers and collect five RBI in the first five games of a season. 

He also kept his spot among the early National League leaders in home runs, though Justin Upton’s five in Atlanta are pacing the field. 

For the Nationals, who eventually won the game 7-6 in 11 innings on the backs of four more home runs, that was the good.

The bad came later in the game.

Great American Ball Park may be the most hitter-friendly park in the major leagues that’s not in Colorado’s thin air. It’s a difficult place to pitch (The Nationals catchers spent a lot of time hammering home that point by reiterating to the pitchers that everything must be thrown down in the zone) and a difficult place to play the outfield because the ball carries as well as it does.

In that regard, the Nationals outfielders have mostly performed well this weekend as they attempt to navigate things out there.

But there was one play that made manager Davey Johnson shake his head a little bit, mostly because it’s the same point he’s made to Harper on other occasions. When the Nationals lead was slipping away in the eighth inning, Ian Desmond made an error when a ball bounced through his legs. In left field, with runners circling the bases, Harper threw wildly home.

“He just can’t control his emotions,” Johnson said. “He’s a smart player, but he gets wound up in the moment. If he keeps the ball down there, he throws him out.”

Harpers aggressiveness is part of what makes him so unique, and so fun to watch. It’s also something he may need to occasionally dial back. 

“He’s going to have to learn,” Johnson said.

Harper acknowledged that the throw was not executed the way he would’ve liked.

“I dropped my elbow really bad and it just slung away from my hand,” Harper said. “Nothing I can do, just something that happens. (I’m) trying to throw him out. Maybe not the right throw in that situation. If I throw him out, I’m perfect. If I don’t, everybody looks at me and says ‘You’re terrible.’ Nothing I can do.”

Ultimately the play did not cost the Nationals any more than the one run that scored on Desmond’s portion of things. But it allowed the runners to move to second and third, including putting the tying run at second. Drew Storen struck out the next batter, though, so it didn’t cost them.

“Bryce is a special player,” said right fielder Jayson Werth. “I think we all know that. But I’ve said it more than once: He’s got a lot to learn in this game. He’s young. Chances are he’s going to play a long time, so he’s a work in progress.”

– In the fifth inning on Saturday, Johnson turned to pitching coach Steve McCatty and offered something of a plea. He really needed Ross Detwiler to go six innings. He didn’t want to use Craig Stammen to get him to his 7-8-9 relievers. He just had a feeling. He knew he might need Stammen if something happened.

“Strange things happen here,” he explained.

What Stammen did might go overlooked in the rush of a game with enough twists and turns to make your head spin, but the right-hander turned in two important innings of work. Pitching in his hometown for only the second time in his career, Stammen was exceptional.

“I think today watching him, we got to see a side of him where the game’s on the line,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “He stepped up big. Some of those sinkers he was throwing are some of the nastiest pitches I’ve seen him throw. He was going after it. No surprise to me, but I like to see him pitch in that situation, a little fist pump at the end. It’s good for him to pitch at home. I’m really happy for him. I’m glad he got the ‘W’.

Perhaps most impressive from Stammen was the way he finished, striking Jay Bruce out with three pitches right after the Reds had again pulled to within a run in the 11th inning.

“I faced him a couple times in the past and always threw first pitch sinker,” Stammen said. “He took that. After I got one strike on him I was going to throw my best pitch, which is either curveball or slider. Today it was the curveball so I was going to throw curveballs until I died. It worked.”

Stammen is technically the Nationals’ long right-hander in the bullpen, but what he did on Saturday was far more valuable than the work most people identify with a long reliever. When the game was over, he could hear the 20-30 members of his friends and family cheering for him in an otherwise quiet stadium.

“It’s a fun experience,” Stammen said of finishing the game, which he did with a fist pump. “It’s like being a closer, kind of. So I get my little piece of that every now and then. When you finish a game, the adrenaline’s going. It’s a good team and they kicked our butt last night.”