The Washington Times - August 2, 2013, 09:04PM

MILWAUKEE — When the Washington Nationals players arrived at the visitors’ clubhouse in Miller Park, they were greeted with a gift on each chair. A red-camoflauge t-shirt hung there, the follow up to Bryce Harper’s veteran-like post-game words from Wednesday afternoon. 

Harper implored the Nationals then to play with heart, to play like a family. And in the roughly 48 hours that’d passed since then, Harper thought a bit more about his message. He’d read an article about LeBron James and the Miami Heat. About how a mantra from the movie ‘Red Tails,’ a film inspired by the heroics of the first all-African American aerial combat unit, the Tuskegee Airmen, had become a part of the Heat’s pre-game ritual.

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“To the last minute, to the last second, to the last man — we fight!” 

To get that message across in the best way he knew how, Harper had the quote slapped onto T-shirts.

Friday evening, with Jordan Zimmermann tossing six scoreless innings in his home state of Wisconsin and with plenty of folks from his hometown of Auburndale in the crowd, Harper backed up his words. He homered once, his 16th of the season, and drove in two of the Nationals’ four runs in a 4-1 victory over the Brewers.

“I thought that was a really cool motto,” Harper said. “And I think it fits pretty well right now.”

The Nationals’ standing changed little despite the victory. The Atlanta Braves pushed their winning streak to eight games and kept the Nationals 11 1/2 games behind them. They moved a game closer to a Wild Card spot, now 6 1/2 games out of one of those. 

But the truth is, their focus cannot be in the standings or the box scores.

“If you start thinking about things you can’t really control, that’s when you get in trouble,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

The Nationals must worry about bringing their level of play up to where they expect it to be — where they’re capable of keeping it on a nightly basis — and once they do that, then they can see how the rest of the cards fall around them. 

On Friday night, they were able to do that.

Zimmermann’s start was characteristic in results only. The All-Star righty allowed just four hits, but they were all doubles, and walked a season-high four batters. And yet in each of his six innings he was able to get a lineout, or a strikeout, or a few groundouts when he needed them.

He closed the book on a difficult month of July by opening August with zeroes and continuing to move further from the lingering neck issue that’d bothered him since May.

“I’ve seen him have better stuff,” said manager Davey Johnson. “His command wasn’t as good as I’ve seen it but he certainly made pitches when he had to. That’s what an ace like him does.”

The Nationals, who watched Brewers starter Tom Gorzelanny leave after taking a line drive off his left arm four batters into the game, could’ve done more damage offensively. They rapped out 12 hits, including three more from Jayson Werth, and walked once. They left seven men stranded on the basepaths. 

Ian Desmond manufactured their first run, doubling to right field, stealing third base and then scoring when Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy’s throw sailed into left field. With a little help from Anthony Rendon, who drove in and insurance run in the seventh inning, Harper did the rest.

Earlier in the afternoon, asked about Harper’s comments, Johnson said he didn’t mind Harper speaking his mind. But performance, he noted, was more important than words. So Harper, who was 2-for-4 and reached on an error that could get overturned into a hit, performed too.

“I come in here every single night and try to play as hard as I can,” Harper said. “That’s been my motto forever. Every single guy in this clubhouse plays hard and has a lot of heart. It was just something I thought I needed to say. Hopefully it’ll work and we can get on a roll.”

“He rises to the occasion pretty well, if you haven’t noticed,” Desmond said. “He’s a good ballplayer. He does play with a lot of heart. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, sometimes to a fault, but more than not it benefits him. Can’t knock a guy for going out there and playing as hard as he can everyday.”

Desmond, one of the Nationals’ more vocal leaders, had no problem with the 20-year-old Harper speaking his mind. 

“He’s been out there grinding with us all along,” Desmond said. “He has the right to say whatever he wants. More power to him. I like it. We need more people to speak up. He’s right. We’ve got to play the game hard and we’ve got to have heart. Simple as that. He didn’t say anything that was untrue. It’s good to see him coming into his own, feeling like he can speak. Need to see some more of that out of him.”

For the first time since Sunday, they played music after the game. They smiled and laughed. They won, so it was a good day. They have two months left to live their new mantra.

“That’s a good game all around,” Johnson said. “We get 12 hits we can celebrate. We’ve got to play really good ball from here on out if we have any chance at all. I think the guys know that.”