This was the type of moment the Washington Nationals yearn for Bryce Harper to be put into. As he stood at the plate, the opponent once again having brought in their toughest left-hander to face him, he stared at the two runners on base who represented the tying and go-ahead runs and he worked himself into a hitter’s count.
Around him, the fans roared. Manager Davey Johnson was forced to the clubhouse a few innings prior when he was feeling dehydrated and light headed, but an energy that has been dormant so many times this season inside Nationals Park returned. They begged for Harper to let them erupt.
And then the Nationals’ 20-year-old outfielder, the one whose reputation is built on a penchant for playing the game harder than anyone else, smacked a sharp ground ball to second base. Despite all that hung in the balance of the Nationals’ 3-2 loss to the Mets, Harper jogged.
Perhaps it was out of frustration, or resignation at the idea that he’d made an out, but Harper’s trademark hustle was absent. When Murphy bobbled the ball, Harper seemed stunned and there was too much ground for him to makeup.
In the on-deck circle, Jayson Werth tossed his bat aside dejectedly.
“The thing about Bryce right now that’s tough is he gets frustrated,” said bench coach Randy Knorr, who took over when Johnson left the dugout due to his symptoms. “I don’t think he does it intentionally, but he’s going to have to start picking it up a little bit, because we’ve got everybody else doing it.
“He’s got a lot going on. It’s hard for me to say. I’m not 20 years old in the big leagues and all this stuff going on around me. (But it’s) something that we’ve got to get to the bottom of and keep talking to him, because eventually, we’re just going to have to take him out of the game.”
Less than 15 minutes later, another precious game in the Nationals’ final push for the playoffs had fallen by the wayside. It was just their second loss in the last 10 games, but regrets were everywhere for how they’d let this one slip away.
“He threw me a fastball inside and I thought I could’ve done something with it,” Harper said of the pitch before his groundout, when he was given the green light and swung 3-0. “Just missed it, fouled it back. The next pitch was off the plate and probably ball four.
“(Scott Atchison) warming up, it probably would’ve been huge for Werth to be up in that situation of course. Sometimes the ball doesn’t roll that way.”
In a night with multiple moments to go back over and wonder if they should’ve done something different — like Ryan Zimmerman’s decision to try a long throw from foul territory for a potential third out in the top of the eighth that instead resulted in a run — Harper’s at-bat stood as perhaps the largest.
“He’s been trying, but it just shows up at times,” Knorr said. “Like in that situation, he’s got a chance to tie the ballgame up or go ahead and he doesn’t get it done. He knows he’s out, and it just comes out of him.”
Chances are, as Knorr later acknowledged, that even if Harper was running full speed he wouldn’t beat the grounder out. But it was the principle that stuck with the Nationals’ bench coach, who hinted, as Jayson Werth did on Thursday night, that Harper’s focus may be diverted.
“I’d like to see him just settle in and play baseball the last month here and see what happens,” Werth said on Thursday. “Sometimes you get caught up in who’s saying what and all that, not that he’s doing that, but that can happen especially when you’re young. He’s a good player. I’d really like to see him focus in for a month and see what he could do.”
“I know that when he got 3-0 and he let it go, I know that takes a lot of guts in that situation, lefty-lefty,” shortstop Ian Desmond said of Harper on Friday. “I commend him for that. It also takes guts to run out the ones that you think are going to be outs. He does it 95, 99, almost 100 percent of the time, and I think this one might’ve just got pointed out because the guy made a bobble. I mean he’s 20 years old and I think he’s still dealing with some emotions of the game.”
The Nationals did not simply lose the game because of one at-bat in one inning. Jordan Zimmermann pitched brilliantly for the better part of 7.2 innings. But Ike Davis crushed a first-pitch changeup that hung in the fourth inning and the Nationals’ offense, baffled once again by Dillon Gee, mustered only two solo home runs in his support.
Zimmerman fielded Andrew Brown’s chopper down the third base line well in the eighth, but with his momentum taking him into foul ground his throw was well shy of reaching first base. As Daniel Murphy continued rounding the bases and heading for home, Adam LaRoche came in to field it but missed. Murphy scored what would stand as the the game winner.
“I’ll throw that every time,” Zimmerman said. “It just took a funny hop. But that guy’s out by 89 feet at home plate. I got the ball clean and threw it. When I’m off-balance like that, I usually just bounce it. Rochie made a good play… If he catches it clean, the guy’s out at home by a mile.”
But ultimately the game circled back to Harper’s at-bat in the eighth. Regardless of all that had come before it, Harper stood there with a chance to put the Nationals ahead — or keep the line moving and hope Werth, arguably the best hitter in the National League right now, could do it. And right then one of his most prideful traits deserted him.
“I think all of us in here play hard every day,” Zimmerman said. “Bryce is one of those those guys that plays hard just like everybody else… You don’t need to be on second base when you pop it up to the second baseman. It’s impossible to do that for 162 games. But when you ground out, you should run hard.
“I’m not saying that he didn’t or anything like that. Bryce plays the game hard, and he always has as long as I’ve been here. I don’t really think anyone has a problem with it. But at this level, you get paid a lot of money to play baseball and if you ground out or you fly out, you should run the ball out. That’s the way I’ve always been taught and that’s the way I’m always going to play.”
Late Friday night, Harper stood and answered questions about the at-bat, the 3-0 swing and the ground out, and explained what he saw, and why he did what he did. “I mean, ground out to Murphy,” he said. “He’s pretty good over there so, in that situation, I think he makes that play every single day.”
“I guess I’ll learn from it,” he said.