Bryce Harper chucked his bat to the dirt with disgust. He pointed at Julio Teheran and shouted expletives in the direction of the mound. His walk toward first base after taking a 94-mph fastball off the right hip in the fifth inning would not go quietly.
The Washington Nationals, their season hanging in the balance of each loss that distances them further from a playoff spot, were down a run to the Atlanta Braves. Their only offense in another fruitless 2-1 loss, had come from Harper’s long third-inning home run onto the grassy berm in center field.
He’d admired it momentarily before still scampering around the bases in less than 24 seconds. According to TaterTrotTracker.com, it was the longest home run trot of his career.
As he stood on first two innings later, his right leg presumably throbbing while the benches and bullpens emptied, he offered his verbal deflection to Teheran’s insistence that he was simply throwing inside.
“I guess it’s something he’s got to do,” Harper said of the pitch that landed where pitches do when they have an obvious purpose.
“If I walk-off on somebody and he wants to drill me, I’ll let him drill me and I’ll stand on first base and say some choice words and get over it.”
Harper was not surprised the Braves right-hander’s first pitch to him after his home run landed where it did. “I hit that ball pretty far off him,” he said, his eyes steeled straight ahead after the question. “So, no (I wasn’t surprised).”
“It’s a pretty convenient situation to do it in,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “If (Teheran) did, that’s pretty weak. If not, then the ball just got away from him trying to go in, which is not unusual… Obviously Bryce didn’t like it, which we don’t blame him.”
But the Nationals’ season is such that neither Harper’s fire, nor his homer, could save them from another loss. It was the 31st time they’ve scored one run or fewer, and the 30th time they lost such a game.
They fell five games below .500 (54-59), 14.5 games behind the Braves in the National League East, and eight games back of the second Wild Card spot. Their playoff hopes will not be extinguished until the math matches up with their play, but they continue to dim with each punchless defeat.
The Braves won their 12th in a row.
Manager Davey Johnson, who shook up his lineup — again — on Tuesday, spoke in hushed tones. He remained at a loss for an explanation.
“Is their pitching that good? Or are we just… I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t have an answer.”
The Nationals went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position, and they left nine runners on base. With the bases loaded and two outs against lefty Luis Avilan in the seventh inning, LaRoche ground a 2-0 pitch to first base to end their best threat.
“I’ve seen him and faced him enough to know that he’s got a really good two-seamer that he’ll run in and he’ll go back to the four-seamer when he needs a strike,” LaRoche said. “So that was a spot there where it’s a good time to try and get that strike in with the four-seamer. He went back with the two-seamer in and beat me to the spot.”
The Nationals struck out in their final six at-bats of the evening, including Harper swinging through a 99-mph fastball from Braves closer Craig Kimbrel to end it.
“It’s another opportunity missed there,” LaRoche said.
The benches and bullpens cleared in the fifth inning when Teheran, working with a newly-acquired one-run lead, plunked Harper. Nothing ever truly came of the skirmish with the umpires and coaches cooling the tensions fairly quickly. Harper even said he had no intention of charging the mound.
“I wasn’t going to go out there,” he said. “I mean, 14 1/2 games down and I need to be in the lineup.”
Even the teams’ official Twitter accounts let the battle get the best of their sensibilities. The Braves official account tweeted “Clown move bro.” To which the Nationals account dignified with a response of “Which part, giving up the home run, or drilling the 20-year-old on the first pitch his next time up?” The tweets had combined for almost 6,500 re-tweets by night’s end.
But with the tough talk over, the Nationals, with runners on second and first, immediately had their chance to retaliate in a way that could’ve actually counted.
Ryan Zimmerman sent a fly ball high and deep to center field, but it dropped into B.J. Upton’s glove, only moving Rendon to third. Werth popped out to shortstop one pitch later and their threat was over.
“I thought Zim answered it right, he almost hit one out of the ballpark,” Johnson said. “That’s the way you answer that sort of thing. You file it for future reference. There’s nothing you can do at that time to level the playing field.”
The Nationals have seven more games against the Braves this season, meaning even if they won them all they’d still be more than seven games behind them. They have no magic answers, no players on the disabled list who will come back to save them. They must play better, and their time to do so is nearly out.
“Nothing you can do now except keep playing,” LaRoche said. “There’s no point in looking back and hanging our head. We’ve got two options now: we can cash it in and think about next year or we can grind it out and see what happens. I’m pretty sure we’re going to keep pushing.”