The first pitch of the Washington Nationals’ 10-5 rout of the Milwaukee Brewers went from Jordan Zimmermann’s hand into Kurt Suzuki’s glove at 7:06 p.m. on Monday night.
Eleven minutes later, Bryce Harper issued the latest reminder to the baseball world that he is, in the words of starter Jordan Zimmermann — and just about everyone else who watches him play — “something special.”
He homered. On the second pitch he saw from Yovani Gallardo. In his first major league game in 35 days.
As Harper was ushered into the dugout amidst a sea of high-fives, smiles and Jayson Werth screaming in his face, the 24,889 at Nationals Park showered him with cheers. Ryan Zimmerman stepped to the left of the batter’s box and took one more practice swing. Harper came to the dugout steps and took his curtain call.
From that moment on, in their eighth victory in their last 12 games, the Nationals never trailed.
“He has the ability to be in the spotlight more than anybody I’ve ever seen,” said veteran Chad Tracy, who watched from the dugout in a mild state of disbelief at the Nationals’ 20-year-old outfielder. “The bigger the moment, the more he shines.”
“Typical Bryce, right there,” said Werth. “He’s all about the drama, so he didn’t disappoint us.”
Three months ago, Harper strode to the plate on his first Opening Day in the big leagues and hit a 1-0 pitch into right center field — his first of two that day. On Monday, Harper came to the plate not having appeared in a major league game since May 26. He had faced live pitching in only four games in the minor leagues.
He said his nerves were at bay, and manager Davey Johnson said he seemed “pretty low-key, really, for him.” He checked his swing on Gallardo’s first pitch, a fastball. Gallardo then threw him another and Harper connected enough to drop into the visitors’ bullpen, just beyond the 377-foot mark, in left field.
“Felt like I was back at Opening Day,” Harper said. “It felt really good. Gallardo’s a great pitcher and I was just trying to get something I could drive. Got a pitch I could handle a little bit and put it where I wanted to.”
For the second straight game, the Nationals put together a tremendous offensive performance.
While Harper’s home run was the first blow to Gallardo and the Brewers, the rest of his teammates did not let up, either. They scored five runs in the third, tacked on two more in the fourth, and added two extra insurance runs in the eighth after the Brewers had cut that lead to three runs in the seventh.
Werth was 2-for-5 with his first five-RBI game since 2009. Ryan Zimmerman was 2-for-4 and drove in a pair. Zimmermann, who won his National League-leading 12th game and tied Max Scherzer for the major league lead in that category, was 3-for-3 with a double and two singles for the first time in his career. Denard Span got on base three times, and scored each time he did.
Adding in their 13-run outburst from Sunday afternoon in New York, the Nationals have now put together two of their three highest-scoring games of the season in the last 48 hours.
With Harper back in the lineup and Wilson Ramos only a few days away from rejoining the team as well, the Nationals went back to the type of lineup construction they expected to use a whole lot more this season. Werth moved back to the No. 2 spot while second baseman Anthony Rendon dropped down into the No. 7 spot.
Werth expressed some reluctance at moving back to No. 2, but Johnson convinced him he’d be very valuable there because not only does he traditionally get on base, but with the rest of the order swinging the bats better he’d be in a good position to drive in runs. Werth had his highest RBI night in four years.
And while one game is certainly not enough of a sample size to draw any conclusions, the early results for a team that rapped out 13 hits — seven for extra bases — and scored 10 of the 17 times they put a runner on base, were good.
“I was just trying to go out there and do what I could do to help this team win,” Harper said, admitting he may have been a little impatient in some of his other at-bats. “Trying to get us on the board first, and that’s what happened.”
When it was over, the Nationals moved two games above .500 and cut the Atlanta Braves’ division lead back down to six games with 80 to play. For the second straight game they looked an awful lot more like the team everyone expected, and they once again had their phenom right in the thick of it.
“We are finally getting the lineup back to full strength,” Zimmermann said. “These guys have been swinging the bats great lately. Any time we put up 10 or 13 runs, you know we’re going to have a really good chance to win. Hopefully that continues.”
“It’s kind of contagious,” Johnson said. “Everybody knows we’ve got some work to do. Let’s get down to business. Let’s get serious. Quality at-bats. We scored a bunch on a big time pitcher who’s got good stuff.”