TORONTO — Maybe it was the ball's flight. Five seemingly airless seconds as the crowd at Rogers Centre watched, mouths agape. Or the billowing of the black tarp advertisement covering a windowed restaurant at least 440 feet away in center field when the ball connected with it.
Whatever the reason, there was an audible gasp when it finally landed, cascading down into the center-field seats. And the first chapter of Bryce Harper's major league story took one more step toward legend.
"I don't know why the outfielder went back," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. "It was obviously a long way out of here."
Harper's home run, one of three the Washington Nationals hit Tuesday night in a 4-2 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, helped the Nats to their fifth straight win and put them 14 games over .500 for the first time since June 2005.
On a night when Harper's exploits at the plate were uniquely his (single to right field, home run, beat out a double play, bunt single, thrown out stealing), he raised his average to .307 on the season. In his last 19 games, Harper is hitting .361 with two doubles, three triples and five homers.
How good is he feeling at the plate right now? He decided in the on-deck circle that he'd be "swinging out of my shoes" on the first pitch when he stepped in and cranked his home run.
"He's hitting about everything they throw up there," Johnson said. "And hitting it pretty hard."
"At the beginning, I usually struggle," Harper said, referencing his reputation at each level. "Then once I get going, it's scary."
And possibly historic. Harper's on-base plus slugging percentage, considered a barometer of a player's overall offensive merit, now sits at .943. The only teenager to produce even close to that high a mark over a full season was Mel Ott (.921) in 1928.
"You can only admire it," said left-hander Gio Gonzalez, who gave Harper a bear hug in the dugout after his monster homer. Gonzalez, a former American Leaguer, has seen his share of games at Rogers Centre. Asked if he'd ever seen a ball go where Harper put it, he was blunt.
"Never," he said. "I was shocked. We're seeing a young Bryce Harper, man. It's fun to watch."
Fun, of course, has been in steady supply around these parts lately. The Nationals have lost just two games in the last 11 days. They're four games clear of the Atlanta Braves in the National League East, 9 1/2 games up on the last-place Phillies and have a chance Wednesday to do something no Nationals team has ever done: finish 6-0 on a road trip.
And they broke out the lumber Tuesday night with Danny Espinosa and Jhonatan Solano adding to their home run tally, Solano with his first career longball.
With one of his most encouraging games of the season from the left side of the plate, Espinosa clubbed a double and a homer off Blue Jays starter Henderson Alvarez. Espinosa, who is hitting dramatically better from the right side, made adjustments that were lauded by Johnson on Tuesday. He calmed his hands some, Johnson said, and positioned himself better than he had all season to hit the ball "anywhere in the strike zone."
The result was a five-point boost in his batting average and two runs for the Nationals, who covered up another rocky start from right-hander Chien-Ming Wang. Wang lasted just five innings, allowing two earned runs on four hits and five walks.
But with another win in the books, the Nationals have another chance to push their undignified past one step further behind them Wednesday with an undefeated road trip.
"I don't know about the history, and I don't care about the history too much," Johnson said, noting the lack of production from Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse means these Nationals are not even close to their ceiling.
"This is a whole new group of guys," he added. "Tomorrow's going to be a big day."
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