MIAMI — Bryce Harper has spent 29 games in the major leagues. He's had 109 at-bats and drawn well-deserved praise for his approach in almost every single one of them. His maturity at the plate has been impressive, his strike zone knowledge acute, his results phenomenal.
But Tuesday night in Miami at Marlins Park, the Washington Nationals needed him to win a game for them. They needed him or third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to score at least a run with the bases loaded in the eighth inning. Neither could.
The best scoring opportunity of the night in the Nationals' 3-1 loss to the Marlins went for naught. Harper wasn't overanxious. He wasn't upset about his approach. He lamented two straight strikes that he failed to center on, fouling them off instead, and tipped his cap to sidewinding Steve Cishek on a high fastball that got him swinging.
"I went up there to hack," Harper said, having tripled earlier in the game on a ball deep to right center that could have been an inside-the-park home run had he not slowed up thinking the ball had been caught. "I was trying to get something to the outfield to score that runner. When I look back on that at-bat, I felt great. There's nothing I can do about. I don't feel over-anxious at all. I'm going up there to hit something.
"The last one, I think he just rode it up on me a little bit. He got me. But the first two, I could have put in play. They were pitches I could handle."
In a game in which Anibal Sanchez held the Nationals to three hits, and they only added two more after his departure, Harper and Zimmerman's inability to execute in the eighth cast a shadow over it all.
It sullied an otherwise solid pitching performance from Edwin Jackson (6 2/3 innings, five hits, one earned run), in which he gave them five spotless innings and then was felled first by the heart of the Marlins order and then by his own errant pickoff throw.
And it made an otherwise perfectly-executed suicide squeeze bunt laid down by Corey Brown to score Ian Desmond in the fifth inning somewhat irrelevant.
"You can't do much better than [Jackson] did," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson who put the sign on for what Brown estimated was his first squeeze bunt ever. "Unfortunately, in the eighth inning we had them in a spot where we should at least score a run. We had the right guys up, it just didn't happen. Frustrating.
"Four or five hits, one run? That's not going to cut it, no matter how good the pitching is."
While the Nationals struggled to ever plate a second, the Marlins lineup — the first fully predominantly healthy one the Nationals have faced in the National League East — stayed on Jackson. Clinging to a one-run lead and with Omar Infante on third base, Jackson faced a dilemma: pitch to red-hot Giancarlo Stanton or risk putting the go-ahead run on first base for Logan Morrison.
He pitched to him. Stanton stroked an RBI double and the Marlins never trailed again.
"He made a bad pitch," Johnson said. "He threw a fastball. It was supposed to be off the plate in. He threw it right over the front of the plate. I'm not going to take the game out of his hands and the matchup."
"At some point, you just have to come at people," Jackson said. "You're going to have situations where you're going to have to come at them and you just take your chances. Here it is. Best stuff against best stuff. Sometimes you win it, sometimes you lose it."
For the Nationals, Tuesday night, they fell on the wrong side of that coin in a battle of the NL East's best. Stanton beat him. Jackson's errant pickoff throw an inning later put the winning run on third base where all it took was a sacrifice fly to left to score him.
THe Nats lost their fourth series of the season and fell to 5-3 on their current road trip, ceding another game in the standings to the Marlins, who moved to within 1 ½ games of the first-place Nationals. At 29-20, though, they still struggled to find too much to lament.
"Pretty good game," Desmond said, the only National with a multi-hit evening. "It was a fun game to play in. Obviously, it was a tough loss, but we showed a lot out there. This is one of the better divisions in baseball, if not the best. It's going to be fun. It's going to be a fun year."
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