- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Most of Tuesday at Nationals Park was about Bryce Harper. Cameras followed his every move, crowding around his locker, even when he was nowhere to be found. Teammates marveled at the sudden surge in media infiltrating their clubhouse as the Washington Nationals returned home, carrying with them their 19-year-old phenom.

As he ran out to left field just after 7 p.m., chills coursed through his body. The fans in the left field stands greeted him with an ovation and Harper pointed at them in acknowledgement. “It’s nice,” he said later, “not hearing boos.” It was the second highly anticipated debut the Nationals Park crowd has seen in less than two years, but this one was different.

When Stephen Strasburg debuted in June 2010, the Nationals knew having him would immediately make a huge impact. But Harper, alas, is just one hitter in a nine-member lineup. If the team’s 5-1 loss to the Diamondbacks imbued one point Tuesday night, as the Nats dropped their fifth straight, it was that even Harper can’t singlehandedly revitalize a struggling offense.

“Nobody was frustrated when we were winning 2-1 games and we were 14-4,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, one of only four Nationals to get a hit. Desmond and Steve Lombardozzi, the No. 2 hitter, were a combined 4-for-8, with Desmond driving in the only run. The rest of the lineup was 2-for-32, as the Nats fell to 14-9.

“It’s 100 percent confidence,” Desmond said, insisting no one was frustrated now that the coin was flipping the other way. “This game is obviously mental — and it’ll make you mental — but it’s a round ball and a round bat. You can’t get a hit every time you go up there.”

Since the Nationals’ last victory, a 7-2 win over the San Diego Padres on Wednesday, they are 2-for-23 with runners in scoring position. And only twice have they had more than four such opportunities in a game.

“I feel like we got the hitters that can hit,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, lamenting more strongly the team’s approach, which he deemed not aggressive enough, than the results. “We’re not centering the ball. We’re not getting a good strike and driving it. The talent’s there.

“It’s going to put a strain on the pitching staff if we don’t start scoring some runs. You just can’t be that fine all the time.”

To this point, Washington’s pitchers remain publicly mum on the topic. They’ve put together a 2.40 ERA as a staff through the first 23 games, a number that dips to 1.89 when considering the starting staff alone, and often they’ve come away with little to show for their work. During the the Nationals’ five-game losing streak, they’ve turned in five straight quality starts.

Jordan Zimmermann, typically the member of the rotation with the least run support, maintained that party line Tuesday night. The Diamondbacks had eight hits off him, more than any other team this season, using an aggressive approach that didn’t allow the righty to get Strike 1. He gave up three runs, and that was the first time Zimmermann had allowed more than two in a game this year.

“I can’t speak for the offense,” Zimmermann said. “I just have to go out and pitch the way I can pitch.”

“Obviously, something needs to change,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “I know it’s frustrating for [the pitchers] that they know we’re not doing what we’re capable of doing. We know they’ve bailed us out a bunch, and sooner or later, we’ve got to return the favor.”

The night was not without highlights, however. Harper, who was hitless (0-for-3) for the first time in his major league career, showcased his right arm from the outfield on two occasions. One came on a nearly 300-foot throw to the plate that reached catcher Wilson Ramos chest-high and was deemed to have been in time upon replay. But Diamondbacks shortstop John McDonald, who robbed Harper of a hit in the fifth by shading him up the middle and employing the first shift Harper said he’d seen since college, was called safe.

The crowd, a paid attendance of 22,675, saluted his effort with an ovation, just as they did as he strode to the plate for his first at-bat. Most stood throughout the four pitches and almost all then returned to cheering as he made his way back to the dugout following a swinging strikeout.

The night never had the same electricity it did when Strasburg debuted here, a night Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo considers the best atmosphere he’s seen outside of Game 7 of the World Series. But Harper will appear at Nats Park more than once every five days, and he has plenty of time to craft far more memorable nights than this.

Asked after the game if there was any particular moment that stuck out to him from the game, presumably one he’d anticipated for a while, Harper was blunt.

“No,” he said, perhaps summing up the feeling of his 24 teammates. “Not really.”

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