- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Washington Nationals have known, or at least hoped, from Day 1 that Bryce Harper would be an “impact player” from the moment he hit the big leagues. But the way Harper arrived, hurriedly and out of necessity, and the way they allowed the idea that this might not be his moment, the Nationals did their best to temper expectations.

It took Harper all of four games to convince manager Davey Johnson to not only move him up in the batting order but to hit him third. And it took him all of one to repay the vote of confidence.

The Nationals beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 2-1 on Thursday night. They won their seventh of eight series and their fifth game with five hits or less. Harper, of course, drove in the game-winning run with a sixth-inning double laced to left field.

“I kind of expected that,” Johnson said as he sat down at his post-game press conference.

It was the first RBI the Nationals have gotten out of any starter in the No. 3 spot in the batting order since April 19, the second-to-last game Ryan Zimmerman started before right AC joint inflammation sidelined him. The hit couldn’t have been more timely, driving in Ian Desmond for the last of the team’s four hits off ace Ian Kennedy.

Johnson handed out his “star of the game” to left-hander Ross Detwiler, the No. 5 starter who continues to dazzle each time out. As Jayson Werth put it, Detwiler’s No. 5 tag simply depends on your perspective. “He’s your fifth,” Werth said, “or he pitches before Strasburg. I like that.”

Still, the “star” was a move that shocked Detwiler, who has watched Harper put his unique stamp on each of the first five games he’s played and owed the ‘W’ by his name partly to him.

“I got the star?” Detwiler asked when told of his manager’s comments. “Really? Over Bryce? Well, all right.”

So, no, the Nationals are not surprised that their 19-year-old phenom has been in the thick of every single game he’s played thus far.

“He’s a baseball player,” said Werth, who scored the game’s first in the second. “When you’re a baseball player, you can be 15 or you can be 50. If you know how to play the game, you can play.”

In his first five games, Harper has shown off his rocket arm, his blazing speed (one player said the team’s coaches had Harper clocked at 3.8 seconds from home to first), his impressive plate discipline and, of course, his bat. His double Thursday was his fourth extra-base hit in 16 major league at-bats.

He’s made the bizarre plays, catching a fly ball with his bare hand Wednesday night, and the aggressive ones. Even when he makes an out, he seems to do it dramatically.

Harper chopped a slow roller back to the mound in his first at-bat Thursday night and was running so hard down the first base line that Kennedy threw wildly. Harper flailed as he crossed the bag and quickly turned for second. As Werth strode to the plate, his batting music already playing, the Diamondbacks appealed that Harper never actually touched the first-base bag. And they won. Replays were inconclusive, though it was a close play, and Harper himself said he wasn’t sure if he’d touched the bag.

Either way, what he did do was make an impression on Kennedy.

“He plays really hard,” Kennedy said. “That’s all you can really ask for out of someone with his status, where he’s at, being crowned, I don’t know, the savior or whatever.”

As he stood at his locker after the game, the swarm of reporters surrounding him decreasing with each passing night, Harper shrugged his shoulders at the impact he’s made thus far. And made sure to mention nearly every other player on the team when giving out credit for the win — especially Detwiler.

“I just want to come out here, play hard and really try to incorporate myself in the game,” he said. “I like that. I like when I really come up in those timely situations and try to make something happen.”

Without Detwiler, who threw 6 ⅓ innings, allowing a one run on three hits and three walks with two strikeouts, Harper’s hit likely goes for naught. Without a starting pitching staff that has combined for a 2.41 ERA and a No. 5 starter whose 1.59 is lower than everyone except Stephen Strasburg’s 1.12, the Nationals likely aren’t going into a weekend series with the Philadelphia Phillies at 16-9 and in first place in the National League East.

“Pitching and defense wins championships,” Werth said when asked about how the team has weathered the loss of Zimmerman, Michael Morse and, most recently, the hot-hitting Adam LaRoche.

“We’ll go with that for now. And once we get healthy, maybe we’ll go with something else.”

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