SAN FRANCISCO — The ball flicked off Ian Desmond’s bat in one motion and started on its path toward right field. Bryce Harper broke into a sprint from second base. As Harper slid into home and Hunter Pence’s throw to the plate sailed just wide, a collective sigh of relief from the Washington Nationals seemed to go with it.
One swing, and it cured so many ills.
The Nationals’ finished their West Coast trip with a 2-1 victory in 10 innings over the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday, set up when Harper doubled and Ryan Zimmerman was intentionally walked. Desmond came to the plate thinking one thing: “Just trying to come through,” he said.
With a shout and a hard clap by their 20-year-old outfielder as he crossed the plate, the Nationals moved back to one game above .500, broke a four-game losing streak and avoided a sweep.
“This was a huge step in the right direction,” said Desmond. “There’s nobody out there who can tell me what the Giants record was on May 22 of last year. What [Buster] Posey’s batting average or Matt Cain’s ERA was, without looking it up. That stuff doesn’t matter.
“At the end of the year, when you’re fighting for the postseason, a World Series title, nobody remembers any of that stuff. We’ve got to grind through it and at the end of the day we’re going to look back and no one is going to remember what happened on May 21 or 22.”
Desmond’s single won it for the Nationals, a piece of hitting so impressive manager Davey Johnson said it “seemed like the first time this road trip we got a base hit with a runner in scoring position.”
But on this day, with Gio Gonzalez tossing 7 ⅓ strong innings of work and Rafael Soriano saving his 13th game, it was Harper — at the plate, in the field, with his speed — who willed the Nationals to victory.
“Being able to get a win here and get on a winning streak, hopefully, it’s good for us,” Harper said. “I’m excited to get back to D.C., have a day off, relax and not do anything, and get back home and play in front of our fans where we’re comfortable.”
It was a nightmarish 10-day stretch for Harper, starting with the moment he landed on the warning track at Dodger Stadium, writhing in pain. He needed stitches in his chin, X-rays on his extremities and an MRI on the left side of his abs. He was out of the starting lineup for four of the 10 games, and he was mired in a 6-for-41 stretch at the plate ever since his first wall meeting in Atlanta three weeks ago.
Tuesday night, with the Nationals one out away from what could’ve been a pivotal one-run victory, he admitted that a fear of hitting the wall affected him as a triple fell in over his head and tied the game. He said he felt the entire loss should be pinned on him.
Then he was ripped by Soriano for his inability to make the play, though the two smoothed things over Wednesday morning. In the ninth inning, after Harper slid to catch a sinking line drive by Pence, his left knee swelled up again.
There are few who can do the things Harper can, though. He was challenged mightily the past 10 days. But on Wednesday he rose above. Again.
In the bottom of the sixth, minutes after Harper sent a solo home run to left field to give the Nationals their only run off Madison Bumgarner, Pence hit a liner to right-center field. The similarity to where Gregor Blanco’s triple went a night before was unmistakable. Harper took a good route, showed no nervousness near the wall and snagged it for the third out of the inning.
Denard Span high-fived him. At the dugout railing, Desmond waited, and then wrapped him in a bear hug.
One play, and it cured so many ills.
The Nationals did not leave San Francisco without issues and the numbers still bore out significant concerns. They are 29th in the major leagues in batting average, on-base percentage, and on-base plus slugging. They’re 28th in the majors in slugging percentage. On this trip, the Nationals went 4-6 and hit a collective .205.
Harper’s homer was their only offense until the 10th inning Wednesday, a one-run lead blown when Gonzalez and Storen combined to walk the first two batters of the eighth and an RBI single by Posey tied the game. It could’ve been worse, perhaps another loss to stew over, were it not for a tremendous defensive play by first baseman Adam LaRoche, who snared the third out of the inning and, when Storen was late to cover first base, smartly got the ball to Desmond for a force at second.
But over the course of their trip, the Nationals lost a catcher to a strained hamstring and a reliever to a self-inflicted broken hand. They learned their right fielder will need about 12 more days to heal his own hamstring. And their No. 5 starter was forced to skip a start with an oblique strain.
“I don’t like it,” Johnson said. “But our offense has just been down. We’ve got a whole bunch of guys who need to start stepping up and I think we’ll do that when we go home.”
As they stood on the infield under a clear blue sky and celebrated for the first time since Friday, though, they enjoyed this step. They enjoyed this win.
“The team’s been struggling,” Soriano said. “And maybe today will be the day that we stop that.”
“We’re a great team,” Harper said. “We’re excited to get back home. … That’s a tough road trip. Trying to win this last game was huge for us. We’ll go back home and hopefully get on a roll.”