- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Bryce Harper identified the fourth consecutive changeup cleanly, then recalled all the hitting lessons of his life. It was outside, like the prior three, and the St. Louis Cardinals infield was slightly rotated toward first base. So Harper flexed his swing toward left field.

He looked bad on the first changeup that reliever Brett Cecil threw him in the eighth inning. Swinging with might, hitting nothing, just twisting himself into the dirt and a 2-2 count. He took the next one, then meekly fouled off the one after that. Harper was prepared for the fourth in the middle of a rally with two out, two on and the Cardinals lead down to two. But, his line drive to left went right into the glove third baseman Jedd Gyorko. The catch snuffed out a percolating rally in a 6-1 afternoon loss filled with frustration. Harper slammed his bat then spiked his helmet.

“Usually they gave him that line,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “But he had just hit one down that line a couple days ago. They were playing their defense to how they were pitching him. That was an awesome at-bat. We might have been off to the races on that one because that ball’s down that corner, with Anthony [Rendon] there’s a heck of a chance we have a tie ball game.”

Washington’s formerly rolling offense was stumped Wednesday as the Nationals fell at home 6-1 to Cardinals starter Mike Leake. Harper went hitless after reaching base nine consecutive times the prior two games, both of which Washington won. Washed away by Harper’s line out and Stephen Piscotty’s day of damage — he had five RBIs, including a three-run home run — were hopes of a Nationals’ series sweep.

“It was Piscotty five, us one,” Baker said.

Max Scherzer’s outing was kooky yet, for the most part, effective. Three wild pitches were among the 88 he dispatched in his first five innings. Wilmer Difo’s fifth-inning error started a laborious inning in which the leadoff hitter was put on by his botch. Leake struck out when attempting to bunt, Dexter Fowler reached base when a slider gave his back foot a love tap and the next hitter, Greg Garcia, walked. By that time, Scherzer had veered into a bases-loaded, one-out situation.

A foul pop-up dragged the sprinting Difo far up the third-base line from his shortstop spot. A run scored since Difo had to travel so far away from home plate to collect the baseball. A gently arcing single by Piscotty landed in shallow center field to score another.

Pitching coach Mike Maddux came out to the mound after the hit, offering Scherzer an it-will-get-better pat on the shoulder. He struck out Matt Adams to end the inning. Scherzer faced only three Cardinals hitters in the sixth. At 104 pitches, he was done for the day: Six innings, four hits, one earned run, 10 strikes, two walks, a hit batter and three wild pitches. The full diet.

“It’s never fun taking a loss,” Scherzer said. “Any time that happens, you always reflect on the things you can be better at. The wild pitches, sometimes that happens. … Those are going to happen. Some of the pitch executions that came down today, wasn’t able to elevate the ball when I wanted to. That kind of led to some counts where they could drive the ball against me. But, at the end of the day, even when you get punched in the face like this, you’ve got to realize I did a lot of good things [Wednesday], too.”

Because of Difo’s error, Scherzer’s ERA remained a tight 2.13 through the first two starts of the season. He has rolled up 17 strikeouts in 12 ⅔ innings a season after setting the Nationals’ record for strikeouts last season with 284. Though the results are standard for the 2016 National League Cy Young Award winner, Washington was unsure if they would be delivered in April. A stress fracture in Scherzer’s right ring finger compressed his spring preparation time. He even feared placement on the disabled list to start the season was an option. Instead, his finger healed and his season start appears unaffected.

Leake was an able foil Wednesday. He allowed just four hits in his seven innings, stifling what had been a rampaging Nationals offense that entered the game second in runs in the major leagues. Leake’s lone spot of tension came in the seventh when Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman hit back-to-back singles. Jayson Werth’s at-bat with those two runners on lasted seven pitches. The final one went by a smidge outside of the plate, but was called a strike. Werth flipped his bat, tossed his helmet and glared at homeplate umpire Brian Knight. To further demonstrate his irritation, Werth tossed a wrist band and shin guard as he took a few steps toward the outfield. A bat boy scampered out to collect Werth’s grumpily discarded gear.

Before the game, Baker was asked about the importance of a starting staff opening the season well. He drifted into a conclusion that defense is often the last thing to look right, coming along after hitting and pitching. Unfortunate verification of his claim continued Wednesday afternoon. Two days after all four members of the Nationals infield made an error, the Nationals defense picked up two more. The first was Difo’s. The second was from Anthony Rendon. Instead of starting a double play, Rendon threw the ball into right field. Washington committed seven errors in the three-game series.

“We got to tighten our defense and we got to tighten our entire game up,” Baker said.

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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