- The Washington Times - Monday, June 25, 2018

Something changed between Bryce Harper’s second and third at-bat Sunday night.

On the fourth pitch he saw in the third inning, Harper swung and whiffed, down on strikes for the second time in the game. On the first pitch he saw in the fifth, a fastball left over the plate, Harper swung and crushed it for a double into left-center field.

Earlier in the night, Harper had fouled off a fastball left hanging. He made no mistake on the heater that caught just enough of the zone in the sixth. Harper powered it to the fence in right field to slim Washington’s deficit to one run.

In the eighth, Harper lost his helmet rounding first as he hit his third-straight double, a single-game career-high. Daniel Murphy’s two-run single later in the frame scored Harper, the go-ahead run in Washington’s eventual 8-6 win.

“When he hit that ball to left-center field, I turned around and said, ‘That should get him going right there,’” Martinez said of Harper. “Because that’s him. When he’s going really good, that’s what he should be doing.”

When Harper barreled up a line drive in Saturday’s loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, it found Odubel Herrera in center field. It signified part of the slump Harper has endured during June, one where he has hit .149 entering the series finale against Philadelphia. He didn’t catch a break when he finally made solid contact.

But manager Dave Martinez was encouraged by that swing, and those of other Nationals.

“I’ve got all the confidence in the world we’re going to start hitting,” Martinez said after Washington’s 5-3 loss that secured the Phillies‘ series win. His squad entered Sunday with its batting average 28 percentage points below its 2017 total.

In flashes, Martinez’s inkling proved correct. Anthony Rendon hit a home run for the second straight game. Three straight singles tied the contest at two in the fourth inning — only to be followed by three consecutive strikeouts after a 38-minute rain delay.

Then came Harper’s first double, with two outs in the fifth. Two walks followed it, but Phillies starter Nick Pivetta, who the Nationals drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 MLB draft before trading him in 2015 for closer Jonathan Papelbon, struck out Michael A. Taylor to stymie that chance, too.

“I didn’t get any pitches over the plate the first at-bat; maybe one or two,” Harper said. “Then I chased and chased again the second at-bat. My swing feels great. I just got to get a pitch over the plate that I can drive.”

After that came a three-run sixth, featuring an Adam Eaton single, a Trea Turner triple, Harper’s second double and Rendon’s two-bagger to narrow the scoreline to 6-5, all with two outs. Juan Soto, though, slammed his bat into the dirt when he struck out with the tying run at second.

And again in the seventh, with runners on first and third with one out, Pedro Severino grounded into a double play to hold the one-run deficit.

The Nationals trailed because of Philadelphia’s four-run fifth. After the rain delay, rookie starter Jefry Rodriguez returned. Martinez hoped to get six innings from the right-hander, and felt he could if Rodriguez improved his pitch efficiency.

But the Phillies, who entered Sunday with the most walks in the majors and who have forced the second most pitches per at-bat, pressured Rodriguez to work hard. He needed 97 pitches through four innings, allowed four runs on five hits and walked three while striking out three. Sammy Solis, in relief, surrendered two more runs in the fifth.

In what says a lot about how Philadelphia regards Soto, a 19-year-old phenom, and perhaps how the Phillies undervalued Murphy, who is not far removed from the disabled list and was hitting .135 entering the contest, Philadelphia intentionally walked Soto to load the bases after Harper’s third double in the eighth.

“I was pretty surprised,” Martinez said. “Soto hits lefties. Murph hits lefties. Murph hits everybody. So they had a decision to make. They thought they were going to bring their closer in. And it worked out in our favor.”

Murphy, who seems to have the clutch gene regardless of what his average happens to be, blooped a two-run single into right field before Taylor’s RBI base knock established an 8-6 lead for closer Sean Doolittle to secure.

“That inning was made long before I got up,” Murphy said. “I’m the sixth batter of the inning right there and there were some great at-bats that were had in front of me.”

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