19-year-old Nats' outfielder Bryce Harper's first career at bat against 27-year-old San Francisco Giants' right-hander Matt Cain ended with the Washington Nationals' 2010 no. 1 overall pick lining out to center on an 85 mph 2-1 changeup. The second time up, in the third, Harper was first-pitch swinging and he flew out to left on another change. Harper grounded out to second in his third at bat of the night, but not until after he'd battled the veteran starter for ten pitches, fouling off five two-strike pitches (two fastballs, a change and two curves) and bringing the Nationals Park crowd to its feet as the at bat went on.
When Harper returned to the Nats' dugout after the groundout, the crowd once again roared to let the rookie outfielder know they appreciated his effort. Say what you will about the Nationals' fanbase, and people have had plenty of derogatory things to say about the D.C. baseball fans in the past eight seasons, but on a night when the organization turned back the clock and eschewed a good deal of the at-times distracting aspects of a regular evening in Nats Park, the fans were locked in and hanging on every pitch, and in a stadium known for its abilitiy to attract out-of-town fans, seemingly 100% of the crowd was behind the nation's capital's Nats and Harper in particular last night...
Cain was out the next time Harper stepped up to the plate in the seventh, with Giants' lefty Jeremy Affeldt replacing the right-handed starter after he'd surrendered back-to-back home runs by Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa in what went from a 5-1 to a 5-3 game. Mark DeRosa doubled with two down in the first at bat against the new pitcher. Steve Lombardozzi moved DeRosa up with a two-out single back to the mound and off Affeldt. With runners on the corners, Harper spit on two curves from the reliever, then checked his swing on a 2-0 two-seamer that should have been ball three, but third base ump Jerry Meals said Harper went and called a strike, though replays didn't support his ruling. Harper was hot, but stayed focused and connected with a 95 mph 2-1 heater, dropping a low liner into short left to bring DeRosa in for the third run of the inning, making it a one-run, 5-4 game in Nats Park.
It was still 5-4 when Harper's turn in order arrived again in the bottom of the ninth, and there were once again runners on the corners, though with no one out this time. Giants' closer Santiago Casilla surrendered a double by pinch hitter Tyler Moore and misplayed an attempt at a sac bunt by Steve Lombardozzi, then gave up the lead when Harper singled through the right side of the infield on a 95 mph 3-1 fastball to bring Moore in and make it 5-5. Harper then took second on a walk to Ryan Zimmerman, third on a Michael Morse groundout and scored the winning run when Adam LaRoche reached first safely on what should have been an inning-ending double play.
Though he learned yesterday before the game that he didn't win the MLB All-Star Final Vote and likely won't make his first All-Star appearance this year, barring a situation in which he was added as a replacement, Harper went out and had another big night. His manager, who said the outfielder was ready for the majors all winter and argued that Harper should make the big league roster out of Spring Training, was impressed.
"He battled every at bat," Davey Johnson told reporters after the game. "And [he] laid off some tough pitches in. I'm not too sure on that check swing [Jerry Meals] called [in the seventh], I didn't get it on replay, how was it?" Johnson asked reporters who confirmed the manager's suspicion that Harper hadn't gone, "Wasn't even close I didn't think. I don't know what Jerry was thinking about down there, but [Harper] got the hit after that and then that was a big first and third hit over the first baseman [in the ninth]."
Harper ended Thursday night's game 2 for 5 with a run scored and two RBI's. On the year, Harper now has a .283/.355/.481 line with 15 doubles, four triples, eight home runs and eight stolen bases in 60 games and 265 plate appearances. If he doesn't somehow end up in Kansas City next week, he's earned the time off.