"I have news for you," I told my co-worker as we crossed paths near the elevator. "I know," he said, "he's at bat right now going for four." Day baseball games--well, any day sport really--are more difficult to follow live than night games, at least as far as the 9-5 crowd is concerned (as long as you aren't our European delegate AB(UK), that is). But there's something magical about word spreading across an office or across work site, when an amazing performance is going down.
Think about Mark Buehrle's perfect game on July 23, 2009. No, not of Hawk Harrelson's call: "Alexiiii.........YESSSSSSS! YESSSSSS! YESSSS!" Well, maybe sort of--it was a rare event that, when you woke up that morning, you couldn't have predicted. On Tuesday, maybe you were following on Gameday from the first pitch, or jumped in on the Gamethread after bomb number two, or, like my co-worker, heard number three in the car on his way back to work.
The point is, it's fun to know that the real work can stop, even if just briefly, for something cool. Let's savor Bryce Harper's three home run day against Miami.
Home Run #1-Bottom Second; Miami: 2 D.C.: 0
So, another early deficit for the good guys--seems like that's happening a lot lately--but with Nats Park playing small on a warm afternoon, and Tom Koehler on the mound (setting aside his most recent performance against D.C.), you had the feeling progress could be made.
Before we jump into the home run parade, understand Koehler has had some success against Harper before yesterday. The Nevada native was just 2 for 15 against the Miami righty for his career. It's way too small a sample to draw conclusions, but you can be pretty sure they sized one another up in preparation for today. That assessment would have shown that Koehler had earned a fair amount of hits outs when pitching the Nats' right-fielder away, yielding batted ball outs to the opposite field:
Of course, there's that one time on August 29, 2013, where Harper went opposite field for a homer. But other than that, mostly fly outs and grounders to short. So with a two-run lead, Koehler offered two fastballs away. The first, at 92MPH, was low and away. The second was up and caught more of the plate; here's what happened:
It was déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra famously quipped, from that August evening two seasons ago. Check out a side-by-side comparison of those pitches at contact. While the one on the left was on a change up, we still see the 22-year-old's willingness to go with a pitch to do damage. An opposite field approach with power is a rare quality, and one that gives him a defense against the increasing trend towards defensive shifts.
Harper's actually an opposite field beast. He's slashing .374/.370/.571 when going that way for his career, which only makes this strength all the more favorable. And while Harper's 2013 home run was slightly less elevated than yesterday's, the idea on Koehler's part was still the same. Obviously, that plan didn't work out. So back to the drawing board for at-bat number two.
Home Run #2-Bottom Third; Miami: 2 D.C.: 2
Like in the first at-bat, Harper again saw two fastballs on the roughly the same vertical plane, and again saw an elevated second pitch after the first. The lefty let the first pitch, a pretty hittable one, cruise by at 94MPH. The baseball would not escape punishment, however, as on the next pitch Harper went 442 feet to the upper tank in right field:
Did Koehler miss his spot? Holy cow. Though Harper can reach the upper deck without much trouble, it's still impressive to see 80 power on display in a game. I think everyone in the park knew this one was a goner at contact; check out guy right behind the plate: "OH WOW!!" And the woman in the second row on her cell phone appears to have gotten whiplash after maple met rawhide.
With Harper's help, the Nats took the lead for the first time in the afternoon. But they'd need a little more.
Home Run #3-Bottom Fifth; Miami: 2 D.C. 4
If home run #2 was a bomb, I don't know what to call this thing.
Koehler said this was a slider that didn't really slide, and he's absolutely right. To hear him tell it, they were all bad pitches--a reasonable characterization, although I give a credit to Harper for being disciplined enough to go the other way on home run #1. Koehler's full post-mortem, per the AP:
"I made three mistakes against him and he hit the ball hard three times," Koehler lamented. "Fastball away that stayed up, fastball in that was up and came back over the plate and a slider that just kind of spun up there."
For reference, I'm not sure anything to right in 2014 even approached where this (apparently only) 445 foot tater landed, as the ESPN HR Tracker shows below:
At risk of inciting a bunch of comments about Harper's maturity, he knows he's a key performance cog in the offense and defense. But he's also thinking what we were all thinking during his fourth at-bat:
"Going up there against Dyson, runner on third base, you're trying to get that run in," Harper said. "Of course you want to try to get that fourth homer. That's something that would've been very cool to get."
It wasn't to be, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a cool day at the ballpark. Or in the office, or where ever D.C. fans happened to be enjoying the game. Because even when you have to work, it's OK to have fun.
Thanks to Brooks Baseball, Fangraphs and Baseball Reference for data.