WASHINGTON – Bryce Harper – the Washington Nationals superstar anointed as “Baseball’s Chosen One” on a Sports Illustrated cover when he was only 16 years old – stood at home plate and admired the flight of the ball as it soared out toward the second deck in right field.
Harper stared into the home dugout and flipped the bat up and out of his right hand, the sellout crowd of 43,860 at Nationals Park roaring on Saturday night as the entire feel of this National League Division Series instantly changed. Fireworks went off, the smoke hung in the air and suddenly the Cubs didn’t look so invincible.
With one thunderous left-handed swing, Harper forced a rewrite of any the-Nationals-are-chokers stories, launching Carl Edwards Jr.’s curveball for a game-tying, two-run homer in the eighth inning. Three batters later, Ryan Zimmerman lifted a Mike Montgomery pitch just over the left-field wall for the go-ahead, three-homer that became the exclamation point to a 6-3 win that turned this into a best-of-three series.
“The train’s coming,” Harper said, believing Max Scherzer’s hamstring “tweak” won’t stop him from doing a Cy Young impression on Monday at Wrigley Field. “We’re a great team.”
What were the Cubs thinking?
Winning the World Series last year didn’t stop the first- and second- and third-guessing about Joe Maddon’s decisions, but the manager isn’t going to Wade Davis for five-out saves now. Harper has put up 122 of his 149 career homers and a .952 OPS against right-handers (compared to .783 vs. lefties). Edwards is young, confident and right-handed, the trusted reliever who handcuffed lefty hitters this season (.437 OPS, 31.8 strikeout percentage) and forced Harper to pop out in the eighth inning of Friday night’s Game 1 win.
“That was the only option,” Maddon said. “That was the right option. C.J. was the right man for the job. Harper is good. C.J. is really good. C.J’s numbers against left-handed hitters are amongst the best in all of baseball.
“I have all the confidence in the world in him. If that happens again, you’re going to see C.J. back out there. He made a bad pitch and the guy didn’t miss it. That’s it. Sometimes that happens. Bryce is good. C.J. is good. Bryce got him.”
We wondered if Harper and Scherzer would be anywhere close to full strength this October and the game-changers the Nationals needed. Harper is still a freak of nature with five homers in only 16 career playoff games – and apparently on time after spending six-plus weeks on the disabled list in August and September with a bone bruise in his left knee.
“You just can’t make a mistake to him,” said Kris Bryant, who’s played with and against Harper since he was a prodigy growing up in Las Vegas. “He’s super-smart. It almost looked like he was sitting curveball on that pitch 3-1. You got to tip your cap to him.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him. I think he’s totally fine. Obviously, playoffs you have a little adrenaline.”
As reporters hovered near his locker, Edwards quietly changed into a faded pink T-shirt, tan-colored jeans and white Air Jordan sneakers. He turned around to meet the press and framed it as a matter of the right pitch in the wrong location, knowing it was gone as soon as it left his hand, only regretting not burying that curveball in the dirt, and looking forward to facing Harper again.
“I just hung it,” Edwards said. “That’s Bryce Harper. He can hit. But I don’t feel like it was his time. I could have made that wrong pitch to anybody and it probably would have been the same thing.
“It hurts. But we still have two chances to finish this thing off. I hope we can do it at Wrigley.”