PHOENIX — Michael Taylor strode to the plate in the top of the ninth Wednesday afternoon, the bases loaded with Nationals in a tight ballgame, and every one of the 19,026 souls at Chase Field had to have the same reaction.
Of course it would happen like this. Really, could you have expected anything else?
Only two innings earlier, Taylor was underneath the first-base stands, stretching his legs for what he assumed could be a potential pinch-running opportunity at some point. Except out on the field, Bryce Harper was livid with Rob Drake, going face-to-face with the plate umpire and his refusal to appeal to third base on a check-swing call that ended the top of the seventh.
Harper quickly got the heave-ho from Drake, as did manager Matt Williams, who raced out of the dugout to stand up for his young star. And so it was that Taylor found himself taking over in right field for the bottom of the inning, now serving as the Nationals’ cleanup hitter for the first time in his career.
And wouldn’t you know he would then find himself at the plate in the ninth, the bases full, the Nats trailing by a run, then proceed to launch the first grand slam of his career, a towering blast to center field that delivered a dramatic, 9-6 victory over the Diamondbacks?
“Of course I want to be up there in that situation,” Harper said. “But, Mike … I guess I owe him a steak dinner.”
It was a stunning, yet fitting, way to cap a bizarre series in the desert, one that featured a blowout win by each club, then a wild, back-and-forth affair in the finale. In the end, the Nationals emerged with their 12th win in 15 games, their fifth consecutive series victory.
“I think we got fortunate in that one,” Williams said. “They had a lot of opportunity. We allowed them a lot of opportunity. We were able to get the last swing. … But we were fortunate to win that one.”
The pivotal moment appeared to come during Harper’s seventh-inning at-bat, during what was then a 5-5 game. Harper tried to check his swing on a 2-2 pitch outside from lefty Oliver Perez, but Drake rung him up, insisting he hadn’t held up his swing. Harper immediately argued, telling the plate umpire he should’ve appealed to Gabe Morales at third base, as is typically custom on such check-swings.
Drake’s response, according to Harper: “You’re really gonna act like that?”
That only fired up Harper more, leading to a face-to-face argument and the fourth ejection of his career (first since 2013).
“I didn’t like that comment from him,” Harper said. “I don’t like getting talked down to by an umpire. I respect the umpires as much as I can, but to tell me I’m going to act like that, I gave him a piece of my mind.”
By the time Williams sprinted from the dugout, it was too late to save Harper from getting booted from the game but possibly not too late to save the young star from something worse. That, though, led to Williams’ ejection as well, his third since becoming Nationals manager last year.
“I’m going out there to protect Bryce,” Williams said. “If he gets kicked out of the game, he gets kicked out. But I don’t want anything further than that.”
Once Harper and Williams retreated to the clubhouse to watch the rest of the game out of public view, Taylor took over in right field and bench coach Randy Knorr took over as manager. Knorr needed his bullpen to keep the game tied, but after a couple of escape acts, Aaron Barrett couldn’t finish the job, surrendering a 2-out RBI single to Yasmany Tomas in the bottom of the eighth, giving Arizona a 6-5 lead and leaving the Nationals three outs from defeat.
They still had one more rally in them, though, beginning with Denard Span’s 1-out single off embattled Diamondbacks closer Addison Reed. Yunel Escobar followed with another single, then Jayson Werth battled to draw a walk and load the bases for the Nats’ cleanup hitter … who was not named Harper anymore but instead was the 23-year-old Taylor.
More than a few in the park had a hunch things would play out exactly like that.
“Oh yeah, that always crosses your mind, especially when you got a guy hitting 3-4-5 for you,” Werth said. “You want him in there at the end of the game, but luckily it worked out for us. Mikey got him off the hook.”
Indeed he did. Taylor blasted Reed’s 1-0 fastball at the knees to center field, reaching a cut-out in the giant batter’s eye high above the 407-foot mark. It was his first career at-bat with the bases loaded, and it produced the ultimate result.
“I was trying not to be too aggressive and chase something out of the zone,” Taylor said. “I kind of had my one spot, and if he threw it there, I was going to take a hack at it.”
After circling the bases, Taylor was greeted by an excitable group of teammates, who pounded him in celebration. The guy who really wanted to thank him, of course, wasn’t allowed to be in the dugout anymore.
Harper, though, will show his appreciation for his teammate with that steak dinner. Even though Taylor had a hunch Harper would’ve one-upped him had he been the one at the plate late Wednesday afternoon instead.
“Yeah, he probably would’ve hit it about 500 feet,” Taylor said with a smile.
MORE NATIONALS: Ninth-inning grand slam lifts Nationals over Arizona