Bryce Harper: I'm always going to play the game hard
CHICAGO — There is no tougher ballpark in America in which to pinch-hit than Wrigley Field, where the lone batting cage is tucked away underneath the right field bleachers and thus is inaccessible to players during the course of a game.
Scott Hairston, though, has spent his share of time playing inside the Friendly Confines, most notably three months earlier this season while a member of the Cubs. So the 33-year-old outfielder knows the tricks of the trade.
"You have to really keep in mind that your body can get tight on the bench," he said. "So I usually get up every other inning and stretch or ride the bike. I think mainly you have to be mentally focused in that situation and prepared to come in and do your job."
Davey Johnson asked Hairston to do his job in the top of the seventh inning Wednesday night: Come in cold off the bench and face a tough left-hander late in a tie ballgame. That Hairston delivered in a big way, clubbing a three-run homer off James Russell to lift the Nationals to an 11-6 victory, only underscored Johnson's faith that he could be a key contributor to this team.
"He hasn't really got big hits for us in the pinch-hit role," the manager said. "But that certainly makes up for anything he hasn't done in the past. That was big."
Hairston hadn't been entirely pleased with his performance since joining the Nationals on July 9. Though he was hitting .240 (6-for-25) when given a chance to start in the outfield, he entered Wednesday night's game a mere 1-for-10 as a pinch-hitter.
That was supposed to be his primary job here, serving as Johnson's go-to guy for a big at-bat late against a left-hander.
"The way the year's been going, there's been so many situations where I haven't gotten the job done," said Hairston, who has hit .297 with a .519 slugging percentage against lefties since the trade. "It's a struggle, but every day's a new day. I've just been scratching and clawing the last few weeks, but you can't get too down because once you get down on yourself this game can keep you down. I just want to keep my focus on doing my job, do something on a given day to help the team win."
Hairston's tie-breaking blast on Wednesday certainly helped the Nationals win, though it only became necessary after a sudden and surprising pitching meltdown two innings earlier by Ross Ohlendorf and Tanner Roark.
Ohlendorf, making his return to the Nationals after a three-week stint on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation, had been cruising along well, allowing a first-inning homer to Anthony Rizzo but then tossed three straight scoreless innings while maintaining a 94-95 mph fastball.
That was a bit of a relief to the Nationals, who saw the right-hander's velocity drop precipitously prior to his DL stint and then only ratchet back up to 90 mph during his last rehab start at Class A Potomac.
"I don't know about rehab necessarily, but I was really happy with my fastball tonight," he said. "I was expecting to feel fine, but I was glad I was able to."
Ohlendorf hasn't reacquired all of his stamina yet, though, which may explain his fifth-inning struggles after the Nationals had handed him a 6-1 lead. Upon surrendering a pair of singles and another homer to Rizzo, he was pulled with his pitch count at 91, having failed to record the minimum number of outs necessary to earn a victory.
"I was hoping he could give me 90 pitches, but really, I probably should've held him to about 80," Johnson said. "I had somebody warming up, and [catcher Kurt] Suzuki came around by the dugout and hollered in there: 'He's out of gas!' And I said: 'We know!'"
So in came Roark, who trotted from the bullpen to a thunderous roar from more than 100 friends and family members who rented two buses and made the short drive from Wilmington, Ill., to sit in the bleachers and support their native son. It was impossible not to notice the crew, which chanted "Tann-er! Tann-er!" throughout the proceedings.
"I heard them," Roark said. "All. Game. Long."
Those cheers turned into nervous twitching, though, when Roark immediately surrendered four straight singles and then a sacrifice fly, allowing three more runs to score and completing the Cubs' comeback from a 6-1 deficit to a 6-6 deadlock.
"It was definitely nerves and adrenaline, both," the rookie reliever said. "I know better, to calm myself down on the mound and to stop the hitting parade and just hit my spots."
Roark did manage to do that when he re-took the mound for the bottom of the sixth, retiring the side and giving the Wilmington crew reason to cheer even louder.
And when Hairston stepped to the plate in the top of the seventh to pinch-hit for Roark, then launched his tie-breaking homer into the Chicago night, the rookie realized he was suddenly in line to earn his third win in only five big-league relief appearances.
The Nationals made sure there would be no doubt about this one. They added two more insurance runs in the top of the ninth, completing their biggest offensive explosion in nearly a month.
"I mean, 11 runs?" Johnson said with a look of astonishment. "You'd think it's Christmas!"