Harper sets stage, Desmond takes curtain call

Harper sets stage, Desmond takes curtain call
May 3, 2012, 4:54 am
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He's only 26, but he's logged more time in a Nationals uniform than almost anybody else in the current clubhouse. So when Ian Desmond gathered Bryce Harper and Steve Lombardozzi together before Wednesday night's game to offer up some advice he got years ago from Frank Robinson, the two rookies stopped to listen.

Robinson's advice to Desmond, which Desmond passed along to Harper and Lombardozzi: Always watch an opposing reliever warm up at the start of an inning and see what you can pick up.

So when Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz took the mound for the bottom of the ninth, Desmond watched intently from the Nationals dugout and later from the on-deck circle.

"He was throwing his splits up in the zone," the shortstop said. "His fastballs were elevated to both guys ahead of me. I knew if I looked for the heater, I would be able to see the split up, and I would be able to react. I was really just locked in, and everything clicked for me right there."

Apparently so, because when Putz fired a 93 mph up and over the plate, Desmond took a mighty cut and launched the ball into the D.C. night. By the time it landed in the left-field bullpen, he was well on his way through a 360-foot celebration around the bases into the arms of his teammates who thoroughly enjoyed a 5-4 victory that snapped a five-game losing streak.

The first walk-off home run of Desmond's career was unlike anything he'd ever experienced.

"No," he said. "Circumstances being as they are -- the five-game losing streak, we're down, everyone keeps asking all these questions, obviously Bryce being here. He played a heck of a ballgame, and I'd hate for his second good ballgame like that to be unnoticed."

Oh yes, Bryce Harper. How could anyone ignore his contributions to this win. His manager certainly couldn't.

"What about the kid?" Davey Johnson jubilantly asked as he sat down for his postgame media session.

What did Harper do? It's probably easier to ask what he didn't do, because his fingerprints were all over this game.

If he wasn't hustling to beat out a slow roller past the mound, he was barreling his way into catcher Miguel Montero and knocking the ball loose to score a fourth-inning run.

If he wasn't making a bare-handed catch while falling to the ground in center field (albeit after initially misjudging the ball), he was crushing the ball off the wall in right-center, twice coming just short of his first career homer.

The second of those two wall-banging doubles came at a most-opportune moment, leading off the bottom of the ninth with his team trailing by a run, setting the stage for Desmond to play hero moments later.

Yes, Desmond's homer won it. But Harper's all-around performance is rubbing off on everyone inside the Nationals clubhouse.

"I mean, here's a 19-year-old kid that's getting the bat out," Johnson said. "It's infectious. It hurts you a little bit missing your 3 and 4-hole hitters, because when they start doing it, it kind of flows. But seeing a 19-year-old hitting seventh come along and have nothing but quality at-bats, that's impressive."

With his 3-for-4 showing in his fourth career game, Harper now owns five hits in 13 big-league at-bats. More importantly, he contributed to his first major-league victory.

"I'm just trying to come in here and play my game hard," he said. "I'm just trying to bring some fire to the table and play the game that I've known how to play my whole life. So I play with that fire and that passion, just trying to bust my butt every single day."

And he's gaining more and more admirers with each passing day.

Veteran big leaguers aren't always the most-accepting bunch, especially when it comes to a brash, 19-year-old phenom barging into their clubhouse and tasked with injecting some life into what has been a lifeless lineup. But once they see that player perform at this level, they welcome him into the family with open arms.

"He runs on and off the field the way he's supposed to. He runs down to first hard. That's just old-school baseball," reliever Craig Stammen said. "He gets a lot of stuff in the media about being kind of brash and all that. But he plays hard and he backs it up on the field. ... And I think he showed in the situations he was put in tonight, the stage isn't too big for him."

No, it certainly doesn't look that way. As Johnson put it: "He was born for those situations, I think."

And there's a good chance he's going to start getting a lot more opportunities in all kinds of situations. Not wanting to put too much pressure on the teenager, Johnson has slotted Harper into the seventh spot in his lineup for each of his first four games.

After this game, the manager asked a couple of his coaches if it's too early to bump the kid up a few notches. The consensus opinion: No.

So don't be surprised if Harper finds himself batting sixth, or even fifth, when the Nationals return to the field Thursday for their series finale against Arizona.

Just don't expect him to take over the leadoff spot. The Nationals are quite content with Desmond holding down that job for now, especially after he delivered in the clutch to give his team a much-needed victory.

"It's awesome. It's just what we needed," Desmond said. "Right time. It's just a good win. We played well. We battled the whole game. To finish it up like that, for me personally it was awesome, but for the team even better."