Harper's return ignites Nationals lineup

Harper's return ignites Nationals lineup
July 2, 2013, 12:45 am
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Mark Zuckerman wraps up the Nats win over the Brewers

The crowd rose as Bryce Harper stepped to the plate for the first time in five weeks, both to welcome the Nationals outfielder back from the disabled list but perhaps also in anticipation of what might come next.

Even in his brief time in the big leagues, Harper has already shown a penchant for seizing the moment, such as his Opening Day homer on his very first swing of the season. So when he did it yet again, blasting Yovani Gallardo's 1-0 pitch into the left-field bullpen to christen his return from a knee injury, the ensuing reaction was less shock than pure awe at the 20-year-old's latest highlight.

"Wouldn't you know it?" manager Davey Johnson said, shaking his head. "We kinda expected something, something he was gonna do special."

Whether Harper's first-inning blast set in motion another team-wide offensive explosion — resulting in a 10-5 thrashing of the Brewers — or not, it was the talk of the Nationals clubhouse afterward nonetheless.

"Typical Bryce, right there," said Jayson Werth, who drove in five runs upon returning to the No. 2 spot in the lineup, ahead of Harper. "He's all about the drama, so he didn't disappoint us, I guess. That was good."

The Nationals had been counting down the days to Harper's return since the moment he landed on the DL in late-May, his left knee too swollen to continue playing in the wake of his nasty collision with the right-field wall at Dodger Stadium. Not only because of the production he'd offer from his familiar spot in the heart of the order, but because of the domino effect he'd have on the rest of a lineup that has ranked among the majors' least-potent all season.

The mere image of the Nationals' lineup card on Monday was enough to bring Johnson to smile, Harper's addition having moved several others into positions that better suit them and adding depth to the entire outfit.

"With everybody healthy, look at our lineup," Werth said. "It's balanced. It's right-left-right all the way down. You put [Anthony] Rendon down in the 7th hole, and it's a tough, balanced lineup. I mean, it really is. We'll see, but I like our lineup like that."

Johnson decided to put Werth (who admittedly prefers not to bat second) in that spot because he likes the protection the veteran right fielder and cleanup hitter Ryan Zimmerman offer sandwiched around Harper. In essence, it puts Harper in the very position to succeed, preventing opposing managers from matching up against him.

That look worked wonders on Monday. Werth went 2-for-5 with five RBI, his highest total since July 6, 2009 when he played for the Phillies. Zimmerman, meanwhile, went 2-for-4 with a walk and two RBI, stepping to the plate with at least one man on base in four of his five plate appearances.

Throw in RBI doubles from Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond, and the Nationals got production from nearly every corner of their lineup, scoring in double-digits for the second straight day. They've totaled 23 runs in that span, matching the largest back-to-back offensive output in club history.

"Today definitely was fun," said leadoff man Denard Span, who reached base three times and came around to score on each occasion. "It seemed like our lineup is a lot deeper with Bryce back, and it makes it tougher for the opposing pitchers."

Most appreciative of all the runs was Jordan Zimmermann, who was staked to an 8-0 lead in the fourth and was well on his way to another dominant start. The right-hander did suffer a mid-game hiccup, allowing four runs in the fifth and sixth, but still departed with a comfortable lead and in line for his league-leading 12th win.

A hard-luck victim through the first three years of his career, Zimmermann now finds himself one of baseball's most-supported pitchers. He has already matched his career-high in wins, with this season only halfway complete.

"They're giving me great run support, that's all I can say," said Zimmermann, who chipped in with three hits of his own on Monday. "In years past, I wasn't getting that, but this year is a whole different story. It's definitely fun going out there when you know they're going to give you four-to-eight runs a game. It's nice."

It's also nice to be able to take the mound in the second inning having already been staked to an early lead, thanks to the hitting heroics of one of the game's brightest young stars, one who earned a curtain call only one inning — and one gargantuan swing — after returning from a five-week stint on the DL.

"I'm excited as always," Harper said. "I'm excited to play this game every single day. It was great to get back out there."