Instinctive Harper helps Nats win again

Instinctive Harper helps Nats win again
May 4, 2012, 4:33 am
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With each passing day, we get more and more of a picture of Bryce Harper as a big leaguer. And what we learn is that the Nationals new left fielder, 19 years old or not, is more than a mere athletic specimen.

Yes, he has the god-given ability to hit or throw a baseball with enough authority to make a stadium full of fans gasp. But he also has the instincts and the awareness to do a lot of subtle things plenty of guys with far more experience have yet to master.

"He's a baseball player," teammate Jayson Werth said, using a seemingly generic term in the most complimentary sense. "When you're a baseball player, you can be 15 or you can be 50. If you know how to play the game, you can play. ... He's a good player, no question about it. He's definitely going to be a force in our lineup for a long time."

He already is. As Harper showed once again Thursday night during the Nationals' 2-1 victory over the Diamondbacks, his quick ascension to the major leagues was made possible not only by his physical tools but by his innate sense for the game.

The kid's latest moment of heroics: An RBI double down the left-field line in the bottom of the sixth, scoring Ian Desmond with the run that put the Nationals ahead for good and rewarded Ross Detwiler for his 6 13 innings of one-run ball.

It was a bit more complicated than that, though. Facing a tough right-hander in Ian Kennedy (a 21-game winner last year) with one out in a tie ballgame and the infield drawn in, Harper avoided the temptation to swing from his heels and drive the ball over the Anacostia River. Instead, he shortened up and took what Kennedy gave him, first sending an outside fastball foul down the third-base line, then dumping another outside fastball into left field for the game-winning hit.

"I was just trying to think middle of the field," Harper said. "He has a good change-up, so I wasn't trying to get too excited and pull off of something. I was just trying to think middle the whole time and got a pitch I could handle and got it going."

It was Harper's fourth double in five games, spanning 16 big-league at-bats. And it came in his first appearance as a No. 3 hitter at this level, a move manager Davey Johnson made prior to the game after easing the rookie in as his No. 7 hitter for several days.

"I don't care if his name is Harper or whatever, or how old he is," Johnson said. "If you're swinging the bat good, we're trying to put out guys who are swinging the bat best in order to do the most damage."

Harper wasn't done with his double. He immediately showed off those instincts by advancing on Jayson Werth's grounder to third base, waiting for Arizona's Ryan Roberts to make the throw before taking off for the bag.

The crowd of 19,636 roared with approval, and players in both dugouts couldn't help but appreciate the teenager's approach to the game.

"He plays really hard," Kennedy said. "That's all you can really ask for out of someone with his status, where he's at, being crowned, I don't know, the savior or whatever signs are out there, or in ESPN The Magazine. It's all you can ask for. He does play really hard."

Harper, of course, wasn't alone in making this victory possible. It required another stellar start from Detwiler, who didn't allow a hit until the fifth and for the fourth time in five outings this season was charged with zero or one earned run.

"Gutty performance against a good-hitting ballclub coming back after a tough loss," Johnson said. "He was my star of the game."

The key to Detwiler's success in this one: His early command. A whopping 23 of his first 27 pitches were strikes, setting the tone for the night.

"Absolutely," the lefty said. "The only way they're going to chase balls later is if you throw strikes early in the game."

Not wanting to put Detwiler in a position to take the loss, Johnson pulled his starter with one out and a runner on second. Ryan Mattheus then proceeded to pitch out of the jam, striking out A.J. Pollack on a heavy, 94-mph sinker. Tyler Clippard retired the side in the eighth. And Henry Rodriguez (getting his first save opportunity since a Saturday night meltdown at Dodger Stadium) set down the Diamondbacks in order in the ninth.

Just like that, the Nationals had themselves another low-scoring, narrow victory. They're now 8-5 in one-run games. Incredibly, they've also won five games in which their lineup has produced five or fewer hits (they only had four in this victory).

"Pitching and defense wins championships. We'll go with that for now," Werth said. "And once we get healthy, maybe we'll go with something else. No matter how you do it, that's the most important thing. We're playing good, crisp, clean baseball, especially early in the season."

And they're getting a lot of help from a 19-year-old who plays the game like he's been a big leaguer for a lot more than five days.