The day began with Bryce Harper talking his way into the lineup, telling his manager via text message to either "play me or trade me." It ended with Harper earning his second straight All-Star berth and driving in three runs, then watching from left field as his Nationals teammates hung on for dear life to pull off a 5-4 win over the Padres that catapulted this improving ballclub to new heights.
Just another afternoon at Nationals Park, where a sunburned crowd of 33,314 experienced the full range of emotions on Saturday, ultimately cheering along with the home team after Rafael Soriano closed out a nip-and-tick victory.
"We're starting to play better baseball," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We're coming together. We're getting a little lucky."
Perhaps there were a few fortunate bounces in this game, but the Nationals also made their own luck. They delivered several hits in the clutch. They got a dominant relief performance from Drew Storen. And then they flashed some serious leather in the ninth inning to clinch their third straight win — their eighth in 12 games — and raise their record to 45-42.
It's the first time the Nationals have sat three games above .500 since May 18, a not-insignificant development for a club that has desperately tried to sustain some positive momentum all season and at last is starting to play good baseball on a daily basis.
"We've had some bumps on the road with injuries and stuff, but the character and makeup of this club is great," manager Davey Johnson said. "Even through the rough times, I haven't seen anybody getting overly concerned."
There was some concern, however, from the 20-year-old left fielder before this game. After learning that Johnson planned to bench him for the weekend to rest his body and his mind, Harper sent his manager a text message that read: "Play me or trade me."
Obviously, Harper was joking. Right?
"I was pretty serious about what I said," he said. "I want to play. I want to play every single day. I think if he wants to put me in the lineup, then I want to be in the lineup. If he doesn't, I'm going to try to make him put me in the lineup."
Harper and Johnson had a long talk in the manager's office Saturday morning, and Johnson became convinced his young star didn't need a rest. Harper entered on an 0-for-18 slump since his dramatic home run Monday night, but he responded by driving in three runs on a bases-loaded walk, an RBI single and a sacrifice fly that tied the game 4-4 in the seventh.
"He came in and we had a nice chat," Johnson said before the game. "As far as I'm concerned, he's good to go."
Harper's final RBI left this game tied, bringing the Nationals back after reliever Ross Ohlendorf had served up a three-run homer to Jesus Guzman in the top of the seventh, spoiling Jordan Zimmermann's chance to earn his league-leading 13th win. It was followed moments later by Zimmerman's two-out single to right, bringing home the go-ahead run and energizing the crowd.
"We've been playing better lately and scoring runs later in the game and getting hits like that," Zimmerman said. "We just gotta keep doing that, take one hit at a time and slowly just kinda creep up."
Leading 5-4, the Nationals still needed six outs to secure this victory. They got the first three outs from Drew Storen, who bounced back from back-to-back disastrous appearances with a five-pitch, 1-2-3 eighth inning that was as dominant a frame as he's thrown all season.
"If you know anything about pitching in the bullpen, you can't get two bad outings get to you," Storen said. "Especially when you're on a streak like I had before. Just learn from them, move on and get out there again."
The final three outs didn't come quite as simple. Soriano surrendered a pair of one-out singles, then needed a pair of spectacular plays from his infield to finish it off. Anthony Rendon adjusted well after a comebacker ricocheted off Soriano and fired to first base just in time to get Mark Kotsay for the second out. Moments later, Adam LaRoche dove to his right to snag Everth Cabrera's hard grounder, then hit Soriano in stride as the closer reached first base and let out a roar.
"That's the fastest I've seen him run," Zimmerman said of Soriano. "Rochie obviously makes plays like that all the time. But for Sori to get over there..."
That seems to be the way things are starting to go for the Nationals. They're playing a cleaner brand of baseball. They're getting production from their entire lineup.
And they're starting to put together a sustained run that more closely resembles the team that won 98 games last year and entered this year with sky-high expectations.
"We're winning ballgames right now, and we're inching our way to first place," Harper said. "That's what it's all about."