Harper not surprised by Atlanta plunking
Desperate for some kind of emotional spark, something that might snap them out of their season-long fog and set them on an upward path at long last, the Nationals got their wish in the fifth inning Tuesday night when their 20-year-old star took a fastball off his hip and then started jawing at the opposing pitcher, clearing both benches and bullpens.
Bryce Harper may have stoked the flame, but it's tough to keep the fire going when you can't deliver a single clutch hit in a key situation.
That has been the story of the Nationals' entire season, and it once again was the story on Tuesday during a 2-1 loss to the Braves that left them staring up at an almost-unfathomable 14 1/2-game deficit in the NL East.
"You get one of your guys hit, get people fired up, maybe get a little motivation there," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "I don't know. I've seen it go both ways."
It most definitely went the wrong way Tuesday night after Harper's incident with Julio Teheran, in which the young outfielder — two innings after launching a towering home run to center field — was plunked in the hip and then took two steps toward the mound and started jawing at the Braves right-hander.
Both benches and both bullpens eventually emptied, though there were no actual physical altercations between players, and order quickly was restored with no repercussions other than warnings issued to everyone on the field by crew chief Joe West.
Though Teheran denied throwing at Harper on purpose, the pitcher's intent seemed obvious to the Nationals, especially the guy who homered off him two innings earlier and said he wasn't surprised by what happened.
"I hit that ball pretty far off him," Harper said. "So, no, not really."
Though he had plenty to say to Teheran — lip readers surely enjoyed breaking down the video — Harper insisted he never planned to charge the mound or do anything that would get him ejected.
"Nah, I wasn't going to go out there," he said. "I mean, 14 1/2 games down, and I need to be in the lineup. He's got to do what he's got to do. And it's part of the game. If I walk-off on somebody and he wants to drill me, I'll let him drill me and I'll stand on first base and say some choice words and get over it."
If the Braves were upset that Harper admired his home run, they might want to look at the mirror. Though Harper's home run trot was clocked at 23.66 seconds (slowest of his career, according to TaterTrotTracker.com), it was still four seconds faster than Justin Upton's trot the previous night.
But if the Braves expected some form of later retaliation from the Nationals' pitching staff, it wasn't going to come on this night.
"I think that it would have been selfish," starter Gio Gonzalez said. "I had no one warming up in the 'pen. It's a tough situation to go about. You want to protect your guys as much as possible. ... I think the best way to do it is go out there and shut them down two more innings and give your team a chance to come back. Hurt them the other way: Try to get a win."
Gonzalez did his part, surrendering only two runs (on an Evan Gattis single in the top of the fifth) over seven strong innings. But the left-hander was once again victimized by a lack of run support, though he contributed to that on his own when he popped up a sacrifice bunt attempt in the bottom of the fifth.
The Nationals wound up stranding the tying runner on third base in that inning, then stranded the bases loaded in the seventh in an even bigger spot. Given a chance to deliver the clutch hit this team so desperately needed, LaRoche worked the count to 2-0 against lefty Luis Avilan but then swung at an inside pitch and grounded out to first base to kill the rally.
"When it came out of his hand, it looked great," LaRoche said. "I don't know how much run at the end it had on it, if it came off or not. I've hit that pitch plenty. Again, he just beat me to the spot."
The Nationals never put another man on base ... or another ball into play. Jordan Walden and Craig Kimbrel combined to strike out all six batters faced in the eighth and ninth innings, propelling Atlanta to its 12th straight victory and pushing Washington back even farther in the NL East race.
Even with a sweep-avoiding win on Wednesday, the Nationals will have lost ground this week. There are now 49 games left to be played, and they have provided little evidence to date they are capable of going on the kind of sustained run necessary to save this season.
"Nothing you can do now except keep playing," LaRoche said. "There's no point in looking back and hanging our head. We've got two options now: We can cash it in and think about next year, or we can grind it out and see what happens. I'm pretty sure we're going to keep pushing."