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Harper sets stage, Desmond takes curtain call

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Harper sets stage, Desmond takes curtain call

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."

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Ivan Rodriguez becomes first former Nationals player to be voted into Hall of Fame

Ivan Rodriguez becomes first former Nationals player to be voted into Hall of Fame

Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez became the first former Nationals player (2005-present) to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday. He was inducted in his first year of eligibility, marking the 52nd first-ballot hall of famer in history. 

Rodriguez, who was the first free agent signed by current Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, played the final two seasons of his career with Washington in 2010-11. During his time in D.C. he hit .254 six homers and 68 RBI. Pudge's greatest contribution to the Nationals came from his leadership and work ethic. He guided Stephen Strasburg through his rookie season and also helped develop Wilson Ramos so he could pass the torch to him. 

During his 21-year career, Pudge made 14 all-star teams, won 13 gold gloves, won seven silver slugger awards, led his league in caught-steeling percentage nine times, and was named American League MVP in 1999 with the Texas Rangers. He became a World Series champion in 2003 with the Florida Marlins. Pudge's 13 gold gloves are the most ever by a catcher, and his 2,844 career hits are the most ever by a player who appeared in 50 percent or more of their career games as a catcher.  

In addition to Rodriguez, former Montreal Expos great Tim Raines was inducted to the Hall of Fame. Raines is the franchise leader (Expos/Nationals) in walks (793), runs (947), stolen bases (635) and triples (82). Raines was an all-star seven times and he won a silver slugger in 1986 with the Expos. He is the only player in MLB history with at least 100 triples, 150 homers and 600 RBI in a career, and the only player to steal at least 70 bases in six consecutive seasons. 

Related: Bryce Harper wants Nationals to spend money on players, not team store

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Bryce Harper wants Nationals to invest in Matt Wieters, Greg Holland more than facilities

Bryce Harper wants Nationals to invest in Matt Wieters, Greg Holland more than facilities

Bryce Harper isn't one to keep his opinions to himself. The Nationals slugger is outspoken about what he wants, whether that's to "Make Baseball Fun Again" or to make at least $400 million on his next contract

On Wednesday, he gave his take on how the Nats should be investing their money this summer. Here's Harper responding to a tweet from ESPN's Jim Bowden.

Harper's message: Players over everything else. Sorry, gift shop. 

It's plain to see where the 2015 NL MVP is going with this. Obviously, he wants as much talent around him as possible for a chance to win the World Series. 

Matt Wieters, a four-time All-Star catcher, and Greg Holland, a two-time All-Star closer, could be significant additions to Washington's roster. 

Harper is set to become a free agent in 2018, at which point an organization like the New York Yankees will be prepared to offer him both a massive salary and a massive investment in the players around him.

The slugger probably hopes his current team will try to surround him with winning pieces in an effort to keep him. But if a report about the Nationals' reaction to his contract demands proves accurate, they may have another agenda. 

There's Harper drama around the Nationals? Just a regular Wednesday here in Washington.

MORE NATIONALS: Nationals avoid arbitration with Harper, three others