Bryce Harper found himself at Dodger Stadium over the weekend, and at Nationals Park Tuesday night, because his team desperately needed an offensive spark.
No matter how well the 19-year-old plays -- and he's playing pretty darn well three games into his big-league career -- the Nationals' offensive woes extend far beyond that. As was all too evident during a 5-1 drubbing at the hands of the Diamondbacks, it's mighty difficult to win games when almost nobody in your lineup is producing at a level of competence.
"I think the last five or six games, we've been averaging two runs or something," Davey Johnson said. "That's just not going to cut it."
Actually, it's even worse than the manager realizes. During what has now become a five-game losing streak, the Nationals have scored a total of seven runs (1.4 per game). They've compiled 25 total hits (five per game). And they've struck out 45 times while drawing only 11 walks.
Even if Harper was taking the majors by storm, it wouldn't be enough to make up for the lack of offense elsewhere in the Nationals' lineup.
What should have been a coronation for the most-touted hitting prospect in a generation instead turned into a 2-hour, 38-minute snore-fest. Harper drew multiple standing ovations from the disappointingly small crowd of 22,675 in his home debut, but those fans barely had reason to clap at any other juncture of the evening.
"It's good to go out there and everybody's cheering, yelling and screaming," he said. "They're excited. They want us to win, and that's what we want to do."
Harper didn't provide any theatrics at the plate; he went 0-for-3 with a strikeout, though his fifth-inning hard grounder up the middle looked like a sure base hit until he realized shortstop John McDonald was perfectly positioned to make the play.
The former No. 1 draft pick did, however, dazzle the crowd with another jaw-dropping throw from left field. With one out and the bases loaded in the seventh, he retreated to catch Justin Upton's flyball and then fired a 300-foot strike to nearly gun down McDonald at the plate. Actually, replays appeared to show catcher Wilson Ramos making the tag just before McDonald slid across, though plate umpire Jeff Nelson disagreed.
"I just thought I had a shot," Harper said. "Reared back and gave it my all. That's what I try to do, make plays like that."
The crowd serenaded Harper with a standing ovation, even though his play resulted in a run scoring for the opposition.
"He's got an unbelievable arm," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "He showed it a couple times. Another throw at the plate tonight that I don't think anybody thought was going to be close, and he made it a bang-bang play."
In the end, that was the highlight of Harper's night. Not exactly the home debut he envisioned. Then again, neither he nor the Nationals envisioned a club that stood 10 games over .500 last Wednesday would suddenly lose five in a row.
The common theme throughout the losing streak has been the lack of production at the plate, and Tuesday night's game was no different. Johnson's No. 1 and No. 2 hitters (Ian Desmond and Steve Lombardozzi) went a combined 4-for-8; everyone else went 2-for-24.
Afterward, the manager praised those two top-of-the-order batters for their aggressive approach and then praised the Diamondbacks for taking the same tact against right-hander Jordan Zimmermann (leading to four runs in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings).
"A perfect example: We had a very good pitcher on the mound, and they were very aggressive," Johnson said. "Guys were swinging the bat early trying to drive the ball. I'd like to see us get a little more aggressive like that. I think we will."
With an entire lineup struggling at once, it's easy for players to start pressing and trying to get out of their comfort zones. That's a mental battle they have to fight.
"This is the big leagues. We all know what we're capable of. Stick to that," Desmond said. "I don't think Lombo's going to try and go up there and go 4-for-4 with four homers. I'm not going to go up there and try to walk six times. You've just got to go out and play your game. The end result is the end result. You win some, you lose some. We all understand that."
At the moment, though, the Nationals are only losing. Three days into his career, Harper has yet to experience a postgame clubhouse with music and upbeat chatter.
"We want to win every day," he said. "That's our goal, to come in here and have good ABs. It's going to happen for us. We're going to turn it around."