Apr 29, 2012, 7:08 AM EDT
LOS ANGELES — It was everything Bryce Harper dreamed it might be, and maybe even a little more than he ever imagined.
A raucous, sellout crowd in an iconic ballpark. A laser beam of a double off the base of the center-field wall for his first career hit. A perfect throw from left field to the plate for what should have been a crucial out. A well-executed sacrifice fly to drive in what would have been the game-winning run.
And then … well, allow Harper to tell you what was going through his mind as he watched Dodgers All-Star Matt Kemp launch the 10th-inning homer that sent the Nationals to a crushing, 4-3 loss late last night.
“That sucked,” the 19-year-old said. “Seeing him hit a bomb, that was terrible.”
What had all the makings of a banner night in Nationals history — Harper went 1-for-3 with that double and an RBI, Stephen Strasburg tossed seven more brilliant innings and Henry Rodriguez was one strike away from wrapping up an epic victory — came to a sudden and devastating conclusion.
When Rodriguez uncorked his third wild pitch of the ninth inning, and when Tom Gorzelanny served up that towering home run to Kemp in the bottom of the 10th, it was difficult to think about everything good that had transpired over the previous three hours. The sting of those final, frantic moments were too fresh in everyone’s minds.
“But that just builds character,” manager Davey Johnson said nearly an hour later sitting on a clubhouse sofa, legs propped up on a coffee table. “That was a heck of a game tonight.”
Indeed it was. The calendar said it took place on April 28. The scene inside Dodger Stadium, and the emotions that emanated out of both dugouts, suggested this game took place six months later, with a whole lot more at stake.
Now, consider this all took place as the most-hyped pitching prospect in a generation stood on the mound and the most-hyped hitting prospect in a generation made his big-league debut in left field.
“It was a fun atmosphere,” said Strasburg, who struck out nine without issuing a walk over seven innings of one-run ball. “I thought we showed up to play. We just couldn’t get it done in the late innings.”
Harper was not at all to blame for that. If anything, the 19-year-old might have displayed the most poise of anyone in a Nationals uniform during this epic ballgame.
“I didn’t have butterflies at all, really,” he said. “I think that’s one of the first times I’ve ever not gotten butterflies.”
With the crowd booing (and in one case, mooning) his every move, Harper looked perfectly comfortable playing in his first major-league game. The first half of his evening was nondescript, featuring a comebacker to the mound and a flyball to left in his first two at-bats. But he came up big in his biggest moments later in the game.
It began with Harper’s first career hit: a two-out, two-strike double off the base of the wall in straightaway center field.
It then continued with a perfect throw from left field in the bottom of the seventh, a throw that beat Jerry Hairston to the plate but resulted in the run scoring when catcher Wilson Ramos couldn’t hold onto the ball … though that play was not without controversy. Johnson argued that Hairston intentionally swiped at Ramos’ mitt, trying to knock the ball loose, which should have constituted interference.
Plate umpire Mark Carlson told Johnson he didn’t see Hairston’s move, but he wouldn’t seek help from one of his other crew members who might have had a better view.
“He smacked the ball,” Johnson said. “He’s out. … He can do whatever you want with the catcher. But you cannot move the ball, or you’re out.”
Hairston’s questionable run left the game tied 1-1 heading into the ninth, but it also set the stage for Harper to be the hero when his sacrifice fly to medium left field easily scored Rick Ankiel with the go-ahead run. Ramos’ RBI single moments later extended the lead to 3-1 and put the Nationals in prime position to pull off one of the most-impressive wins in club history.
The last three outs of a Major League Baseball game, though, are unlike any other outs in this sport. And even a pitcher armed with a 102-mph fastball and a devastating slider can succumb to the pressure sometimes.
So it was for Rodriguez, who to date had been brilliant in recording five saves but on this night melted under the hot lights. Rodriguez faced six batters, allowing hits to the first three, uncorking one wild pitch to advance a runner, then another to bring home the tying run, then another on a strikeout to prolong the inning and give the Dodgers a chance to win in regulation.
“I thought we were in good shape to get out of it, and a wild pitch killed us,” Johnson said. “Henry pitched good, except he probably tried to overthrow that one pitch, and he threw it away. He’s been great all spring, all year. I’m not worried about him.”
Johnson did have to yank his closer with the game still up in the air in the ninth, turning to Gorzelanny to retire Tony Gwynn Jr. on a rocket line drive hit directly at first baseman Adam LaRoche.
The 69-year-old manager then stuck with Gorzelanny for the 10th inning, despite the fact the right-handed Kemp (who leads the majors in nearly every offensive category) was due to lead off. Johnson said he didn’t want to use right-hander Ryan Mattheus or left-hander Sean Burnett for a third consecutive day, and he didn’t want to burn up his other long reliever (Craig Stammen) and leave himself vulnerable in Sunday’s series finale.
“At that point, I’ve got two left-handers coming up behind [Kemp] and I figured he was going to pitch him close there,” Johnson said. “And he’s my long man. I need another inning out of him. … If you want to go ahead and throw the kitchen sink out there and have nothing left for tomorrow … that’s not a wise way to go about it.”
Gorzelanny got ahead of Kemp, but left his 1-2 pitch over the plate and watched as the ball soared into the Hollywood night, a crushing conclusion to what had been shaping up as one of the best nights in Nationals history.
It’ll still be remembered years from now as the night a 19-year-old phenom made his debut and lived up to the hype. In the heat of the moment, though, it was tough for Harper to contemplate what he had just experienced.
When will it all finally sink in?
“I don’t know,” Harper said. “I’m thinking the same thing. I was wondering the same thing: When will it sink in? When will I feel it? I think the next week or so it’ll really sink in. I was sitting in the dugout before the game and I was thinking to myself: ‘Wow, I’m in the big leagues.’ But I’m just trying to take it one game at a time, one at-bat at a time and not get too overwhelmed with things. I’m trying to do the best I can with that.”
On this night, Harper’s best wasn’t enough.
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