May 9, 2015, 9:03 PM EDT
After hitting five home runs in two games to lead the Nationals to victories, Bryce Harper was already making history on a daily basis and rocketing souvenirs all over the ballpark in the process. He was already leading the surging Nationals and rounding into form as one of the best players in baseball.
So, on Saturday evening, as the Nationals watched a three-run lead vanish in the eighth inning, he couldn’t possibly top himself with an encore performance, could he?
Of course he can, because he’s Bryce Harper and special moments are quickly becoming the new normal for the prodigious 22-year-old star.
Harper launched a walk-off homer over the Geico sign in center field to hand the Nationals a 8-6 win and their first above-.500 record of the 2015 season. Harper knew the ball was gone right off the bat and is now the fourth youngest player ever to have three walk-off homers in their career. The man he passed? Ryan Zimmerman.
Only former Nationals manager Frank Robinson – who ironically was inducted into the Nats’ ring of honor prior to the game – had more before the age of 23.
“Right when I hit it, I knew it was gone,” Harper said. “No disrespect to that other guy, I just knew it was gone. Got around the bases, pointed to right field because my fans out there. Love them, so had to point out there.”
‘That other guy’ was Braves reliever Cody Martin who hung a slider to Harper in a 1-0 count. Harper rounded the bases quickly and was met with a shower of chocolate sauce by pitcher Max Scherzer, a new and very messy tradition started by the ace.
“I think Scherzer started a new thing with the chocolate sauce, so I was a little flustered during my [postgame] interview, I’m a little better now. So that’s a lot of fun now,” he said.
Harper also had his jersey ripped open by left fielder Jayson Werth.
“All the buttons are ripped. He ripped the whole thing,” Harper said. “Hopefully they can fix that tonight so I can wear it tomorrow.”
Harper also had a single and a walk, his league-best 27th in 31 games this year. He now sports an OPS of 1.084. He is becoming a terror for opposing pitchers, a player who can take a pitch just out of the zone or capitalize on a mistake and send it 450 feet into the oblivion.
He’s also playing excellent defense in right field. On Saturday, Harper robbed Nick Markakis of a double with a leaping, over-the-shoulder grab for the third out of the seventh inning. The play saved a run, as Pedro Ciriaco was standing on second.
Harper made the amazing grab, but afterwards admitted it wasn’t as easy as smooth as he made it look.
“I was like a baby giraffe trying to get his legs underneath him. Really. I was flustered trying to get that ball. Being able to get that ball over my head, was definitely huge. I just put [my glove] up and caught the ball,” he said.
Harper takes pride in all areas of his game and is enjoying his new position in right field. He has his eyes set on becoming the best player at his position.
“I’m trying not only to be good offensively at the plate, but trying to be the best right fielder in the game. Plain and simple. I want to be the best right fielder in this game,” he said.
After leading the Nationals to yet another victory, Harper has earned the admiration of his teammates and manager.
“It’s awesome. it’s just so fun to watch,” Ian Desmond said. “The work that he puts in and the amount of, I guess, I don’t want to say wisdom he has for a young guy, but he just knows himself. He just knows what he needs to do on a daily basis. And it’s really been kind of fun to watch him mature in the way that he is now.”
When asked if Harper was ‘finally’ coming around, Matt Williams balked at the concept.
“I don’t know if it’s ‘finally,’ he’s still 22. That’s the perception a little bit, right? [People think] ‘finally’. He’s 22 years old, and just 22. I think he’s starting to learn himself. He’s learning how to play within himself. He’s learning how to take what’s given to him. He’s taken to right field very well. He’s taken to the middle of the order very well. We certainly don’t expect him to hit a home run every day, but he can get in streaks like that where he’s seeing the ball very well and putting the head on it.”
A forecast of greatness may have preceded Harper as the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, but nobody expects more of Bryce Harper than the man himself.
“That’s the way I need to play. Plain and simple. That’s why the Natioanls drafted me, that’s the way I need to play. That’s the way I need to be. I need to stay in the lineup and keep having fun,” he said.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
WED: 4:30 p.m.
THU: 2:30 p.m.
FRI: 5:30 p.m.
SAT: 10:30 a.m.
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