WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – Sometimes you just know.
When Bryce Harper strode to the plate in the bottom of the first inning last night for the first time in 36 days, I told my buddy Dennis, who was sitting next to me in Section 308 at Nats Park, that Harper was going to hit a home run. And, of course, that’s just what the reigning National League Rookie of the Year did, smacking a pitch from Milwaukee’s Yovani Gallardo just over the left field wall to launch Washington to a 10-5 victory and moved the defending National League East champions two games over .500 for the first time in five weeks.
As Nats right fielder Jayson Werth said, “Typical Bryce.”
Harper, who missed 36 of the first half’s 81 games because of the damage two collisions with outfield walls did to his left knee, is one of those special athletes with a flair for the dramatic.
If not for a meltdown by since-departed reliever Henry Rodriguez, Harper would’ve been the hero of his major league debut at 19 last April 28 after knocking in the go-ahead run in the ninth inning, not long after uncorking a tremendous throw to the plate. The Nats, who hadn’t finished over .500 during their previous seven seasons in Washington, went on to win a major league-best 98 games.
Harper also boldly proclaimed on Opening Day 2013 that he wasn’t going to be a victim of the sophomore slump, belting a homer on the first pitch he faced and going deep again in his second at-bat for all the runs that Washington would need in a 2-0 triumph over Miami. He was batting .356 with nine homers and 18 RBI with the season not quite a sixth complete when he ran into the right field wall in Atlanta on April 30. A month of playing with a battered body later, he went on the DL.
The 20-year-old from Las Vegas is like his 23-year-old counterpart from Copperas Cove, Tex., Washington’s other reigning Rookie of the Year. Remember how Robert Griffin III debuted last Sept. 9? In his parents’ hometown in the packed, raucous Superdome breathing fire over the NFL’s suspension of coach Sean Payton and other important Saints, RGIII threw an 88-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon in the first quarter en route to setting a league rookie record for passing efficiency and leading the Redskins to a stunning 40-32 victory over New Orleans which started them towards their first playoff appearance in five years and their first NFC East title in 13.
We’re also blessed in this town with another such athlete who lives for the spotlight. It happened for a rebuilding team that wouldn’t come close to the playoffs, but 20-year-old Alex Ovechkin began his fabulous career with the Capitals with two goals in Washington’s 3-2 victory over Columbus that opened the 2005-06 season, following the lockout that had kept us waiting for the Great Eight an extra year. Seven and a half years later, MVP Ovechkin pumped in 23 goals in the final 23 games to power the Caps to another Southeast Division title this spring.
But back to Harper’s magic. He returns last night and the up-and-down Nats take an 8-0 lead after just four innings. Werth drives in five runs for the first time in his three seasons in Washington. Ace right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, who had managed three hits in 32 at-bats this season, lines a double down the third base line and then singles twice. Everyone in the badly struggling lineup gets a hit except for catcher Kurt Suzuki. Even pinch hitter Chad Tracy lifts his average from .133 to .145. Include Sunday’s 13-2 laugher over the Mets in New York when the Nats knew that the offense’s focal point was due back the next night and they have tied a team record with 23 runs over two games.
Washington isn’t going to produce 10 runs and 13 hits every night just because Harper’s back. But manager Davey Johnson’s lineup is undoubtedly better with its best bat back in its customary No. 3 spot. And even though Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez have been pitching like the studs they are, the presence of Harper’s bat and arm has to be uplifting for Washington’s entire staff.
Some athletes just have that special charisma, an aura that teammates and fans can feel. It’s not what they say. It’s the way they carry themselves that sends a wave of confidence to those on their side. And last night at Nats Park, you could feel it. Bryce was back and so were the Nats.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.