Some teams see the danger of falling behind 2-0 in a three-of-five and shrivel. Some see it and see an opportunity. The same goes for individual players. Push them or theirs against the wall and they either shrivel or push back hard. Bryce Harper, right now, is in the latter category.
The Nationals aren’t anywhere near complaining, after Harper started the yanking that ended with a 6-3 Nats win in Game Two of their division series against the (say it again!) defending world champion Cubs. (Still feels good, no, Cub Country?)
Dogged by coming back from a knee injury that cost him 42 games down the stretch, Harper before Game Two could only think his hitting had to get better. In the bottom of the eighth Friday, hitting a mammoth two-run homer to pull the Nats back to within a run, it couldn’t have gotten better if Harper’s bat was guided from the heavens by Ted Williams himself.
“Taking six weeks off, seven weeks off, not seeing live pitching is tough,” said Harper, who’d been 0-for-3 until he faced Carl Edwards, Jr., a Cubs righthander who’s usually tougher on lefthanded than righthanded hitters. “You know, just got to go out there, see the ball, and try to hit it the best I can.”
Harper’s long proven he can handle the best thrown to him. Make a mistake, though, and he could be charged with first degree murder. Doesn’t matter whether that mistake is a pitch he couldn’t miss if he’d lost his vision entirely, or whether the other guys’ manager leaves a righthanded pitcher in to challenge him.
With Adam Lind aboard on a pinch hit single, one out, and the Cubs holding a 3-1 lead, Cubs manager Joe Maddon decided it was safe to let Edwards, Jr. pitch to the lefthanded Harper. This turned out to be something like deciding it was safe to let D.B. Cooper take command of United Airlines.
Harper decided it on 3-1 that was even safer to pull Edward’s hanging curve ball into the second deck. Nationals Park went ballistic to the tenth power as Harper rounded the bases.
“Bryce always steps up right when it’s the time,” said Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez, who’d been hit for Wilson Contreras’s solo bomb in the top of the second and Anthony Rizzo’s two-run blast—making him the Cub with the most postseason home runs in franchise history—in the top of the fourth. “It’s unbelievable what he does and how he does it. “He’s a story, a movie, everything all in one.”
On Friday night Harper was six parts Viva Las Vegas—he and his fellow Vegas native, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, have linked to efforts to help victims’ families and the survivors of last Sunday’s atrocity at the country music festival adjacent to Mandalay Bay, from which shooter Stephen Paddock fired and slaughtered—and half a dozen parts Twelve O’Clock High.
“I thought about taking the whole way,” Harper said. “And then I saw the loop in the curveball and said, ‘Why not swing as hard as you can?’ Got barrel on it. Pretty good moment.”
Maddon wouldn’t apologise for leaving Edwards in the game despite having lefthander Mike Montgomery in the pen and ready to go. And, ordinarily, he wouldn’t have needed to, not just because of Edwards’s unusual right/left split but because Edwards hadn’t allowed a home run since 16 August.
The Cubs’ Game Two starter, Jon Lester, echoed the skipper’s call. “I’ll take C.J. in that situation ten out of ten times, and I like our chances in the end,” said Lester. “We all have their backs. Hell, we’ve all been there. Turn the page. They’ll be fine. We have each other’s backs.”
But this was Harper at the plate. In the right circumstance, like a curve ball with about as much snap on it as a dirigible floating toward a mooring mast, Harper doesn’t care when you surrendered your last bomb or even who you are. ”[Edwards] made a bad pitch and the guy didn’t miss it, and that’s it,” the Cubs skipper said. “Bryce is good. C.J. is good. Bryce got him.”
A night earlier, the Nats left everyone wondering whether they were postseason crisis junkies.
Assistant hitting coach Jacque Jones was revealed suspended over having been hit with a lawsuit accusing him of revenge porn—sending nudes of a former paramour around to get even for ending their relationship before Game One.
Then Stephen Strasburg took a no-hitter to the sixth only to see usually sure-handed third baseman Anthony Rendon plus the Cubs’ bats end that on the wrong side while Kyle Hendricks and the Cubs’ pen kept them checkmated. Including Game One’s 3-0 shutout, the Nats went sixteen innings without a run entering the eighth Friday.
But a walk and a base hit after Harper dropped his Friday payload, and with Montgomery—the last Cub pitcher standing when they won the World Series last year—on the mound, Ryan Zimmerman drove one that cleared the left field fence by about the thickness of a sheet of paper and landed in a flower bed above it.
“Maybe got a little lucky,” Zimmerman said. “Who knows?”
Earlier in the game it looked like the Nats were going to be stuck in another postseason funk. Especially after Cubs starter Jon Lester—who’d walked the bases loaded after Zimmerman’s leadoff single and a pair of walks—got Trea Turner to chase a fastball that was headed anywhere but the corner outside to end the Washington fifth.
“Sometimes it takes kind of just one hit for everyone to exhale,” Zimmerman said. Or kind of just two of a certain kind. The Nats and the Cubs have all Sunday to catch their breaths traveling before the set re-convenes in Wrigley Field. The Cubs may want to think about arranging Harper’s kidnapping, though. Just to be safe.