They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. But tonight, the Washington Nationals realized just how much they had been missing without Bryce Harper.
Impressive showings from thumb injury brothers Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, who figured prominently in a five-run sixth inning, led the Nats (44-38) to a huge 7-3 victory over the Colorado Rockies (36-47) in Harper’s first game back from the disabled list.
Harper was welcomed warmly on his bobblehead night, eliciting deafening cheers when he was announced and when he first came to bat. Of course, that first at-bat saw him ground into a double play, but from there, it was vintage Bryce.
It didn’t take long before everyone was reminded of what Harper is capable of. In the first inning, he fielded a Justin Morneau single with a runner on first. With an absolute laser of a throw, he caught the runner off of first and seemingly in a rundown. But Jordan Zimmermann had backed up home as the other runner advanced to third, so no one was behind Adam LaRoche at first and Morneau ended up safe.
Harper’s cyborg arm nearly earned the Nats an out again in the sixth, but was once again thwarted by poor defensive positioning. Troy Tulowitzki doubled, driving home a runner from second to tie the game at one, but Harper’s throw seemed to beat Tulowitzki to the bag. But Anthony Rendon, less accustomed to second than third, failed to cover the base and the ball skipped by harmlessly.
“That’s pretty special stuff,” said Manager Matt Williams after the game. “That’s what he brings.”
For all his throwing wizardry, Harper really made his presence felt at the plate. After the GIDP, he knocked a sharp single up the middle in the fourth, scoring Zimmerman for the game’s first run. When center fielder Drew Stubbs bobbled the ball, Harper never stopped running and arrived safely at second, of course losing his helmet along the way.
But the game’s pivotal moment came with runners on second and third with one out, immediately after a double by Zimmerman tied the game. The Rockies elected to intentionally walk Harper, showing a surprising amount of respect to a player in his first game off the disabled list. But Ian Desmond seemed to consider it a slight to his abilities, and responded accordingly. He ripped a first pitch double to the corner in left, clearing the bases and putting the Nats up 5-2.
With today’s double, Desmond is now 6-for-6 with the bases loaded this year, with 14 RBI. Those are some absolutely surreal numbers.
Though he was not in the pregame limelight, it was also Ryan Zimmerman’s day to shine. In his first third-base start since April 12th, he came up huge on both sides of the ball. He was 3-for-5 at the plate, knocking two doubles, driving in a run and scoring two. Only one ball came his way, but he played it perfectly. A sharp, low liner, Zimmerman slid to snag it on the fly and fired across his body to nail the runner at first. While Zimmerman is no longer the Gold Glover he once was, tonight should assuage the fears of those who presumed he would be unplayable at the position he once dominated.
Of course, these two were not the only players on the team. Zimmermann (W, 6-4) pitched as well as he always does, allowing two runs on seven hits, one walk, and five strikeouts in six innings. Preposterously overqualified No. 8 hitter Wilson Ramos drove in a run in the sixth with a groundout, and LaRoche crushed a Rob Scahill pitch to the second deck in right, tallying the final Nats run. Aaron Barrett gave up a run after umpire Joe West called a balk on him that moved a runner into scoring position. Williams said after the game that the offending move was Barrett’s “normal setup”, and that he “does it every time.” But the Nats had to change Barrett’s setup on the fly regardless, which may have contributed to his allowing a run.
While Harper also caused a bit of a stir with his thoughts on the lineup, tonight’s game showed what Harper brings more than anything else: a game-changing presence on offense and defense. The Nats may not be “the best team in baseball,” which Harper himself declared postgame, but they’re a much better team when he’s in the lineup.