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Saturday, October 7, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

“I think it just goes to show you how important that third and fourth at-bat can be.” — Bryce Harper

On his fourth at-bat Saturday against the Chicago Cubs in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, Bryce Harper showed everyone how important it could be.


With the Washington Nationals on life support, down 3-1 to the Cubs in the bottom of the eighth inning and facing a 2-0 deficit in the best-of-five series, Harper blasted a two-run home run that tied the game at 3-3 and woke up the slumbering Nationals offense and the despair-filled sold-out crowd at Nationals Park.


AUDIO: Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo with Thom Loverro


Three batters later, after Anthony Rendon walked and Daniel Murphy singled to left, Ryan Zimmerman lifted a home run just over the right field wall to give Washington a 6-3 win — and postseason life.

With the series tied at 1-1, that life is now in the good hands of their ace, Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer, who will take the ball with his tender hamstring for the Game 3 start Monday at Wrigley Field.

When Harper was talking to reporters in the pre-game press conference, he was talking about Game 1 Friday night, when Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo both hit RBI singles off previously unhittable Stephen Strasburg in their third at-bats against the starting pitcher in the sixth inning to give the Cubs a 2-0 lead, on their way to a 3-0 victory.

This Harper at bat was not against Chicago starter Jon Lester, who had handcuffed Washington, allowing just two hits and one run through six innings, and was lifted for a pinch hitter in the top of the seventh inning.

No, this was against Cubs reliever Carl Edwards Jr., who made it easy by hanging a pitch for Harper, with one out and pinch-runner Victor Robles on first after pinch-hitter Adam Lind singled to left in the bottom of the eighth inning, to groove.

The problem is, the Washington offense has had similar pitches like that over the first two games and failed to capitalize on those mistakes. Up to that point, the offense had just four hits and one run through 16 innings.

Not this time. It was almost as if Harper talked his home run into existence when he said a few hours earlier, “If you don’t get it done your first at-bat or second at-bat, (the) third or fourth at bat could be huge.”

It was huge, and then some.

“Yeah, we needed it a lot,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “I was kind of bewildered because it’s not too many teams or pitchers that have held us in check like that for a couple of days. I just knew in the bottom of my heart that we were going to explode for some numbers, which we’ve done all year.”

Harper came back in the last week of the season after missing 41 games after suffering a bone bruise in his left knee and left calf strain when he slipped on a wet first base bag in August.

He is obviously, an emotional player, and he was demonstrative in his celebration, from the bat flip and stare as he watched the ball disappear into the Washington night, to crossing the plate, celebrating with his teammates and then, emerging from the dugout for a curtain call, pumping his fist and screaming.

“Yeah, the tension builds a little bit,” Zimmerman said after the game. “Sometimes it takes just one hit to exhale.”

It was a primal scream of sorts, a release of emotions in the dugout and a deep breath of relief and joy throughout the stands, where, before Harper showed how important that fourth at-bat could be, fans thought they were watching another Washington postseason funeral service.

Not yet, Bryce Harper said. Not yet, Ryan Zimmerman said.

• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.


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