Harper took his hacks, but foul balls, plate discipline and a checked swing conspired to send him to first base with a walk, to let someone else try to win the game. No one else could. Jesus Flores struck out, ending the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 2-0 victory and sending the Nationals home with an offense gone missing.
With Jayson Werth scratched late with a migraine headache, the Nationals scored less than four runs for the ninth time in 11 games, struck out 14 times and slogged to their fourth straight loss, dropping them into a tie for first place with the Atlanta Braves.
Harper went 1 for 3 with a single, which constituted one quarter of the Nationals’ hit total, and made a remarkable catch in center field while slamming against the wall. Gio Gonzalez extended his scoreless streak to 25 innings, a Nationals record, before he lost control in the sixth and his offense squandered a stellar outing.
“We’re missing our pitch,” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “We’ve got runners at third base, less than two outs, and we’re striking out. We need to put the ball in play. The bottom line goes down to that. We can’t keep missing our pitch. It’s that simple.”
In the latter innings, the Nationals did not mount any real threat, until the last one. Harper began the ninth due up fourth. If one hitter reached base, he could come to the plate with a chance to tie the score. Adam LaRoche took four straight balls. Xavier Nady and Chad Tracy struck out. Up came Harper.
“He was up there to get a hold of one,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
Against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, a hard-throwing sinkerballer, Harper looked for an elevated pitch. Harper fell behind, 1-2, while swinging through one pitch. He felt too much weight on his front foot, and he told himself to stay back.
“I just tried to get something I could drive,” Harper said. “And if I didn’t, I was going to draw a walk.”
The count ran full. Harper fouled back a sinker he thought he could send to the seats. Jansen tried one more sinker over the outside corner. Harper checked his swing. Ball four. The moment fizzled when Flores struck out.
Harper’s first three at-bats came against left-handed Dodgers starter Chris Capuano. At Class AAA Syracuse, Harper went 4 for 21 with six strikeouts against lefties, but “his numbers against lefties are probably not as good as the at-bats that he’s had,” Syracuse Manager Tony Beasley said. He struck out chasing a curveball in his second at-bat, but in his third he smoked a single through the right side.
In the fourth inning, Harper got his first test in center field. Juan Uribe launched a deep drive and Harper turned over his left shoulder and raced to the warning track. The wind carried the ball to his right. He leaped and crashed into the fence, snaring the ball less than a foot away from the top and crumpling to the dirt.