While fellow super sophomore Mike Trout was becoming the youngest player in American League history to hit for the cycle in Anaheim, up the California coast last night in San Francisco, Bryce Harper was having a much different evening. The 20-year-old star helped cost his team the game, was partially blamed for it by his own closer and may have betrayed his own pronouncements that he was just fine after his scary collision with the rightfield wall in Los Angeles last week.
In the top of the first inning of what became a 4-2 Nationals' loss to the Giants at AT&T Park, Harper came to the plate with no outs and a man on first base. He worked a 2-1 count, then dropped down a sacrifice bunt. In the eighth inning, he came up with no one out and a man on second base and bunted again. Both bunts were successful, but neither was called from the bench. That means that Harper, who has been slumping this month but was still hitting .288/.383/.598 on the season coming into the game and has been far and away the Nationals' best hitter since last August, bunted on his own. In doing so, he hurt his team.
In addition to his current slump, Harper might have seen last night's pitching matchup between Matt Cain and Stephen Strasburg as one in which runs were likely to come at a premium. However, Cain had a 5.43 ERA coming into that game and Washington had him on the ropes in the first inning. While it's impossible to say how the inning would have played out had Harper not bunted, three of the first five men who faced Cain in the game hit safely, with two of them picking up doubles. Harper, in effect, gave Cain a free out to help him escape an early jam. If, for instance, Harper had done as little as draw a walk in that at-bat (he was ahead in the count and Cain did walk him in the fifth inning), the Nationals would have scored three runs on those two doubles and the inning would have continued with a runner in scoring position. Instead, it ended with Danny Espinosa's strikeout.
In the eighth, with Washington up 2-1 and looking for an insurance run following a leadoff double by Denard Span, Harper should have tried to drive in Span himself rather than sacrifice one of his team's six remaining outs. A big inning there could have iced the game for his team. Instead, the Nationals didn't score at all and the Giants rallied to tied the game at 2-2 in the ninth inning.
Harper played a key part in that ninth-inning rally as well. With two outs, pinch-runner Andres Torres on first base and closer Rafael Soriano on the mound, the Giants' Gregor Blanco hit a deep drive to leftfield that sailed over Harper's head for a game-tying triple. Here's the play:
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You can see Harper, who got 11 stitches in his chin after a collision with the outfield wall in Dodger Stadium last week, flinch when he hits the warning track, which is also the exact moment at which that ball could have been caught. It would have been an impressive play if Harper had made it, but Harper is an impressive outfielder, and both he and Soriano said after the game that they thought the play should have been made. Soriano, as translated from Spanish by USA Today reporter Jorge L. Ortiz, thought Harper should have been playing deeper to begin with:
With two outs and the tying run at first, you have to play the outfield so the ball doesn't go over your head. It may not have been a catchable ball, but if we're positioned the right way, there might have been a different outcome. With two outs, I could tell my four-year-old son, 'You know where you need to play,' and he would go to the right spot to make the play.
Harper, to his credit, fell on his sword after the game, admitting that the wall was a factor in what he too believed was his misplaying of Blanco's hit (again from Ortiz):
"Absolutely,'' said Harper, insisting he should have made the catch. "Of course it crosses your mind after you jam into a wall, and it doesn't really feel very good. It sucks not making the play. I totally put that loss on me.''
Indeed, had Harper had a positive outcome in any of the three instances described above -- a walk or a hit in place of a bunt in the first or eighth, or a catch in the ninth -- the Nationals would have won the game. Meanwhile, the 21-year-old Trout, Harper's 2012 Rookie of the Year counterpart, has brought his season line up to .293/.373/.558. Just when it looked like Harper had snuck past Trout in what's likely to be their career-long battle for bragging rights, the pendulum seems to have swung back the other way.