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HINGTON -- In a way, Bryce Harper's first big game in October was a microcosm of the Nationals' first crushing postseason defeat.
After scuffling his way through the first four games, Harper stepped up to the big stage in Game 5, blasting an RBI triple and a home run in his first two at-bats. But at the end of a 9-7 loss to St. Louis on Friday, when Washington let a spot in the National League Championship Series slip through its fingers with a ninth-inning collapse, Harper was left flailing at strikes two and three -- both on 99-mph fastballs from Cardinals closer Jason Motte -- for the penultimate out of the Nats' season.
"It's not how I wanted my year to end, definitely. I wanted to play deeper into the postseason," Harper said. "Not ready to go home, not ready to take off that uniform. It's just something that happened. We'll come back next year and not let it happen."
During the loss, Harper became just the second teenager to homer in a postseason game. The first was the Braves' Andruw Jones, who hit one in Game 7 of the 1996 NLCS and two more in Game 1 of that year's World Series. Harper will turn 20 on Tuesday.
The Nationals' night began with so much promise because of Harper, who drove in Jayson Werth in the first inning with an RBI triple off the center-field wall. Harper immediately scored on Ryan Zimmerman's home run, giving Washington a three-run lead that might have been enough on most nights against most teams.
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For good measure, Harper kept pounding away at St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright, who baffled Washington in Game 1 at Busch Stadium. The 19-year-old rookie worked the count full to lead off the third inning then clobbered a 92-mph sinker into the right-center-field stands. That gave the Nats a 4-0 lead, and they went on to make it 6-0 by the end of the third.
Then the Cards began to crawl back, scoring one in the fourth, two in the fifth, one apiece in the seventh and eighth before exploding for four runs in the ninth inning against closer Drew Storen. It left the Nationals with a two-run deficit and a complete sense of disbelief in what had just happened.
"Unbelievable. We started on top," said Harper. "They've got a great lineup. They've got a great team."
Harper finished the NLDS batting 3-for-23, all of them extra-base hits, and struck out eight times during the series. It was a disappointing introduction to the postseason for such a gifted player, a front-runner for the NL Rookie of the Year Award after batting .270 with 22 homers, 59 RBIs and 18 stolen bases in the regular season, all while playing a better center field than anyone expected. Harper certainly expected better of himself, which manager Davey Johnson said may have been part of Harper's problem at the plate.
But Harper flashed his potential early on in Game 5, as did the Nats. And in those moments, it was easy to see why both could be back in the playoffs sooner rather than later.
"This team's young and talented and not going anywhere," veteran Mark DeRosa said. "I see this team doing great things.
"Watching what Bryce did was amazing. For a 19-year-old to do what he did was absolutely amazing."