Harper's walk-off blast lifts Nationals in lucky 13th
Desmond homers, drives in three; Span adds four hits to extend streak
WASHINGTON -- On Wednesday, Nationals manager Matt Williams fielded a question from a reporter that inquired if sending a slumping Bryce Harper to the Minors was a possibility. The first-year skipper was frank in his response, furiously defending his young star.
The message was clear and quashed any doubt: Harper isn't going anywhere. Not now. Not ever.
One day later in the series finale against the Mets on Thursday at Nationals Park, Harper rewarded Williams for his impassioned support. With the game tied at 3 in the 13th inning and Ian Desmond on first base, the left-handed slugger plastered a 1-0 fastball from reliever Carlos Torres into the left-field seats for his second career walk-off home run, propelling the Nationals to a 5-3 victory.
Harper said he knew it was gone as soon as he made contact, a sensation that's been foreign to him since he was activated from the disabled list on June 30 after missing more than two months with a torn left thumb ligament.
"I haven't felt like that in a while," said Harper, who entered the contest hitting .218 since his return. "I hadn't gotten extension on a ball in a pretty long time."
Harper raised his hand in the air as he rounded first base and watched the ball sail over the wall. The relief could be felt around the stadium. He was mobbed by teammates at home plate and received hugs from Denard Span, Jayson Werth and Desmond. Not one, but two Gatorade baths followed in the postgame celebration outside the Nationals' dugout.
Everyone in the clubhouse knows how important that one swing could be as the National League East pennant becomes less of a distant goal and more of a legitimate reality.
"He needed it," reliever Craig Stammen said. "That was a big hit and that's what we got him on the team for."
The Nats struck first in the second inning when Desmond deposited a full-count fastball from Mets starter Jacob deGrom into the visitors' bullpen in left-center field for a two-run homer, his 18th of the season. The long ball snapped deGrom's homerless streak at 67 1/3 innings, a Mets franchise rookie record.
The Mets cut into the Nationals' lead with a run in the third inning. deGrom reached on a single and advanced to second on a sac bunt from Eric Young Jr. before Daniel Murphy doubled him home with a gapper to left-center field that just skipped past a diving Span, who went 4-for-6 in the contest and extended his on-base streak to 33 games.
Desmond, who finished with three RBIs, recovered Washington's two-run advantage in the fourth, driving in Adam LaRoche for the second time on the day after the first baseman drilled a one-out ground-rule double to left. Desmond followed with an RBI single, and LaRoche slid safely into home after an aggressive send from third-base coach Bob Henley.
"I'm kind of in a good little sandwich there with Rochie and finally Bryce behind me," Desmond said. "I'm able to kind of free up a bit and get some good pitches to hit and get on base for the kid."
After surrendering a run in the third, Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann dealt three straight scoreless innings through the sixth. But singles from Wilmer Flores and pinch-hitter Kirk Nieuwenhuis put runners on first and second with one out in the seventh, and manager Matt Williams opted to pull Zimmermann in favor of reliever Drew Storen.
Storen was unable to get out of the jam, though, as both inherited runners crossed the plate to tie the game at 3.
"[Drew's] saved me a bunch this year, so it's not like I can be really mad at him for that," said Zimmermann, who finished with three earned runs on seven hits over 6 1/3 innings. "He's been pitching great and he's going to be there the next time out when I need him."
deGrom was solid through six innings, surrendering three earned runs on seven hits and striking out four. However, it was just the second time since June 21 that the rookie right-hander allowed three earned runs or more in an outing.
"My offspeed wasn't very good. I kind of struggled with my command," deGrom said. "I was throwing strikes, but I wasn't locating as well as I wanted to. It was a mental battle today. I kept us in the ballgame and we tied it up, and just couldn't win it in the end."
Both bullpens locked down after the seventh inning, and during a stretch from the eighth inning into the 12th, Nationals' relievers retired 14 straight batters.
Stammen contributed to that impressive run. He entered the contest to start the 11th and threw three scoreless frames. It was a bounce-back performance from the right-hander, who surrendered five earned runs over three innings in his previous two outings before Thursday.
"It was working. That's my bread and butter," Stammen said of his sinker, which had consistent and significant movement throughout his performance against the Mets. "When it's working, I usually have decent success. For the past couple of weeks, it might have been struggling, but you just have to keep going after it."
After Stammen ended the 13th by knocking down a sharp comebacker from Eric Campbell and throwing to first, Desmond led off the bottom half with a walk. Harper then connected on his fourth home run to give the Nationals the victory and 4 1/2-game lead in the NL East heading into a three-game series at the second-place Braves this weekend.
"We're all pulling for him," Zimmermann said of Harper. "Hopefully he gets out of this little rut he's in. And hopefully this homer helps and he stays hot going into Atlanta."