WASHINGTON, D.C. – In the minutes leading up to the biggest home run of his life, Bryce Harper’s eyes glazed over as he stared out into another October night careening away from the Washington Nationals. Normally during pitching changes, Harper gathers with the Nationals outfield and chimes in with a nugget of information, an observation, something. On Saturday, he offered silence. Nobody knew what he was thinking. Anyone who ever does is just pretending.
It’s not that Harper is some enigma wrapped in a mystery shrouded in Under Armour, eyeblack and hair product. It’s that he’s different, different from Mike Trout and Jose Altuve and Giancarlo Stanton, from Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman, from peers and teammates, from everyone. The world met him at 15 years old and expected something of him, and no matter his talent, transcendent though it is, that burden is real and it is unique. And so to see him here, nearly a decade later, almost 25 years old, the locus of hope for a franchise whose history is utterly bereft of it, is to see all of that fulfilled, the wunderkind uncorrupted by a system that corrupts.
He was thinking about who-knows-what, something, nothing, everything, when he stood in the outfield and made his way to the dugout and climbed into the on-deck circle and stepped into the batter’s box and read the 80-mph curveball from Carl Edwards Jr. and deposited it 424 feet away and in the eighth inning tied a game the Nationals needed and reminded them that they weren’t some feckless mannequins on offense. And as the rally against the Chicago Cubs in Game 2 of the National League Division Series continued, and two more batters got on, and Ryan Zimmerman lifted a ball into that same Washington night that transfixed Harper earlier, his eyes lit up with possibility and promise, the only two things any ballplayer can ask for in October.
The ball landed among the flowers that separate the left-field fence at Nationals Park from the stands, and the 6-3 advantage it handed Washington held up in a win that evened the series and saved the Nationals from needing to rip off three straight victories against the defending World Series champion to win the first playoff series in the organization’s history.
Almost 50 years of ugliness define the Montreal Expos and Washington Nationals, and that Harper and Zimmerman happened to be the two who homered was poetic. Harper is the present and the future, and while Zimmerman represents the Nationals’ past, the 100-loss messes, he is beloved here nonetheless, ever a favorite. Both were vital in turning 16 of the worst innings imaginable into afterthoughts.
Washington mustered two hits and didn’t score in Game 1, and Game 2 started similarly feeble: two hits in the first seven innings. The Cubs led 3-1 and brought in Edwards, the reliever who had recorded 30 consecutive outs since last allowing a hit. The first batter he faced, pinch hitter Adam Lind, appearing in his first postseason game at 34 years old, singled. The inning then went Trea Turner strikeout, Harper home run, Anthony Rendon walk, pitching change from Edwards to Mike Montgomery, Daniel Murphy single and Zimmerman’s by-a-foot homer, which may not have been a homer at all had Cubs left fielder Ben Zobrist jumped to catch it. Over one inning, they had as many hits as they did in the series’ first 16.
Inside the Nationals’ clubhouse, four players lined up along the right side of the room: reliever Matt Albers, starter Gio Gonzalez, injured pitcher Joe Ross and reliever Sammy Solis. They sat in chairs and didn’t move, fearful they would jinx a rally. When Harper launched his home run, Albers jumped with such vigor the ice pack wrapped around his right shoulder started leaking and fell off. After Zimmerman’s, the cacophony of those four only added to the 43,860 in attendance.
It’s important to understand: Washington baseball, and until recently the Nationals, had carried on a tradition of futility honed, crafted and passed down, like an heirloom no one wants, for eight decades. Saturday marked the 84th anniversary of the last World Series game played in this city. It ended, for the Washington Senators, with a swing and a miss on a pitch from a 43-year-old relief pitcher. The definitive book on the history of baseball in Washington, Fred Frommer’s “You Gotta Have Heart,” reads like a character study on a one-sided relationship.
In the middle innings of Game 2, the crowd went dead, almost reflexively. Cubs starter Jon Lester was doing to the lineup what Kyle Hendricks had done in Game 1, and replays of recent years were impossible to ignore. These Nationals have been dogged by a reputation ever since Tim Hudson questioned them in 2014. They lost to his Giants in the division series that year, just as they’d lost to the Cardinals two years earlier, just as they’d lose to the Dodgers two years later.
“Different teams, different players, different people having different years,” Zimmerman countered about the 2017 team. “You know, you can learn a lot from your past, but for me, the past is the past. You know, this team has nothing to do with the teams in the past. Completely different feel, completely different season.”
The next five days will test the veracity of that statement. Game 3 brings Max Scherzer, the NL Cy Young favorite, and with it crossed fingers that his achy hamstring heals enough to let him do what he does better than anyone in the league. “The train’s coming,” Harper said, and though it wasn’t clear if he was referring to Scherzer alone or the Nationals writ large, the two bleed into one another enough to get his point.
He could’ve been saying the same about himself, too. Saturday was two months to the day of Harper’s last home run, a knee injury sidelining him most of the time and placing into question his availability in October. He answered against Edwards. The ball soared into the night, a bright-white rainbow, landing amid hands already thrust into the air because even a neophyte could’ve seen the ball launch off the bat and know it was gone. For years, Harper has lived in the 99th percentile of his possibility and promise, only a deep run into October left to conquer. One swing salvaged this chance.
“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 days,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “I just knew in the bottom of my heart that we were going to explode for some numbers.”
Sometimes belief is all you’ve got in October. It can be a lonely month and a confusing one, the confluence of past and present crashing into mental hurdles that commingle with physical limitations that butt up against the difficulty of putting a bat on a ball or avoiding that, depending on one’s vocation. It’s the kind of month that makes the game so great. Staring at the abyss one minute, pulsing with life the next.