LOS ANGELES -- Sometimes, fairy-tale endings are just thatfairy tales. That was certainly the case in likely the most anticipated debut in Washington Nationals' history.
Bryce Harper, who along with the L.A. Angels' Mike Trout is considered baseball's top young player, made his first start and the Nats other phenom, righthander Stephen Strasburg, was on the mound as Washington was looking at its future and trying to break a small two-game losing streak. With a two-run lead going into the bottom of the ninth and a flame-throwing reliever on the mound, Harper's first game looked like a winning one. However, a cruel reality check in the form of a Matt Kemp game-winning, extra-inning homer spoiled the dream.
A 3-1 Washington win turned into a 4-3 loss to the Dodgers, leaving the Nationals with a three-game losing skid. Harper, though, didn't disappoint himself or his team.
Hitting seventh in the Washington lineup against Los Angeles starter Chad Billingsley, Harper went 1-3 with a double, made a near-brilliant defensive play in the seventh inning and hit a go-ahead sacrifice fly in the top of the ninth . But it was all for naught when MVP candidate Kemp blasted his major league-leading 11th home run in the bottom of the tenth to give the Dodgers the victory.
While Harper was wowing a crowd of 54, 242 at Dodger Stadium (although they booed him loudly when he was introduced prior to his first at bat), a brilliant start by Strasburg was wasted by an ineffective bullpen.
Strasburg pitched seven innings, allowing just five hits, one earned run and collecting nine strikeouts to lower his ERA to 1.13. Then reliever Henry Rodriguez blew it in the ninth inning, surrendering a two-run lead that included Harper's first major league RBI, a sac fly that put the Nats ahead 2-1. Wilson Ramos singled to make it 3-1 before the pen provided anything but relief.
Rodriguez threw 26 pitches in two-thirds of an inningmany of them over 100 MPH, but he also uncorked three wild ones, setting up an RBI ground rule double by Juan Uribe. Uribe also scored the tying run on another Rodriguez wild pitch. Manager Davey Johnson then brought in lefty Tom Gorzelanny, who closed out the ninth but gave up Kemp's game-winning blast in the tenth.
Johnson looked shell-shocked following his team's third consecutive loss, but was more than anxious to talk about Harper.
"I thought he was great, he played a heck of a ballgame" Johnson said in the visiting dugout. "He had nothing but quality at bats, made a great throw in the outfield. You can't play much better than that."
Harper was surprised by the call-up, but happy when Syracuse manager Tony Beasley gave him the news, especially since the early part of the season had been a bit of a struggle. Although he'd hit .290 in his last ten games, overall he was hitting just .250 with one home and 3 RBI.
"It was an unbelievable experience," said Harper, who was promoted from Triple A to take the roster spot of injured third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. "I'm just trying to play the same game that I've always (played). Hopefully Zim will get back..soon.
If he does, that doesn't necessarily mean a trip back to Syracuse for Harper.
"Harp's got a big challenge in front of him," said Johnson before the game. "But if you know anything about him, that's the kind of thing he lives for. When (Zimmerman) comes back, we'll see how Harp is doing, how the club is doing and go from there. But nothing has been decided about how long we're going to keep him here. Obviously, if he's doing the job, we'll find a place for him."
Harper is known for being a highly-amped player, often finding it hard to stay in one place for too long. But prior to Saturday night's game, he experienced a odd feeling for himcalmness.
"I was sitting in the dugout before the game and I was thinking to myself 'Wow, I'm in the big leagues' but I really didn't have butterflies at all. I think it's one of the first times I (haven't) gotten butterflies. Talking to Adam LaRoche before the game, I told him I was really calm.
"I was just looking for my pitch and got into some good counts. I wanted to keep my composure. I think in the next week or so it'll really sink in."
Harper's first at bat came in the second inning against Dodger starter Chad Billingsley, a ground ball back to the mound. He flew out in the fifth, then smashed a long double over Kemp's head in center field for his first big league hit. His first RBI came on the sacrifice fly in the ninth, scoring Rick Ankiel and giving the Nats their temporary lead. He also was in fine form defensively, scooping up an A.J. Ellis single to left in the bottom of the seventh and throwing a laser to catcher Ramos, who couldn't hold onto the ball. Jerry Hairston scored and the Dodgers tied the game.
So while the story-book ending wasn't meant to be, Harper showed that he'll probably be recognized as one of the game's best players very shortly.
"That's the way you want to start off your career," said Harper, who was born and lives in Las Vegas. "I wish we could have gotten the W, of course, (but) this was a tough one for us.
"I did the best I could, but we played a great team tonight, and it didn't go our way."