What an in­ning

Homers in 8th lift Nats over Cubs in Game 2, tie series

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - thomas.boswell@wash­post.com For more by Thomas Boswell, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/boswell.

Maybe some­thing changed, even some­thing big, on Satur­day night as the au­tumn moon rose over the right field stands to get a glimpse of what, far down on planet earth, was caus­ing all that ruckus down at Na­tion­als Park, a place that sel­dom raises it voice un­til the heav­ens take note.

Within a mat­ter of per­haps 15 min­utes of lu­nacy, Game 2 of this Na­tional League Divi­sion Series changed ut­terly, from what seemed like an al­most cer­tain Chicago Cubs vic­tory to a stun­ning, ground-shak­ing, 6-3 Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als win.

Eighth-in­ning home runs, first a ti­tanic one by Bryce Harper to tie the score, then a three-run wall-scrap­ing thriller by Ryan Zim­mer­man to win it, tied this series at a game apiece, but with enor­mous base­ball grav­i­ta­tional pull sud­denly on the Nats’ side

just when such cause for hope was least ex­pected.

Harper’s homer was a truly spe­cial forceof-na­ture thing. Ce­les­tial orbs don’t blink. But if there had been a man in that moon, he might have been for­given for flinch­ing. In­stead, Harper’s blast wasn’t headed to­ward space, just aimed di­rectly at a pic­ture of Max Scherzer that stands more than 500 feet away on the right field con­course.

Nei­ther Scherzer’s blue nor brown eye was in dan­ger as the blast off Carl Ed­wards Jr. landed deep in the sec­ond deck. At that mo­ment, a sta­dium known for san­ity and ci­vil­ity to the point of cere­bral de­tach­ment went out of its mind and re­mained in that state, per­haps learn­ing a last­ing les­son about how towns, their teams and crowds can link arms and voice to take pos­ses­sion of a game.

“He hung a curve­ball. It hap­pens in this game. C.J. wanted to hit the plate with it,” Cubs Man­ager Joe Mad­don said. “It didn’t hap­pen.”

In­stead, Harper hap­pened. “Why not? Swing as hard as you can,” Harper said of his first ex­tra-base hit since miss­ing 42 games af­ter in­jur­ing his knee on Aug. 12. “Pretty good mo­ment.”

The blast, fol­low­ing a lead­off pinch-hit sin­gle by Adam Lind, was of such force — both phys­i­cal and sym­bolic for a team that has been frus­trated, in one form or an­other, for the last six sea­sons — that the packed house of 43,860 knew its mean­ing as the ball was still fig­ur­ing out its down­range land­ing co­or­di­nates.

“Harp’s known for his big mo­ments,” Na­tion­als Man­ager Dusty Baker said. “He blasted that ball a ton . . . . Base­ball’s a daily game, but it’s also a game of mo­men­tum. Go­ing to Chicago for Game 3 [on Mon­day] with Surge pitch­ing for us — we feel very con­fi­dent about that . . . [mean­ing­ful pause] . . . af­ter tonight’s game.”

“Surge” would be the tra­di­tional Baker mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion of Scherzer’s name. Scherzer says Baker calls him “Surge” half the time and “Scherz” the other. Which­ever it is, Scherzer, who may win his third Cy Young Award this sea­son, and who is one of the great­est pitch­ers of his era, is ex­actly what any team, even the newly proud Cubs, don’t want to see in a po­ten­tially “piv­otal” Game 3.

Next, af­ter a walk to An­thony Ren­don, who had home­red in the first in­ning, and a sin­gle by Daniel Mur­phy, who just might have been pray­ing in the on-deck cir­cle when Harper was at bat, the stage was set for a mo­ment that proved that Base­ball Feel Good in Wash­ing­ton could be raised to a pre­vi­ously un­known power.

Zim­mer­man, who has been the per­sonal pick-on-Zim pi­geon of Mad­don, hit a tow­er­ing fly­ball to left field. All year, Zim­mer­man has been try­ing to heighten his “launch an­gle” with al­most no suc­cess, de­spite his 36 homers and 108 RBI. What a ter­ri­ble time to sud­denly hit a ball too high!

What fol­lowed, as the crowd waited with screams stuck in its throat for what seemed like 10 sec­onds, was one of the most for­tu­nate, wind-aided, des­tiny-kissed three­run homers you’ll ever see, pre­sented by the kind el­e­ments to one of the most de­serv­ing hon­or­able men in base­ball. When Ben Zo­brist jumped and came down with noth­ing as the ball barely escaped his glove, the roof of this South Capi­tol Street joint al­most blew off.

Na­tion­als danced around the bases and out­side their dugout, bel­lowed to each other, hugged and gave per­fect im­pres­sions of ex­actly what they were — a team on the verge of likely hu­mil­i­a­tion that had been re­leased from base­ball play­off bondage by two swings by two of Wash­ing­ton’s fa­vorite ath­letes.

“I didn’t know,” Zim­mer­man said of his long wait for the ball to land. “I hit it good but re­ally high. The wind was blow­ing out pretty much the whole night. Maybe I got a lit­tle lucky, who knows?”

“It couldn’t have hap­pened to a finer guy,” Baker said.

Asked about his fa­vorite all-time homer, Harper ig­nored his own and said, “Zim’s ranks No. 1 for me . . . . Mr. Walkoff — sit­tin’ right next to me.”

This NLDS has now been changed, whether ut­terly or not we’ll soon dis­cover. But a Na­tion­als team, locked in the scary ice of a hor­rific team-wide slump, has sud­denly ex­ploded, smash­ing out of its frozen de­mor­al­ized state to even this series at a game apiece. Af­ter scor­ing one run on just four hits — f-o-u-r — in the first 16 in­nings of this series, the Nats got five runs and 10 to­tal bases in one frame.

Adding salt for the Cubs, Mad­don had lefty Mike Mont­gomery warm and ready to face Harper but didn’t bring him in. When he fi­nally waved Mont­gomery in to face Mur­phy, who sin­gled, the ball­park was in con­trol of events. “Hung a change-up,” Mad­don said of the Zim­mer­man homer. “For me a per­fect sit­u­a­tion to try to get the ball on the ground (for a Zim­mer­man dou­ble play.) Didn’t hap­pen.” Didn’t Joe say that be­fore? The mea­sure of what a body blow this Nats come­back may be to the Cubs is the length to which Mad­don re­peated how won­der­ful ev­ery­thing was in his world. “I could not be hap­pier,” he said of his team’s ef­forts and such ir­rel­e­van­cies. “Ev­ery­thing has been won­der­ful,” he added, not men­tion­ing any fi­nal scores, like, you know, a 6-3 that looked like a mor­tal 3-1 lock for the Cubs.

Strange things hap­pen in Oc­to­ber, mat­ters that al­most re­quire a big fat moon gaz­ing down to en­sure the mar­velous mad­ness. “Base­ball is con­ta­gious,” Zim­mer­man said. “Slumps are con­ta­gious. So is hit­ting. That’s why Harp’s homer was so im­por­tant.”

How im­por­tant? Per­haps even the story arc of a Wash­ing­ton fran­chise, when we have the lux­ury of hind­sight, will be seen to have changed.

For two nights the Nats were in the kind of clas­sic Oc­to­ber night­mare that, once be­gun, is sel­dom escaped un­til the off­sea­son car­ries the mis­er­able team off into win­ter, drenched in self-flag­el­lat­ing tor­ment. Harper did what sports he­roes do. He flipped the nar­ra­tive, the mood, in one crash-flash of a mo­ment. Zim­mer­man’s tow­er­ing fly seemed to ride its lin­ger­ing shock­waves.

For months, the Nats have waited to get healthy and get their “real team,” their real lineup back to­gether. Those blasters, hard as it may be to re­mem­ber now, scored 10 or more runs 21 times this sea­son.

On con­sec­u­tive nights in Colorado, they won 15-12, 11-4 and 16-5 against a Rock­ies team good enough to make the play­offs. One night they scored 23 runs against the Mets as Ren­don went 6 for 6 with 10 RBI. They didn’t just win, the ram­paged with scores like 13-3, 12-3, 18-3, 14-4, and 15-2.

If Trea Turner didn’t hit for the cy­cle, then Mur­phy drove in five runs — four dif­fer­ent times. Zim­mer­man hit two homers in a game — seven times. And Harper was the best of all, on pace for 42 homers, 125 RBI and a .327 av­er­age when he was hurt.

“Bryce looks like he’s on the way,” Baker said, plant­ing a seed. “The longer we play, the bet­ter Bryce will be.”

And how long will that be? Un­til Harper, then Zim­mer­man swung, that time frame seemed like it might be just a very few days. Now, you never know.

Might be a while. That moon isn’t full.

JOHN MCDON­NELL/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

NA­TION­ALS 6, CUBS 3: Ryan Zim­mer­man re­acts af­ter his three­run homer in the bot­tom of the eighth in­ning gave the Na­tion­als the lead and helped Wash­ing­ton tie the series at one game apiece head­ing to Chicago.

Thomas Boswell

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The Na­tion­als’ Bryce Harper flips his bat Satur­day af­ter con­nect­ing on a game-ty­ing two-run homer in the eighth in­ning against the Cubs. Ryan Zim­mer­man fol­lowed with a three-run shot.

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