Homers by Zim­mer­man, Harper in eighth in­ning turn tide of series

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY JORGE CASTILLO

The ten­sion, al­ready bor­der­ing on a code-red panic, em­anated through Na­tion­als Park on Satur­day night, in­ten­si­fy­ing the longer the home club’s of­fense stayed quiet. It threat­ened to seep into the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als’ dugout as chances dwin­dled and frus­tra­tion grew.

But a quiet con­fi­dence re­mained among the men in uni­form as they en­tered the eighth in­ning with two hits on the night and four in the series. Gio Gon­za­lez and the bullpen had kept them close. All they needed was that one hit.

Bryce Harper, their 24-year-old show­stop­per, pro­vided it, blast­ing that anx­i­ety into obliv­ion with an up­per-deck, game-ty­ing home run. Three bat­ters later, Ryan Zim­mer­man dis­carded his ugly his­tory against the Cubs with a three-run go-ahead home run into the flower bed just be­yond the wall, the

de­ci­sive blow in a 6-3 vic­tory to tie the Na­tional League Divi­sion Series at one.

“I just knew in the bot­tom of my heart that we were go­ing to ex­plode for some num­bers,” Na­tion­als Man­ager Dusty Baker said, “which we’ve done all year.”

For 71/2 in­nings, Game 2 re­sem­bled Game 1 in nearly ev­ery way but one: The Na­tion­als scored a run. An­thony Ren­don pro­vided the of­fense in the first in­ning with a solo home run off left­hander Jon Lester that car­ried to the Na­tion­als’ bullpen be­yond the wall in right field. Ren­don had hit just two of his 25 homers dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son the other way.

Lester then re­tired the next nine bat­ters he faced. He yielded one other hit, walked two and held Wash­ing­ton score­less over the next five in­nings. The Na­tion­als hoped to wreak havoc on the base paths on Lester, no­to­ri­ous for his in­abil­ity to throw to bases. But they couldn’t get guys on base.

Gon­za­lez wasn’t as dom­i­nant as Stephen Stras­burg was in the opener, but he did not fail to keep the Na­tion­als within strik­ing dis­tance. Mak­ing his first post­sea­son start at home since 2012 be­cause Max Scherzer’s tight right ham­string de­layed his play­off de­but, the left-han­der al­lowed three runs on three hits — one a solo home run by Will­son Con­tr­eras — in five in­nings. He struck out six, walked two and threw 83 pitches be­fore giv­ing way to the bullpen.

Matt Al­bers, Sammy So­lis, Ryan Mad­son and Oliver Perez pieced to­gether the bridge to the bot­tom of the eighth in­ning.

The abrupt five-run salvo began with Adam Lind, pinch-hit­ting in the pitcher’s spot, smack­ing a sin­gle to left field off Carl Ed­wards Jr. in his first ca­reer post­sea­son at-bat. Vic­tor Robles then en­tered the game to pinchrun for Lind be­fore Trea Turner struck out to bring up Harper.

Be­fore play­ing in his sev­enth game back from a 42-game stint on the dis­abled list, Harper mat­ter-of-factly stated that there was room for im­prove­ment to re­turn to his pre-in­jury level. That im­prove­ment didn’t sur­face in his first three plate ap­pear­ances; he stepped to the plate in the eighth in­ning 0 for 3 with a cou­ple ground­outs and a strike­out. He looked over­matched again on the first pitch from Ed­wards, swing­ing at a wicked curve­ball in the dirt.

The right-han­der then went with three straight fast­balls — 96, 94, 95 mph — out of the strike zone, and Harper didn’t bite. The se­quence al­tered the course of the at-bat — and the Na­tion­als’ sea­son. With the count 3-1 and a run­ner on first base, Harper as­sumed Ed­wards wouldn’t throw a ball in the zone.

“I thought about tak­ing the whole way,” he said.

But those plans changed when he rec­og­nized the loop in Ed­wards’s 80 mph curve­ball. The de­tec­tion in­cited the for­mer MVP’s in­stincts, and he turned on the pitch, de­posit­ing it 421 feet away, deep into the sec­ond deck.

He ad­mired his work as he flipped his bat and started his trot, the top of his jersey un­but­toned and flop­ping with each pace as the ball­park’s deci­bel lev­els reached rare heights.

“Some­times it takes kind of just one hit for ev­ery­one to ex­hale,” Zim­mer­man said. “Ev­ery­one who has played base­ball has been there be­fore. Base­ball is con­ta­gious.”

The mo­men­tum change con­tin­ued. Ren­don walked, which prompted the Cubs to re­place Ed­wards with lefty Mike Mont­gomery, to face Daniel Mur­phy, a left-handed hit­ter. Mur­phy lashed a sin­gle any­way, leav­ing a fa­vor­able matchup for Zim­mer­man. Af­ter tak­ing a strike, Zim­mer­man pounced on a changeup over the plate, lift­ing it high into the balmy air with the wind blow­ing out. He watched, slowly jog­ging to first base, un­sure if he had got­ten enough, as it car­ried and car­ried and car­ried just over the wall in left field.

The ball­park erupted again. Harper jumped out of the dugout in glee.

“Great launch an­gle,” Harper noted.

The Na­tion­als didn’t ex­or­cise any post­sea­son demons, if there are any, on Satur­day. They are two wins from that, from break­ing through the NLDS bar­rier and ad­vanc­ing to the first Na­tional League Cham­pi­onship Series in fran­chise his­tory. The chances of an­other one-and­done play­off run re­main.

But, for one night, the dread was for­got­ten. Game 3 — and Scherzer — await Mon­day at Wrigley Field.

“The train’s com­ing,” Harper said. “We’re a great team.”

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The Na­tion­als’ Vic­tor Robles and Bryce Harper cel­e­brate af­ter Harper drove in Robles with the game-ty­ing home run in the eighth in­ning.

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