Barry Svrluga

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - barry.svrluga@wash­post.com For more by Barry Svrluga, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/svrluga.

By the eighth in­ning, the Nats had sent out an ur­gent cast­ing call for a hero. Harper and Zim­mer­man an­swered.

The day be­fore this Na­tional League Divi­sion Series started, Mike Rizzo stood on the field at Na­tion­als Park, the sun shin­ing, noth­ing but pos­si­bil­ity ahead. He as­sessed his team, its chances, the in­gre­di­ents nec­es­sary.

“Peo­ple say, ‘Don’t try to be a hero,’ ” said Rizzo, the gen­eral man­ager of the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als. “No. No! Be a hero.”

Call­ing Bryce Harper, made for the mo­ment. Oh, and you, Ryan Zim­mer­man.

The two of you, pry loose the Chicago Cubs’ grip from around the Nats’ throat. Be he­roes, for a night. Flip a series. It was all but over, Cubs in a walk. Now, who knows when it will be done — or who will win?

Zim­mer­man’s three-run homer pro­vided the dif­fer­ence in a 6-3 vic­tory Satur­day night. But three bat­ters be­fore came Harper, fac­ing Cubs re­liever Carl Ed­wards Jr. Zim­mer­man doesn’t get his chance if Harper doesn’t make the most of his. Zim­mer­man can’t be a hero un­less Harper is be­fore him. And so Harper dug in. “I be­lieve that he’s built for those mo­ments,” said his fa­ther, Ron.

Be­fore the eighth in­ning at Na­tion­als Park, the Na­tion­als were shriv­el­ing. They had been re­duced to flies burn­ing as the sun shone through a mag­ni­fy­ing glass, the lens held by the mer­ci­less Cubs. In their 16 turns at-bat over two evenings to open the series, the Na­tion­als had gone 4 for 52, a cool — make that frigid — .077 av­er­age. Not once had they col­lected more than a sin­gle hit in a frame.

Where were the he­roes? Worse: Would there ever be one?

And then Adam Lind sin­gled, and with one out, Harper came to the plate. The Nats Park crowd of 43,860 stood.

This is their guy. This is his time. He is a star. Do what stars do — or the big­gest de­ci­sion might be whether to en­dure the tor­ture of watch­ing Game 3 Mon­day.

“There’s this ex­pec­ta­tion for him,” said Nats closer Sean Doolit­tle, a team­mate for less than three months. “There’s this pres­sure for him. It’s mon­u­men­tal.”

Be­fore Game 2, Harper was asked to con­sider the Nats’ sit­u­a­tion, which from the out­side seemed, well, bleak. They had wasted a dom­i­nant ef­fort from right-han­der Stephen Stras­burg in the series opener. They didn’t have Cy Young win­ner Max Scherzer slated to go un­til Game 3 in Chicago. And on the mound was lefty Gio Gon­za­lez, whose sea­son was solid but whose con­sti­tu­tion is not. Harper’s as­sess­ment? “I’ve played in a lot of big­ger games, I feel like, than this,” Harper said. “Game 2 of the post­sea­son . . . I don’t know. I don’t want that to come off bad. But grow­ing up, play­ing in front of 15,000 peo­ple at 10 years old, it’s kind of the same thing to me.”

His point, how­ever in­del­i­cately: Dire spot for us? Puh­leeze. He is nine days shy of 25 years old, and cir­cum­stances that make oth­ers buckle make him bold.

“I’ve seen him do some spe­cial things when he was 12 years old that I’ll never for­get in my life,” Ron Harper said.

Now, 43,860 can join Ron Harper in say­ing they saw some­thing from Harper, at 24, that they’ll never for­get.

There was, first, the is­sue of the at-bat. Harper had one of the Nats’ two hits on Fri­day night, but Cubs lefty Jon Lester had toyed with him in his first three plate ap­pear­ances Satur­day — a strike­out in the first, ground­outs in the fourth and sixth.

But be­cause the Nats’ lineup has left-right bal­ance, af­ter Lind’s sin­gle, Cubs Man­ager Joe Mad­don had to choose what to do: bring in lefty Mike Mont­gomery to face Harper, know­ing right-handed hit­ting An­thony Ren­don — with a homer ear­lier in the night — waited be­hind him. Or stick with Ed­wards to face Harper, the Cubs still in con­trol, up 3-1. Mad­don stuck with Ed­wards.

And with a first-pitch curve­ball in the dirt, it looked like the right move. Harper flailed.

“Great swing on that pitch,” Harper said. Eyeroll im­plied. Feel free to laugh.

It was, though, a sign of where Harper is in his re­turn from a bone bruise in his left knee. Be­cause so much is ex­pected of him, it’s easy to for­get this is his sev­enth game since Aug. 12 — the night he tum­bled to the ground af­ter slip­ping on a soggy first base in this same ball­park.

So that ugly swing? “That’s gonna hap­pen when you’ve had time off,” Ron Harper said.

It’s a clear in­di­ca­tion, though, that he needs more at-bats to be Bryce Harper pitch af­ter pitch af­ter pitch. But even if his tim­ing is not yet set by Rolex, he’s still Bryce Harper at his core. And that per­son needs just one pitch to emerge.

“If he’s got a bat, if he’s in the box, he’s never out,” vet­eran out­fielder and noted Harper whis­perer Jayson Werth said. “He’s al­ways got a chance. Right man, right spot.”

So Harper hung in. Ed­wards came with three high fast­balls, and Harper laid off each one. At 3-1, what would be next?

“Didn’t think he was go­ing to throw a pitch over the plate, to tell you the truth,” Harper said. “I thought he was go­ing to throw a curve­ball back down in the dirt. I thought about tak­ing the whole way. And then I saw the loop in the curve­ball, and said, ‘Why not? Swing as hard as you can.’”

Harper’s hard­est swing can be the most fe­ro­cious, dev­as­tat­ing swing in the game. This one sal­vaged a sea­son and may have turned a series. The ball all but scoffed at the lower-bowl seats as it made its way out to right. The pic­ture of Scherzer that sits well back on the sec­ond deck — one eye blue, one eye brown — has long seemed a pre­pos­ter­ous tar­get. But af­ter see­ing Harper’s ball det­o­nate mid­way up the sec­ond deck, who’s to say what’s pos­si­ble?

“From Day One, there’s an enor­mous amount of pres­sure on him,” Zim­mer­man said. “Maybe more than on any­one — ever.”

Maybe that’s true. But he would also have it no other way.

“I’ve never seen him back down from it,” Ron Harper said. “That’s the thing.”

The Na­tion­als needed a hero Satur­day night. If they are to beat the Cubs and — fi­nally — ad­vance an­other round in the play­offs, they will need one again. Who’s go­ing to bet Bryce Harper won’t be at the cast­ing call, read­ing for the role of lead­ing man, the only role he has ever known?

PHO­TOS BY JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Wash­ing­ton starter Gio Gon­za­lez re­acts as An­thony Rizzo rounds the bases af­ter his two-run homer gave Chicago an early 3-1 lead. Homers by Bryce Harper and Ryan Zim­mer­man later turned the game around.

Bryce Harper, shown run­ning out a grounder ear­lier, per­haps saved Wash­ing­ton’s sea­son with his two-run homer in the eighth.

Barry Svrluga

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