STUMPED AT HOME

Harper, po­tent Na­tion­als of­fense stymied by Car­di­nals

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY TODD DYBAS

Bryce Harper iden­ti­fied the fourth con­sec­u­tive changeup cleanly, then re­called all the hit­ting lessons of his life. It was out­side, like the prior three, and the St. Louis Car­di­nals in­field was slightly ro­tated to­ward first base. So Harper flexed his swing to­ward left field.

He looked bad on the first changeup that re­liever Brett Ce­cil threw him in the eighth in­ning. Swing­ing with might, hit­ting noth­ing, just twist­ing him­self into the dirt and a 2-2 count. He took the next one, then meekly fouled off the one af­ter that. Harper was pre­pared for the fourth in the mid­dle of a rally with two out, two on and the Car­di­nals lead down to two. But, his line drive to left went right into the glove third base­man Jedd Gy­orko. The catch snuffed out a per­co­lat­ing rally in a 6-1 af­ter­noon loss filled with frus­tra­tion. Harper slammed his bat then spiked his hel­met.

“Usu­ally they gave him that line,” Na­tion­als man­ager Dusty Baker said. “But he had just hit one down that line a cou­ple days ago. They were play­ing their de­fense to how they were pitch­ing him. That was an awe­some at-bat. We might have been off to the races on that one be­cause that ball’s down that cor­ner, with Anthony [Ren­don] there’s a heck of a chance we have a tie ball game.”

Washington’s for­merly rolling of­fense was stumped by Car­di­nals starter Mike Leake. Harper went hit­less af­ter reach­ing base nine con­sec­u­tive times the prior two games, both of which Washington won. Washed away by Harper’s line out and Stephen Pis­cotty’s day of dam­age — he had five RBIs, in­clud­ing a three-run home run — were hopes of a Na­tion­als’

se­ries sweep.

“It was Pis­cotty five, us one,” Baker said.

Max Scherzer’s out­ing was kooky yet, for the most part, ef­fec­tive. Three wild pitches were among the 88 he dis­patched in his first five in­nings. Wilmer Difo’s fifth-in­ning er­ror started a la­bo­ri­ous in­ning in which the lead­off hit­ter was put on by his botch. Leake struck out when at­tempt­ing to bunt, Dex­ter Fowler reached base when a slider gave his back foot a love tap and the next hit­ter, Greg Gar­cia, walked. By that time, Scherzer had veered into a bases-loaded, one-out sit­u­a­tion.

A foul pop-up dragged the sprint­ing Difo far up the third-base line from his short­stop spot. A run scored since Difo had to travel so far away from home plate to col­lect the base­ball. A gently arc­ing sin­gle by Pis­cotty landed in shal­low cen­ter field to score an­other.

Pitch­ing coach Mike Mad­dux came out to the mound af­ter the hit, of­fer­ing Scherzer an it-will-get-bet­ter pat on the shoul­der. He struck out Matt Adams to end the in­ning. Scherzer faced only three Car­di­nals hit­ters in the sixth. At 104 pitches, he was done for the day: Six in­nings, four hits, one earned run, 10 strikes, two walks, a hit bat­ter and three wild pitches. The full diet.

“It’s never fun tak­ing a loss,” Scherzer said. “Any time that hap­pens, you al­ways re­flect on the things you can be bet­ter at. The wild pitches, some­times that hap­pens. … Those are go­ing to hap­pen. Some of the pitch ex­e­cu­tions that came down to­day, wasn’t able to el­e­vate the ball when I wanted to. That kind of led to some counts where they could drive the ball against me. But, at the end of the day, even when you get punched in the face like this, you’ve got to re­al­ize I did a lot of good things [Wed­nes­day], too.”

Be­cause of Difo’s er­ror, Scherzer’s ERA re­mained a tight 2.13 through the first two starts of the sea­son. He has rolled up 17 strike­outs in 12 in­nings a sea­son af­ter set­ting the Na­tion­als’ record for strike­outs last sea­son with 284. Though the results are stan­dard for the 2016 Na­tional League Cy Young Award win­ner, Washington was un­sure if they would be de­liv­ered in April. A stress frac­ture in Scherzer’s right ring fin­ger com­pressed his spring prepa­ra­tion time. He even feared place­ment on the dis­abled list to start the sea­son was an op­tion. In­stead, his fin­ger healed and his sea­son start ap­pears un­af­fected.

Leake was an able foil Wed­nes­day. He al­lowed just four hits in his seven in­nings, stifling what had been a ram­pag­ing Na­tion­als of­fense that en­tered the game sec­ond in runs in the ma­jor leagues. Leake’s lone spot of ten­sion came in the sev­enth when Daniel Mur­phy and Ryan Zim­mer­man hit back-to-back sin­gles. Jayson Werth’s at-bat with those two run­ners on lasted seven pitches. The fi­nal one went by a smidge out­side of the plate, but was called a strike. Werth flipped his bat, tossed his hel­met and glared at home­plate um­pire Brian Knight. To fur­ther demon­strate his ir­ri­ta­tion, Werth tossed a wrist band and shin guard as he took a few steps to­ward the out­field. A bat boy scam­pered out to col­lect Werth’s grumpily dis­carded gear.

Be­fore the game, Baker was asked about the im­por­tance of a start­ing staff open­ing the sea­son well. He drifted into a con­clu­sion that de­fense is of­ten the last thing to look right, com­ing along af­ter hit­ting and pitch­ing. Un­for­tu­nate ver­i­fi­ca­tion of his claim con­tin­ued Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon. Two days af­ter all four mem­bers of the Na­tion­als in­field made an er­ror, the Na­tion­als de­fense picked up two more. The first was Difo’s. The sec­ond was from Anthony Ren­don. In­stead of start­ing a dou­ble play, Ren­don threw the ball into right field. Washington com­mit­ted seven er­rors in the three­game se­ries.

“We got to tighten our de­fense and we got to tighten our en­tire game up,” Baker said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The St. Louis Car­di­nals’ Eric Fryer is safe at home while Washington Na­tion­als catcher Matt Wi­eters goes af­ter the ball dur­ing the fifth in­ning on Wed­nes­day. The Car­di­nals won 6-1 to avoid a three-game sweep to the Na­tion­als.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Washington Na­tion­als start­ing pitcher Max Scherzer gave up four hits, one earned run, threw 10 strike­outs, two walks, a hit bat­ter and three wild pitches in a 6-1 loss to the St. Louis Car­di­nals on Wed­nes­day. “It’s never fun tak­ing a loss,” Scherzer said.

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