WASHINGTON -- For a kid who’s still only 20 and had yet to hit a game-ending homer in his nascent career, Bryce Harper sure inspired a lot of confidence in his teammates as he walked to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
“You could feel it. You could just feel it in the dugout,” reliever Ian Krol said. “You know something special’s going to happen when you put him in that kind of situation.”
The score was tied, a man was on base, and Harper was hoping to do something to avert what could have become a devastating defeat for the Washington Nationals. They already blew a substantial lead Thursday against the Pittsburgh Pirates. And as it is, the Nationals were 0-6 since the All-Star break to fall way below .500 and way behind in the NL East.
Precisely as Krol and other Nationals anticipated, Harper delivered. Right in the middle of it all from the very start to the finish, the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year hit a two-run shot over the wall to the left of straightaway center, lifting Washington past Pittsburgh 9-7 for a late-July victory that felt late-season pivotal to the Nationals.
“Great to get the `W’ today. We really needed it,” said Harper, who sat out Wednesday because of the bothersome left knee that put him on the disabled list until July 1, the last time he homered. “Hopefully this one will carry on into tomorrow and the next day.”
Harper raised his right fist overhead as he rounded first base and was mobbed by a bouncing pack of teammates as he reached home plate after his homer off Bryan Morris (4-4).
“It’s kind of sometimes like pickup basketball,” said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who like Nationals skipper Davey Johnson was ejected on a wild afternoon that also included three errors by Pittsburgh infielders in the first inning. “They had the ball last.”
Krol (1-0) earned his first major league win despite being part of poor relief in the ninth that allowed the Pirates to erase a four-run deficit. The Nationals blew leads of 4-0 and 7-3, the latter when closer Rafael Soriano was charged with four runs while getting only one out in the ninth. He walked the first two batters, then gave up Jordy Mercer’s run-scoring double and Russell Martin’s RBI single. Until then, the Pirates were 0 for 12 with runners in scoring position.
Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr, who took over after Johnson left in the fifth, then lifted Soriano - the established guy with the $28 million, two-year contract and 25 saves - and turned to Krol - a rookie without a save in the majors.
“Figured, if you don’t want to be in that mode to shut the game down,” Knorr said, “I’ll bring somebody else in.”
Gutsy? Sure. Unorthodox? Without a doubt. Did it work? Well, Krol loaded the bases by walking his first batter, and after a strikeout, Josh Harrison - who homered earlier - tied the game at 7 with a two-run single.
“I haven’t felt nerves like that since my debut,” Krol acknowledged afterward. “So it was kind of crazy to be out there in that situation. Something that I’m not comfortable with. Something that I don’t normally do.”
But Harper is someone who never seems fazed on the field. He made a headfirst diving catch for the day’s first out, then got hit by a pitch leading off the bottom of the first to start Washington’s four-run outburst. A double in the sixth followed, then a single and run in the eighth, and then his 14th homer of the season to cap it.
“You never know what you get out of Bryce. But that’s the most exciting part about Bryce. He’s always going to put on a show,” said Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez, who struck out 11 and allowed three runs in 5 2-3 innings. “What he did today is typical Bryce.”
Briefly breaking out of a slump that had seen it score a total of 13 runs while going 0-6 since the All-Star break, Washington batted around to go ahead 4-0 against A.J. Burnett after one inning. First baseman Gaby Sanchez, second baseman Mercer and third baseman Pedro Alvarez each committed an error, meaning only one run was earned.
Harper was right in the thick of it all, of course.
After Harper reached by getting plunked, Steve Lombardozzi followed with a bunt single for the first of his three hits. Harper strayed too far off second, getting caught in a rundown. But shortstop Clint Barmes’ throw got past Alvarez, who was charged with an error. That allowed Harper to come all the way around to score.
“It worked out,” Harper said.
Harrison’s two-run shot off Gonzalez in the sixth - his first homer of 2013 - pulled Pittsburgh within 4-3. But the Nationals added insurance off Vin Mazzaro in the eighth on Lombardozzi’s RBI ground-rule double and Adam LaRoche’s two-run triple.
Wasn’t enough. Nothing seems to be lately for Washington, which led the majors with 98 wins last year but entered Thursday 48-53 and a season-high nine games behind division leader Atlanta. They had scored a total of 13 runs in their previous six games, all losses. They had dropped 11 of 13.
So this felt significant, especially considering the way Washington led leads slip away Thursday.
“That would’ve been tough to overcome,” Knorr said. “To tell you how it feels, just walking into the clubhouse right now, you’d think we won the World Series or something.”