A Hollywood screenwriter would struggle to write a believable script for the ending of this game because it would read like fiction. The Washington Nationals were one strike away from a devastating loss. The Nationals’ 3-1 lead in the 8th inning quickly evaporated and turned into a 4-3 deficit. After a Chris Heisey walk in the bottom of the 9th inning, Adam Eaton singled to put the winning runs on-base. Bryce Harper walked to the plate in a spot where he could win the game with one swing of the bat. Bryce worked the count from a 0-2 hole to 3-2 with 2 outs and got the ‘get-me-over, dead-red, center-cut’ 97 mph fastball from the Phillies’ closer, Joaquin Benoit. In an ending that is perfectly set for a Hollywood production, Harper deposited the 3-2 pitch deep onto the centerfield berm for a 6-4 walk-off winner for the dramatic finish as the klaxon horn sounded, the fans wildly cheered, and Harper’s teammates huddled to greet him at home plate.
What a difference a day makes as Benoit got Harper to swing at a below the zone change-up for a groundout in the 9th inning of Saturday’s game. This time Harper battled back to a 3-2 count, and didn’t miss the final pitch on this day.
“Battled the best I could, got to 3-2, got to a good count right there, got a good pitch to hit,” Bryce Harper said about his walk-off home run off. “It was a heater. It was left out over [the plate]…left it up.”
Benoit threw Harper 1 changeup and 5 fastballs ranging from 95 mph to the fateful 97 heater, and look where that final pitch was, dead-center of the zone. By allowing Bryce to see 5 fastballs at an average speed of 96.3 mph, Harper had the timing perfect after he fouled off pitches 1 and 2 that were both fastballs more towards the outside third of the plate and off-center. Pitch 3 was the changeup for ball 1 to make the count 1-2, then Benoit missed on an inside heater to make the count 2-2. Benoit then went to another fastball that was high and outside to make the count 3-2. The closer could sense Daniel Murphy pacing on-deck, and a walk was not an option Benoit wanted as that would load the bases for one of the best pure hitters in the game.
What was going through Benoit’s mind at that moment to go ‘heater’ on 3-2 with more velo? He missed the target and left the pitch centered over the plate. Bryce absolutely destroyed it. The former MVP was using his Victus bat that he hit his home run with earlier in the game. The ball contacted Harper’s bat with such immense force that it became a projectile with an “exit velocity” of 109 mph. When the baseball smashed into the artificial turf on the berm beyond the centerfield fence, you could visibly see a ground tremor. It was just like you see when a bomb hits the ground with such force that it transmits mechanical stress upon impact.
“Fastball count, and I threw him a fastball, and he hit it out,” Joaquin Benoit said. “I believe every hitter is dangerous. If you throw a pitch they can handle they will do damage. I’ve had some success against him, but I made a mistake and he made me pay. No excuses. I don’t like to double-guess myself. I take full responsibility. I wanted to throw a fastball. He hit it out.”
Harper, before the walk-off home run, was a combined 0-for-5 against Benoit with a strikeout in his career. Benoit’s sin today was walking Chris Heisey earlier in the inning which allowed the Nationals’ superstar to step to the plate.
It was Harper’s fourth walk-off home run of his young career, and his first walk-off to bring his team back from a deficit. The 2015 MVP showed that he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Harper hit two home runs today and collected 5 of the Nationals’ 6 RBIs in the game. The 1-3 hitters in the Nationals line-up were a combined 8-for-15 with 6 RBIs as Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon, and Bryce Harper each had big days.
The Nationals defense was excellent for 7 1/3 innings until the 8th inning unraveled on Gio Gonzalez and the bullpen. Gio stayed in to pitch the 8th inning and retired pinch-hitter Michael Saunders for the first out of the inning. That put Gio at 99 pitches for his afternoon and Dusty Baker stayed with Gio who then gave up a single to Cesar Hernandez and a top-spin liner to Daniel Nava that should have been caught but Jayson Werth who played the liner into a single and the baseball bounced past Werth as Hernandez easily scored and Nava advanced to 2nd on the Werth error. Gio was pulled after the Nava single and Koda Glover threw a wild pitch at the right foot of catcher Matt Wieters and Nava advanced to third base and would eventually score the game tying run at a 3-3 score.
In the 9th inning, Blake Treinen went from a 3-0 count to a 3-2 count to the lead-off batter Aaron Altherr. Treinen then threw Altherr a fastball in the center of the plate that was hit for a booming double. Treinen battled back to get the next batter on a swinging bunt advancing Altherr to 3rd base. With one out and the infield drawn in, Freddy Galvis hit a comebacker to Daniel Murphy who threw the ball to the plate on a line, but Matt Wieters dropped the ball as the score went to 4-3. Treinen struggled, and was pulled in favor of Shawn Kelley who became the pitcher of record and got the last out in the 9th.
For a game with such a dramatic ending, it could have been avoidable possibly if Dusty Baker made some 8th inning managerial decisions such as a defensive replacement for Jayson Werth and a quicker hook for Gio Gonzalez who pitched well enough on this day to earn the win.
The Nationals have a day-off tomorrow and head to Atlanta for a three-game series with a 7-5 record and tied for 1st place with the Miami Marlins. The Marlins head to the great northwest to face the Seattle Mariners, and the Mets have a series with the Phillies. The Mets lost 3 of their 4 games in their extended weekend series with the Marlins that included a 16-inning game on Thursday.
Bryce Harper's walk off was an absolute bomb… 109 MPH and 424ft. pic.twitter.com/b9xWnzcNW1
— Daren Willman (@darenw) April 16, 2017
Bryce Harper’s walk-off “picked up” everyone who made a flub, a faux pas, an error, or a mistake in strategy or judgment on that day. For 7 1/3 innings on Sunday, the Nationals were turning spectacular plays and had the game in hand then slowly things got shaky. A fielding error by Werth, questionable judgment by Dusty Baker, a pitch not handled by Matt Wieters, a lead-off double in the 9th given up by Blake Treinen, a throw to the plate dropped by Matt Wieters, and finally a running mistake by Chris Heisey.
So many mistakes were made in such a short period of time. The Harper home run wiped the slate clean. These mistakes become learning points hopefully. Fact is often stranger than fiction. This was proven again today. Only in some alternate universe would you expect something as unexpected as today where nothing followed the conventional script in the final two innings.
What an ending.