Associated Press photo
Bryce Harper reacts to striking out with the bases loaded in the eighth.
Where some seasoned veterans have expanded their strike zone and let opposing pitchers get the best of them, the rookie has remained disciplined and unwilling to cave in.
And then came the eighth inning of Tuesday's 3-1 loss to the Marlins, when for a rare moment the 19-year-old actually looked like a 19-year-old at the plate.
Given an opportunity to hit with the bases loaded and one out during what was at that point a one-run game, Harper struck out on three pitches from Miami reliever Steve Cishek, the dagger a 93-mph fastball at his eyes. Ryan Zimmerman's subsequent fielder's choice officially extinguished the potential rally and ultimately sent the Nationals to their second straight loss at Marlins Park.
"We missed our chance in that eighth inning," manager Davey Johnson said. "We had the right guys up that time. It just didn't happen."
Though the third strike looked like the biggest mistake of the inning, Harper was more upset about his inability to put either of Cishek's first two pitches (each thrown over the heart of the plate) into play. Instead, Harper fouled both offerings into the stands on the third-base side of the stadium, leaving himself in an 0-2 hole against the sidewinding right-hander.
"The last one, I think he just rode it up on me a little bit. He got me," Harper said. "But the first two I could have put in play. They were maybe a little off the plate. But they were pitches I could handle."
If it feels like everyone's nitpicking one at-bat, it's only because this was a game decided by only a handful of key moments.
The Nationals managed to execute one of them -- Corey Brown's perfectly placed, suicide squeeze to score Ian Desmond in the fifth -- but failed after that in allowing the Marlins to take the lead and then hold it.
Each of Miami's first two runs came as a result of poor execution by Nationals starter Edwin Jackson, beginning in the sixth when he was give a chance to stare down one of baseball's most fearsome hitters: Giancarlo Stanton.
The Marlins had a man on third and two out when Stanton (who has already clubbed 11 homers this month) stepped to the plate. The option to intentionally walk the slugger was readily available to Johnson, but the veteran skipper preferred to let Jackson take his chances against Stanton (who had walked on four pitches in the first and flied out to deep center field in the fourth).
"He's pitched to him all night, and he had success against him," Johnson said. "I'm not going to take it out of his hands at that point, even though he's a hot hitter."
With the count 1-1, Jackson tried to come inside with a fastball. Instead, he left it over the plate just enough for Stanton to turn on the pitch and send it down the left-field line for the go-ahead double.
"You're going to have situations where you're going to have to come at 'em and you just take your chances," Jackson said. "Here it is. Best stuff against best stuff. Sometimes you win it, sometimes you lose it."
The mistake that ultimately cost Jackson the game came one inning later, on an errant pickoff attempt. The ball scooted toward the right-field corner, and Chris Coghlan wound up on third base. Moments later, pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs lofted a sacrifice fly to left, bringing home what proved to be the winning run.
"It gave them an opportunity to come out with a lead," Jackson said. "It's a well-pitched ballgame on both parts. It's who can make the least amount of mistakes, and they capitalized on a mistake."
That's the kind of game it was, with both teams scratching and clawing for each run and Johnson resorting to a rare suicide squeeze call to produce his team's only tally against Anibal Sanchez (who improved to 8-0 in 19 career starts against the Nationals).
With Desmond standing on third base and one out in the fifth, Johnson gave the squeeze sign to third-base coach Bo Porter, who relayed it to Brown. The 26-year-old outfielder was in a big-league lineup for the first time, and to that point his brief career stat line including zero hits in five at-bats and three strikeouts.
Brown had never been asked to drop a squeeze bunt in his life, so his first thought was to make sure he correctly interpreted Porter's sign.
"Yesterday and today, Bo was going over the signs with me," Brown said. "I didn't do too well passing the test. I was kind of hoping that I saw it right."
Brown indeed saw it right, and he executed the bunt to perfection, recording his first career RBI in the process.
Little did the Nationals know that would be their only run of a frustrating night against a tough opponent.
"Edwin pitched a heck of a game to the only team in the NL East with a healthy lineup," Desmond said. "Pretty good game. It was a fun game to play in. Obviously it was a tough loss, but we showed a lot out there."