Associated Press photo
Tyler Moore was called out on a controversial play at the plate in the eighth.
Yet when the Nationals' rookie stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 14th inning late Saturday afternoon, every remaining soul among the once-sellout crowd of 41,287 couldn't help but dream about how Harper's otherwise awful game might end in dramatic fashion.
Even the players wearing the road uniforms admitted the thought crossed their minds.
"It's like one of those kind of storybook endings; you're hoping it wasn't going to be," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "That would've just been too good to be true, for Harper to hit a walk-off right there. The place might've fallen down."
Harper didn't hit a walk-off, and the place did not fall down. With a routine groundball to second on the first pitch he saw from New York closer Rafael Soriano, Harper completed a miserable, 0-for-7, five-strikeout day and officially sealed the Nationals' frustrating 5-3, extra-inning loss.
There were plenty of defining moments in this game, countless opportunities for the Nationals to push across the one run they needed to pull out a victory and some controversial calls that cost them along the way. But it was Harper's performance -- by far his worst in seven weeks as a big leaguer -- that left everyone shaking their heads by day's end.
It wasn't just that Harper struck out five times. It was the surprising manner in which he consistently chased pitches out of the strike zone from Andy Pettitte and three Yankees relievers. It was the disgusted look and words he directed toward Timmons after questionable calls. And it was the uncharacteristic lack of composure from a player who to date has relished every opportunity to star on the big stage.
"I thought he probably was really amped up," manager Davey Johnson said. "He came in there against Pettitte, and I've never seen him swing at balls out of the zone. He was chasing balls. Got in that mode where (he was) trying to make something happen. That's part of the youth."
Harper declined to comment after the game, saying "I don't want to talk." Teammates tried to offer the rookie reassurance.
"Shake it off," first baseman Adam LaRoche told him. "It's not the last time you're going to have a bad game. If you're lucky, you'll have lots of bad games because you're playing for a long time. Shake it off and hurt them tomorrow."
This will be a tough game for the entire Nationals roster to shake off, a second straight loss to the American League's best team and one that was eminently winnable.
The Nationals gave the Yankees an unearned run during a sloppy fourth inning that featured one official error (by shortstop Ian Desmond) and two other miscues (a blooper to shallow left field that fell untouched, a missed scoop at first base by Tyler Moore on what should have been an inning-ending double play).
Jordan Zimmermann gave the Yankees two runs in the sixth, turning a slim lead into a slim deficit.
For a moment in the bottom of the eighth, though, the Nationals thought they had retaken the lead and were three outs from victory. Desmond's homer off reliever Cory Wade tied the game 3-3, and shortly after Moore came scampering around the bases on LaRoche's pinch-hit single to right.
As catcher Russell Martin hauled in the throw from DeWayne Wise, Moore attempted a headfirst slide, brushing his left hand across the plate. Timmons, though, called Moore out on the bang-bang play, and it wasn't clear until after the fact that Moore's hand had narrowly beaten Martin's tag.
"I thought I got in there," Moore said. "But you know, I haven't seen the replay yet. It's just unfortunate it didn't go our way."
"We had other opportunities to win that ballgame," Desmond said.
Indeed they did, thanks in large part to some brilliant relief work from Ross Detwiler, Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Craig Stammen, who combined to toss seven scoreless, hitless innings against one of the most-feared lineups in baseball.
But through it all, the Nationals lineup was unable to push across the winning run, going a collective 0-for-15 with five strikeouts from the ninth through the 13th innings.
So the game entered the 14th, at which point Johnson handed the ball to Brad Lidge, less than 24 hours removed from a shaky outing that contributed to a series-opening, 7-2 loss. The veteran right-hander was plagued Friday night by a seeing-eye, infield single, and he couldn't believe his misfortune when the same thing happened again Saturday. Jayson Nix led off with a single to deep shortstop. Derek Jeter then added a grounder through the left-side hole.
"I'm in a bit of bad luck right know where they're kind of hitting them where they ain't," Lidge said. "They're the groundballs you want, but they're hit perfectly between guys. It's tough, but you just try to do the best you can to get out of it."
Lidge did strike out Curtis Granderson, but he then left a 2-1 slider over the plate and watched as Teixeira laced it down the right-field line for the two-run double that gave the Yankees the lead for good and raised Lidge's ERA to an unsightly 9.64.
The Nationals nearly bailed him out in the bottom of the 14th thanks to one-out singles from Jesus Flores and Steve Lombardozzi. But Danny Espinosa flied out to right and Harper couldn't summon any magic to erase his dreadful afternoon and lift his team to an inspiring victory.
Suddenly, the Nationals' six-game winning streak has morphed into a two-game losing streak. And the most-anticipated series in the team's brief history has already been won by the Yankees, who will go for the sweep Sunday afternoon against a young ballclub that has to learn how to brush off a pair of demoralizing losses.
"Right now, obviously they seem bad," Lidge said. "These games are magnified. But at the end of the season, these are two of 162 games we play. They're regular-season games. And hopefully, if nothing else, we can learn from whatever we take from these two games and get better from it."