BOTTOM OF THE THIRD: NATIONALS 4 0 – 1 BRAVES
I’ll just skip to the good stuff, no build-up:
Bryce Harper hit a grand slam today in the third inning, way way deep to the upper deck, for the lead, for the win, for the erasing of last year’s frustrations, for the opening salvo on the way toward a 7-1 team record, for the signaling to the NL East that this team is here for the title—no more collapses, no more underachieving, no more choking (literally).
And maybe more importantly, it was Harper’s 100th career home run—a guy who’s just 23.
On this warm spring afternoon in D.C., with the fans on their feet and three teammates trotting home ahead of him, Harper rounded the bases with a single song repeating in his head, mouthing the words to himself, staring down the pitcher whose fastball he drilled into the right-field stands:
Y’all better not come to my stadium with that fake sh”t…better not come here with that fake sh”t… All I ever asked is 100…
He comes home, tags the plate, getting high-fives from the other three he drove in, still basking in the glory of his moment.
All I ever asked is 100… Yeah, 100…
— MLB (@MLB) April 14, 2016
Before Harper’s grand slam, the inning started off quieter, in no way “big”, with Matt den Dekker up and a 1-0 deficit on the board, to a Braves team stuck in the winless dog days of a do-it-the-right-way rebuild.
And on the mound stands Julio Teheran, athletic power pitcher and league leader in the Surname That’s a World Capital category (Teherán in Spanish; not Tehran), this year’s default winner and heir apparent to the retired José Lima (although there may be a Tony Moscow or Brett Beijing that’s slipped my mind…)
He’s pitching against a Nationals team coming off a season of dysfunctional struggle, having lived through the ugly side of spoiled momentum in 2015 after moving backward following the promise of playoff appearances in ‘12 and ‘14.
But they’ve got a new guy at the helm this year, calling the shots, looking to make team depth and Harper’s MVP-pedigree play to their league-leading potential.
The great, the controversial Dusty Baker, who’s had a long record of success but often mocked on internet baseball forums for a littany of gaffes: calling Bryce Harper “Royce,” dropping racially odd language about Latin-American players, over-working the arm of Mark Prior, and quipping infamously that walks just “clog up the bases.”
But the guy deserves some respect! He’s a baseball legend—the most famous toothpick chewer in this country’s history, the leader of three successful runs in San Francisco, Chicago and Cincinnati, and the guy invented the high-five, for crying out loud!! (who gives full credit, I may add, to the late Glenn Burke, Baker’s partner in that very first, improvised high-five on the Dodgers, and the MLB’s first openly gay player).
So when you look up at the standings board and see the Nationals restored to the top with a sterling 7-1 record, know that Dusty is behind the scenes of every win, calling the shots, chewing that toothpick, proving the haters wrong with every new team he decides to adopt.
Back on the field, den Dekker walks to lead off the inning. He’s one of the rare few players in the league with a lowercase name on his jersey, formerly joined on the Mets by Jason deGrom and Travis d’Arnaud—the three lowercase amigos who’ve now sadly been broken up.
Up now is Danny Espinosa, who flies out to left. No luck after the encouraging boom-boom-clap over the PA system tried to get the fans behind him. It’s starting to look like another average inning, the fans hoping at best for some small-ball to bring home the tying run.
From the dugout Dusty now relays a tricky series of gestures to his third base coach, who like an anagram word scrambler converts one series of signs into another, telling Stephen Strasburg to ready for the bunt.
Strasburg readies with his off-hand behind the barrel of the bat, and he gets the bunt down hard, straight to Teheran, who whips the ball to second for the force. Strasburg safe at first.
Teheran, equipped with a gold chain and pink bubble gum, does his routine grab of the hat, adjusting of the jersey, before an athletic windup that delivers the next pitch to Chris Heisey, who hits it right on the nose, dropping it safely into left field just over the shortstop’s head.
First and second now for Anthony Rendon, who has the movie-star looks of a young Antonio Banderas, and whose glorious mullet flow would make even the best of Minnesota state-tournament hockey players green with envy.
Rendon rips a hanging two-seamer up the middle, just left of Teheran, with Strasburg now into second and Heisey holding up at third for the chance to have Harper bat.
Bases loaded for Harper. You know the rest.
Harper comes up, the team hero, a long sleeve covering his whole right arm, two thick patches of eye-black on his cheeks, with the steely determination to make last season an aberration and not the start of a bad trend.
The fans all hold up red and white signs reading “100,” printed in what looks to be comic sans font, with more than a few unknowingly held upside down.
Please hit your 100th career home run! they seem to be saying, but we’re too sluggish in the afternoon sun to do any kind of unified stadium cheer! They clap eagerly and use the signs as shields from the sharp sunlight, as Bryce Harper sets up in the box and awaits Teheran’s first offering.
His bat tucked tensely behind his neck, Harper squints out at the pitchers mound, his knees bent, thinking… All I ever asked is 100…
Then he hits it.
It’s what could only be called a no doubter, as the catcher stands bolt upright, Harper holds the bat still with his signature follow-through, arms across his body, pointing up toward the path of the ball.
I mean this thing is way gone! The lead: gone. The double-digit career home-run total: gone.
The ball seems to land somewhere miles away in the Anacostia River, drifting along toward the Maryland suburbs on a self-made flow of roaring rapids, as I pause the game stream and relish the moment with a big Whoa…
Harper rounds first with a big high-five from the coach, jogging back to make sure he tagged the base, the only flaw of this signature moment, one of the biggest in what he intends to be a back-to-back MVP year.
The “100” signs by now are raised up in full force, with Nats Nation bowing down in praise to the one man in D.C. they can all rally behind, Democrats and Republicans reaching amicably across an upper-deck outfield aisle for the home-run ball, 420 feet from home plate.
4-1 Nationals. They sweep the Braves.
Harper makes a curtain-call fist pump to the fans, as they cheer and then sit down with chatter all around the ballpark and cell phones out spreading the joyful word around the capital.
Bryce Harper, officially now, has kept it as 100 as one can ever keep it 100.
Whenever he’s constitutionally old enough (not for a long while) the man needs to step up onto the campaign trail.
Harper for 2036 prez??