Harper’s big bunt: Nats surprise, reap benefits
By Andrew Simon
WASHINGTON — Bryce Harper owns one of baseball’s most violent and dangerous swings, so when he walks to the plate in a crucial situation with a runner in scoring position, he is expected to use it.
The Nationals defied those expectations during a key moment in Saturday night’s 8-5 comeback win against the Phillies.
It was Harper’s run-scoring bunt in the seventh inning that tied the game and set up Jayson Werth’s dramatic go-ahead home run one batter later. Asked to grade the bunt after the game, Werth gave it an “S for surprising,” and it certainly was that.
The Nationals entered the seventh training, 4-3. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel replaced starting pitcher Cliff Lee with another left-hander, Jake Diekman, and Nats skipper Davey Johnson sent up pinch hitter Steve Lombardozzi.
Lombardozzi got things started with a walk, moved to second on Denard Span’s sacrifice and then boldly stole third to move 90 feet from tying the game with Ryan Zimmerman at the plate.
“Well, [Diekman’s] real slow to the plate,” Johnson said. “He’s like 1.6, 1.7 [seconds]. That’s what you do. But [Lombardozzi’s] a smart baserunner. He had a good jump and he got in pretty easy.”
Zimmerman walked to put runners on the corners for Harper. On one hand, the 20-year-old is one of Washington’s deadliest hitters, not your usual candidate for a bunt. In his career, Harper had never driven home a run with a bunt, and he had used them for five sacrifices and one hit.
But a couple of factors, other than the element of surprise, made the bunt a more appealing proposition. For one thing, Harper hasn’t been the same offensive threat he was early in the year, entering Saturday hitting .225 with a .734 OPS since April 28. He went into that at-bat hitting .174 against lefties, with 26 strikeouts in 101 plate appearances. And lefties are 6-for-35 (.171) with 10 Ks against Diekman this year.
Johnson called for the bunt, later saying his reasoning was simply to, “get a run in.” Third base coach Trent Jewett passed Harper the signal to safety squeeze, meaning he only tries to bunt on a strike, and Lombardozzi only breaks for home if Harper gets it down.
Harper took a slider just inside for ball one. He later said Jewett took the bunt off on the 1-0 pitch, a slider down and away that Harper swung through. Jewett signaled for it again on the next pitch, and Harper hung with a slider up and inside. He got it in the air, but in the right spot, the ball shooting toward second base and reaching Chase Utley on one hop. With no play at home, and no chance for a double play, Utley took the force at second, and the game was tied.
“I mean, he hung a slider, so it kind of caught me off-guard a little bit,” Harper said. “I think if it was a fastball, it would’ve gone straight into the ground, because he has pretty good two-seam action on his fastball. The slider, I tried to hit it into right field, it looked like. Thankfully it fell in front of Utley and we got that run.”
Of getting called on to squeeze in that spot, Harper said, “I love it. I think it’s great.” It may have been a surprising call, but it worked.
“The last thing you want to do right there is hit into a double play,” Werth said. “Sometimes, first and third with one out and the game on the line like that, a bunt’s a good play if it works out. But a guy like Bryce, you want to see Bryce swing the bat. But when the guy he’s facing is a nasty lefty, Charlie Manuel would always talk about being creative in the moment. Bryce was definitely creative in the moment right there.”