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Harper, Zimmerman hit 8th-inning homers as Nationals top Cubs to even series

Harper, Zimmerman hit 8th-inning homers as Nationals top Cubs to even series
Ryan Zimmerman hits a three-run home run in the eighth inning Saturday, helping the Nationals rally past the Cubs in Game 2 of the National League division series. (EPA)

The ball that resuscitated a franchise soared high into the Washington night. It passed directly over the Nationals' bullpen, where Brandon Kintzler tapped gloves with Sean Doolittle, then screamed in Doolittle's face. It was hit with such authority that Victor Robles, the runner on first base, turned to face the outfield, to see just how far it would go, then thrust both arms into the sky before he even thought about running. Its flight was so majestic that Bryce Harper admired his work, shrugged, flipped his bat aside and started slowly toward first base.

As he did, Harper's father turned toward his mother and said, "I love you." Harper's father opted not to jump up and down, he said, because he already had endured four knee operations and did not desire another one. But just about everyone else did, in the home dugout and in the stands, for Harper had shaken the Nationals from their slumber.

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"I believe he is built for that moment," said his father, Ron.

His father stood outside the Nationals' clubhouse, clutching a plastic cup of water and wearing an olive-colored T-shirt with the name "Lizard Skins," a company that makes bat grips. Harper came by for a hug, father and son said "I love you," and then Harper headed back inside the clubhouse, prepared to lift a beleaguered team upon his shoulders once again.

The Nationals were five outs from facing an elimination game in Chicago, against the defending World Series champion Cubs. The Nationals had scored one run in 16 innings. They were batting .093 in this National League division series.

With one mighty swing, Harper altered the course of this series, and perhaps the course of a team that never has won a postseason series. He hit the two-run home run that tied the game, Ryan Zimmerman followed with the three-run home run that won it, and the Nationals had electrified the crowd and revived their World Series hopes with that five-run inning out of nowhere.

The Nationals won on Saturday 6-3, and so the best-of-five series is tied at one game apiece.

It was eight years ago that Sports Illustrated put a teenage Harper on its cover and labeled him "The Chosen One," in anticipation of moments like this.

"From day one, there's been an enormous amount of pressure put on him, maybe more than on anyone ever," Zimmerman said.

Harper has been so good for so long that we forget how young he is. He is six months younger than Aaron Judge, the projected American League rookie of the year. He does not turn 25 for another week.

Harper said before the game that he had played in bigger games than this. He talked about how he had played for Team USA, against Cuba, in Venezuela. He talked about playing in a youth tournament, at age 10, in front of 15,000 fans.

So the Nationals have not won a postseason series since 1924? To Harper, so what?

As he batted in the eighth inning, with one on and one out, the Cubs had elite setup man Carl Edwards Jr. on the mound, protecting a 3-1 lead.

"You know. We knew," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "Harp was due. He's known for the big moment."

Not right away. The first pitch was a strike, and not a pretty one.

"Curve ball in the dirt," Harper said, laughing. "Great swing on that pitch."

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Three fastballs, all balls. The count was 3 and 1, and a walk would have put the tying runs on base.

"I thought about taking the whole way," he said. "And then I saw the loop in the curve ball and said, 'Why not swing as hard as you can?'

"I got the barrel on it. A pretty good moment."

The tension in the Nationals' dugout vanished. The attack intensified. Before the Cubs could get another out, Anthony Rendon walked, Daniel Murphy singled and Zimmerman homered.

None of that would have been possible had Harper say, hit into a double play. Instead, he homered, the trigger for the rally that saved the Nationals' season.

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin

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