WASHINGTON — Bryce Harper’s curtain call was forceful, just like the swing he used to revive the Nationals. He climbed the dugout steps, clenched his fist, then jabbed at the freshly electrified air before flipping back his flowing hair.
This was more than an acknowledgment of fans. It was an act of defiance, a statement against his franchise’s tortured history of wilting.
Without him, it might have happened again Saturday night. The Cubs were five outs away from ushering in more misery, but Harper blasted a tying two-run homer in the eighth inning and Ryan Zimmerman followed with a three-run shot, propelling the Nationals to a stirring 6-3 victory that evened the National League Division Series at 1.
“I believe that he’s built for these moments,” said Ron Harper, fresh from hugging his son in the hallway leading to the clubhouse, where the Nationals packed for a trip to Chicago, their season rescued from the brink.
The moment came after agony. Willson Contreras and Anthony Rizzo homered off Gio Gonzalez and the Cubs entered the eighth with a 3-1 lead.
The Nationals were flummoxed by Cubs lefthander Jon Lester, who allowed only Anthony Rendon’s solo homer. Lester dodged trouble in the fifth when Trea Turner chased a fastball off the plate for strike three and left the bases loaded.
By the time Harper stepped into the batter’s box in the eighth, Washington had mustered only three hits, the last coming when pinch hitter Adam Lind singled off Carl Edwards Jr. to begin the inning. Then Turner struck out again, leaving the Nationals with five outs to make magic.
“The tension and the frustration builds,” Zimmerman said. “And sometimes it takes kind of just one hit for everyone to exhale.”
Harper delivered that reprieve. The megastar was hobbled in August by a gruesome knee injury and returned just in time to cobble together a few at-bats at the end of the season. His timing still isn’t quite right. It’s why manager Dusty Baker batted him second rather than in the middle of the lineup.
That rust showed early in the critical at-bat when Harper flailed at a curveball in the dirt. But when Edwards fell behind 3-and-1, he went to the well again, flipping another curve.
“I thought he was going to throw a curveball back down in the dirt,” Harper said. “I thought about taking the whole way. And then I saw the loop in the curveball and said, ‘Why not swing as hard as you can?’ Got barrel on it and at a pretty good moment.”
Indeed, Harper fired his hips, whipped his bat, and watched his tying shot sail into the upper deck in rightfield. He jogged down the line and pointed to a dugout filled with wide-eyed teammates, their arms outstretched, their suffering eased with one timely act.
“It felt like it was in the air forever,” Nationals closer Sean Doolittle said.
A rally sprang from there. Rendon walked ahead of Daniel Murphy, who greeted Mike Montgomery with a line-drive single to left. Up came Zimmerman, the longest-tenured member of a team that has never advanced past the first round, a fact they were reminded of constantly in the lead-up to this week.
Zimmerman sneaked his homer just over the fence in left. Harper charged from the dugout, reveling in a flurry that altered the course of this series. After a day off Sunday, Washington will send ace Max Scherzer to the mound Monday with a chance to seize control of this best-of-five series.
“I think the train’s coming,” Harper said. “We’re a great team.”