Harper having MVP-worthy campaign, but Nationals need pair's contributions
By Hal Bodley
ST. PETERSBURG -- It was reminiscent of a scene from "The Natural" -- thunder and lightning vibrating in the skies outside Tropicana Field, and Bryce Harper launching a rocket to center field that trailed sparks.
Harper's homer Tuesday night was almost lost in the Nationals' 16-4 rout of the Rays, although it was his 22nd of the season, tying his career high. It was just one of 23 hits, six for extra bases, including four homers.
They're calling Harper "The Nat-ural" because he's doing just about everything that Roy Hobbs did in the 1984 award-winning movie. When you talk about Washington this year, it starts with Harper. You cannot overlook his contributions to the underachieving Nats; he's arguably the best player in the Major Leagues this year and is near the top in just about every National League offensive category.
But the Nationals have struggled to reach their potential, and without Denard Span and Yunel Escobar, they wouldn't be within striking distance of first place in the NL East.
After that thrashing the Rays, the Interleague series moved to Washington on Wednesday and the Nationals were shut out, 5-0.
Span, the best leadoff hitter in the NL and a Gold Glove Award-caliber center fielder, was out of the lineup because of a recurring back problem. It was the fourth game he's missed this month for a team that has more than its share of injuries to impact players.
"The contribution of those two at the top of the order has been enormous," said Nationals manager Matt Williams. "I cannot underestimate it."
Span, 31, who came to the Nationals in a deal with Minnesota following the 2012 season batted .302 last year, walked 50 times and stole 37 bases -- a key to their second division title in three years. He set a Nationals record with 184 hits.
He's batting .303 this season with 20 RBIs, 20 runs and 13 extra-base hits in 45 games.
Last December, he had core muscle surgery, which limited his time in Spring Training. After just two at-bats in an exhibition game, he went on the disabled list and underwent a second core muscle surgery.
He's the first to say he didn't expect to play as well as he has since being activated on April 19.
"It's just a testament of hard work and commitment and just taking my job seriously," he said. "Even when I was hurt, I was still watching games, paying attention to small details.
"I'm just happy to be helping my teammates on the field."
He's missed four games in June because of tightness in his back.
"It's manageable," Span said. "After playing on the turf at Tropicana Field, I thought it was smart to give it some rest. I'm going to have to do that from time to time this season."
Williams has been giving Span a day off now and then, about once every 10 days.
"There are some days when I feel like I need it," said Span, who can become a free agent after the season. "I'm just trying to make it to the All-Star break, catch my breath and try to get ready for the second half of the season."
And then there's Escobar.
In January, the Cuba native was dealt from Tampa Bay to Oakland. Almost immediately, the Athletics sent him to Washington where he has thrived, moving from shortstop to third base.
With Span leading off, Escobar, 32, usually bats second, followed by Harper. He's batting .316, with 21 RBIs.
"I just like the way they're going about it," Williams said. "Their energy -- they are playing well, they feel like they're in the game. I like that."
The Nationals, prior to Thursday night's game, had won just six of 14 games, yet remain only 1½ games behind the first-place Mets. They were in first place for 17 consecutive days before falling out on June 4.
Injuries to pitchers Doug Fister and Stephen Strasburg, not to mention outfielder Jayson and infielder Ryan Zimmerman, have hampered a Nationals team picked by many advance deep in the postseason, maybe even play in the World Series.
Fister was scheduled to come off the DL and face the Rays on Thursday night. Strasburg, after a Minor League rehab assignment, should be back soon.
"It's never easy to have so many injuries," Williams said. "We understand where we're at and still have a chance to be where we want to be at the end of the season.
"And we've got guys coming back, which is a good thing. One thing we don't do is panic. We played without Bryce Harper for two months last year, Zimmerman was gone for two and a half months, [catcher] Wilson Ramos for a couple of months. We're used to it, and we'll be OK."
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.