WASHINGTON -- After he unleashed a violent swing on a hanging curveball in the bottom of the eighth inning, Bryce Harper stood and watched as the ball he launched into the stratosphere sailed into the second deck in right field at Nationals Park. He turned toward his dugout, which was erupting with glee and with a scowl on his face, Harper discarded his bat in a glorious flip as the sellout crowd of 43,860 fans worked themselves into a frenzy.
This was a series-changing two-run homer on Saturday. The Nationals were in danger of dropping the first two games of this National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile at home before they headed to Chicago for Game 3 against the Cubs today at Wrigley Field. The Nats' offense had been lifeless through the first 16 innings of this series and had mustered three hits on the night.
Harper's 421-foot-moonshot home run broke the seal on their offense, paving the way for Ryan Zimmerman's three-run homer to put the Nationals ahead en route to their 6-3 victory. The NLDS is tied 1-1, because a generational talent came through when his team needed him the most. Whether the notion of being clutch exists is a debate for another time. In this moment, when the pressure was highest and the Nats needed a hero, Harper rose to the occasion.
"He's just one of those players that can just show up," outfielder Jayson Werth said. "If he's got a bat and in the box, he's never out. He's always got a chance. Right man, right spot."
This was only Harper's seventh game since returning from the disabled list after a knee injury that put his season in jeopardy. He missed a month before he returned to go 3-for-18 in five regular-season games during the season's final week, then he collected a single in Friday's Game 1.
Harper did not even think he was going to get a strike in this situation. He was ahead in the count, 3-1, against Cubs right-hander Carl Edwards Jr., and Harper considered taking the whole way.
"Then I saw the loop in the curveball and said, why not swing as hard as you can," he said. "Got barrel on it, and it was a pretty good moment."
Harper acknowledges his knee and timing are fine, but they are not 100 percent. He had not shown he was still capable of that kind of power. And yet, in the moment where it mattered most, with the Nationals trailing, 3-1, in the eighth inning of a game they could not afford to lose, Harper delivered.
"I've probably seen 2,000 Major League Baseball games," right-hander Ryan Madson said. "That was cool. "It's up there with the top home runs you'll see."
"I don't know what gene he has," left-hander Gio Gonzalez said. "But he has a clutch gene, he has every gene, he's got Ralph Lauren jean, whatever gene you wanna call it."
"For a guy to have those kinds of expectations on him and for him to constantly live up to it, it's fun to watch," closer Sean Doolittle said.
After the game, Harper was not interested in ranking this home run with the biggest of his career. He deflected to Zimmerman on a question about being clutch referring to his elder as "Mr. Walk-off."
But Harper and Zimmerman's home runs will go alongside Werth's walk-off homer in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS as some of the biggest moments in franchise history.
"I think Zimm's ranks number one right now on my list for all of our homers just because ... we won that ballgame," Harper said. "Just try to go out there and put the best swing I can on balls, and you know, do the best I can for my team and my club. These fans, they deserve that."
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.