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Nationals keep Harping on Phillies

Bryce Harper hits two home runs in a 12-2 win.

THE 11TH PITCH Justin De Fratus threw last night was a 92-mph fastball that was delivered just above belt-high and on the outer half of the strike zone. It was not where Cameron Rupp's glove was set up, low and and on the other side of the plate.

Instead, it was the kind of pitch you might have your buddy throw you while in the middle of a Wiffle Ball Home Run Derby during a midsummer barbecue. And De Fratus, who has been hard at work tinkering with mechanics in what's been a lost season, knew it pretty much a second after it left his right hand.

Bryce Harper buggy-whipped his hips and his bat followed. De Fratus twirled around from his spot just off the mound and nearly hit the deck like a seasick drunk - his knees buckled as the ball torpedoed toward the outfield.

The ball appeared to be hit just a tad too high, though, as it lingered near the rightfield fence.

But when it landed, it landed over the fence. The home run was was No. 40 on the season for the 22-year-old kid from Vegas.

Harper, younger than everyone on the Phillies' roster except Aaron Nola, has hit eight of those 40 home runs against Philadelphia. He hit three this week, as the Nationals left town gaining some much-needed momentum for a last-gasp effort to punch a postseason ticket with last night's 12-2 victory completing a three-game sweep.

The formerly fading Nats gained two games during their three-day stay - they are 7 1/2 games behind the first-place New York Mets with 17 games to play. If those numbers sound oddly familiar, here's why: The Phillies trailed the Mets by seven games with 17 to play in 2007 and ended up winning the division.

Harper, a shoo-in for the National League MVP award regardless of where Washington finishes in the divisional standings, has put on a prestigious power show since April. Last night, he became the youngest player to hit 40 home runs in a season since Alex Rodriguez hit 42 in 1998 with the Seattle Mariners in a season in which he turned 23 in July.

"They're great fans here," said Harper, who was able to retrieve the ball in enemy territory. "They know baseball. They understand the game and I'm so thankful for that."

But at least this week at Citizens Bank Park, another member of his own team managed to outdo Harper in the home-run department. Former Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth, a member of the 2007 Phillies team that stormed back in September to overtake the Mets, hit home runs in back-to-back at-bats to get the Nationals started last night; it was his second two-home-run game of the three-game series in South Philly.

But with fewer than 16,000 fans for each of the three-game series, it was unlike the place Werth remembered when he established himself as an everyday player.

"It's definitely different now, a lot more empty seats," Werth said. "I didn't know the seats were blue. It's kind of sad, really. I feel bad for Ryan [Howard] and [Carlos Ruiz]."

Alec Asher, who fell to 0-4 with a 9.78 ERA in four major league starts, served up the first of Werth's home runs on the first pitch he threw to him in the fourth inning.

"I felt like maybe I just took a pitch off, which can't happen," Asher said. "That's something I'm working on, the mental side, being aggressive very pitch, attacking the zone. I just didn't take care of that pitch."

Werth, who left the Phillies for a $126 million prize in Washington five winters ago, has 11 home runs this season. He has hit four of them in the last three days.

"He looks like he's getting it together," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. "But it might be a little bit too late for them. I'm not sure, they're not mathematically eliminated."

No, they're actually in almost the same position as the 2007 Phillies, but with a better pitching staff. Still, the Nationals' odds are not good.

The Phillies have a better chance to lose 100 games than the Nats have in overtaking the Mets for the division in the next 2 1/2 weeks.

Last night's loss was the Phillies' 91st. They have to win seven of their remaining 15 games to avoid becoming the first Phillies team in 54 years to reach the century mark in losses.

"I don't think it's entering their heads; I think they're just trying to prove they belong here," Mackanin said of his young, largely unproven roster. "It's not like we had a real good team and it fell apart. This is a day-to-day experiment. A lot of young guys are getting opportunities and we're learning a lot about them. That's very important for next year."

One of the downfalls of having a team of recent minor leaguers is September is uncharted territory for pitchers and hitters alike.

It's why many young pitchers are shut down at some point in the season's final month. According to Mackanin, it's as good of a reason as any for why his lineup struck out 42 times in the three-game series against Washington, a franchise record for a three-game series.

The previous franchise record also came in September: in a three-game series against Cincinnati in the final homestand of the 1995 season at Veterans Stadium.

"You look up and down the lineup, all of these guys haven't played this deep into a season," Mackanin said. "I think it's getting to them a little bit and they need to learn to get over that hump. A lot of slow bats. We're not hitting the fastball like we're capable of doing."