WASHINGTON – The day began with Nationals manager Dusty Baker being asked how he would know if Bryce Harper was back.
"I can't tell you what I see, because you might be a double agent for the Cubs," Baker said with a grin. "You know I don't want them to know any more than they already know. I would like for them and the world to guess where he is."
By the eighth inning of Game 2, the world found out where Harper was and didn't need any spies to decipher the clues.
With the Nationals on the verge of going down 2-0 in the National League Division Series, they had had just four hits over the first 16 innings. A loss probably would have turned the Nationals to toast again, precipitating their fourth NLDS flop in four tries since Harper arrived in town as the second coming.
But when Carl Edwards Jr. hung a 3-1 curveball with a man on and one out in the eighth, Harper did what Harper does best.
"I saw the loop in it and tried to hit it as hard as I could," he said.
The ball quickly sailed toward the horizon and into upper deck in right field, tying the game and turning the series on a dime. Harper admired his beltway bomb, flipped his bat like he had practiced the moment a million times and woke up the crowd of 43,860.
A few minutes later, Ryan Zimmerman's three-run shot off Mike Montgomery barely landed over the left-field wall, sending the Nationals to a 6-3 victory and giving them new life in the series.
"Great launch angle," Harper noted, channeling his inner nerd.
The joint went up for grabs. Baker said it was the loudest he ever had heard it in D.C. A resurrection from the dead was just what this town needed to escape the ghosts of the epic fails of playoffs past.
"Going into Chicago 0-2 would have been a pretty big hole to dig ourselves out of," Zimmerman said. "So 1-1 is obviously a lot more manageable. ... Some people talk about momentum. That's a really good team over there and they have kind of been through everything."
So have the Nationals, and so has Harper, a 24-year-old who became a superstar as a teenager but never has tasted October's finest. This was supposed to be the year Harper put his imprint on the postseason, showing the rest of the baseball world he was a Derek Jeter-type of player, the proverbial straw that stirs the drink.
But up until the eighth inning, he had been the invisible man, a star who burns brightest during the regular season and flames out when the games matter most. He was 1 for 7 in the series and 13 for 64 (.203) in 16 career postseason games. This after he had gone 3-for-18 with seven strikeouts to close the regular season since returning from an extended DL stint from a hyperextended left knee.
Meanwhile, Cubs stars Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo continued to shine on the big stage. Bryant had the go-ahead RBI single that broke Stephen Strasburg's no-hitter in Game 1 and doubled off Gio Gonzalez to start off the fourth inning in Game 2. Rizzo followed with a two-run shot over Harper's head in right, with the ball landing in the hands of a Cubs fan who soaked up his TV time like a reality show contestant about to get his goodbye rose.
But all that simply was prelude to the Harper Show.
As they showed on Friday, teaming up for a video to help victims of the Las Vegas massacre, Harper and Bryant are kindred spirits from that city who grew up playing against and observing each other from childhood on.
There was never any competition to prove who was the best.
"No, he was always better than me," Bryant said Thursday. "We didn't have to go through that. ... I can't even explain how intimidating it was just to watch him get in the batting cage. The ball coming off his bat was something you never hear."
Bryant was 7 at the time. But 18 years later, on a warm Saturday in a game that turned into a classic, he heard that sound again.
Harper walked into the postgame news conference wearing a Chance the Rapper cap, perhaps another attempt to troll the media, as he did after a rumor last summer he preferred to play with the Cubs when he becomes a free agent in 2018.
"The train is coming," Harper said. "We're a great team. We have Max (Scherzer) going in Game 3. ... You know, Chicago is tough, going in there playing in the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field."
No matter what happens, Baker finally got the answer to the question.
Is Harper back?
"He's on his way," he said. "You know he's not quite back. ... Hopefully that's the beginning. Like I said, the longer we play the better Bryce will be."