MIAMI — Bryce Harper had already hit two home runs Wednesday night when he grounded an 0-2 curveball toward first base and began sprinting down the line. Thinking there was already one out in the ninth inning, though there were none, Harper wanted badly to beat out a double play and not end the frame.
He didn’t. And after first base umpire CB Bucknor motioned that he was out, Harper spiked his batting helmet to the ground and it ricocheted in front of Bucknor. Bucknor ejected him immediately.
“I thought there was one out and I tossed my helmet down,” Harper said. “I shouldn’t have done it, but I don’t like hitting into double plays.”
Harper tried to plead his case with Bucknor, who wasn’t interested, and first base coach Trent Jewett as well as manager Davey Johnson came out to stand up for their player, too. But the decision had been made and Harper had his first career ejection to go along with his first multi-home run game.
“Bryce couldn’t control his emotions again,” Johnson said, pulling Harper aside to discuss the incident with him further. “I had a little chat with him. He’ll get over it. He’s just a 100-percenter. And he expects great things out of himself. He breaks bats, throws his helmet. He’s just got to stop it. Can’t afford to be losing him in a ballgame with that. He’ll learn. He’s young.
“He’s wrong in breaking his bats. He’s wrong in throwing his helmet down in frustration. It’s just, like I say, 100 percenter. He’s full bore. When he doesn’t like the outcome, he shows it off that way. It’s just a learning experience. He’ll be fine. I’m not worried about him.”
By now these aggressive acts are not surprising. Harper’s emotion is always right at the surface when he plays and his expectations for himself are extremely high.
When he doesn’t succeed, equipment often bears the brunt of his wrath. His bats are most often the targets, being broken in frustration now and again. There was also the incident in May in which he required stitches above his left eye after a bat he attempted to slam into the dugout wall didn’t break and instead caromed back into his head, splitting his skin open.
Most of these bouts of frustration have gone undiscussed, the act itself confined to one moment of rage and then forgotten. But Johnson’s point to Harper Wednesday night was simple: the team needs you, and by getting thrown out, you’re hurting the team.
“I just need to stop getting (mad) and just live with it,” Harper said. “I just need to grow up in that mentality a little bit. Try not to bash stuff in and things that I’ve always done my whole life. Those need to change.”
Harper said some of his anger stemmed from the fact that he had been having such a strong offensive game and he felt like there was an opportunity wasted. Harper, Johnson and multiple teammates seemed certain his reaction was not directed at Bucknor for making an errant call. The call was clear and correct. Harper’s act was out of frustration with himself.
“I felt good up there,” Harper said. “I think that’s what (made me mad) the most. When you feel good up there and you roll crap over and you miss some pitches you should drive I think that makes you more upset.”
As with almost all of the firsts Harper has encountered this season, the Nationals expect him to learn from it and move on. He acknowledged as much himself. But it was clear that what happened Wednesday night, while ultimately a blip on the radar with regard to the game’s result, was not something that went over lightly.
“He’s young and his emotions run high,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who understood why Bucknor ejected Harper. “It was just terrible timing and a bad decision to begin with — but those are the things that he has to learn. I guess you can only have that excuse for so long, but he usually learns from his mistakes.
“I think because he gets so emotionally invested in the game and he wants to do so well and continue to help us, whenever he doesn’t do something or isn’t successful when he thinks he should be, he gets upset. We all do. We just don’t do that. We did it. A long time ago. He’s just doing it now. He knows he needs to stop. Everyone knows he needs to stop. … We all make mistakes. Nothing he does is malicious or tries to hurt anyone. It’s just young, immature stuff which, he tries to do the best he can and when he fails he gets upset.”
As Johnson was wrapping up his post-game session with reporters, he made it clear he didn’t want Harper to be unnecessarily chastised for what transpired. He understood. He knows how hard Harper plays. But he also didn’t want the incident to go overlooked.
“A lot of good things happened with him tonight,” Johnson said. “And, like I (told him), ‘I just can’t afford to lose you by you expressing your emotions that way. You just can’t do it. Come inside the runway and break a bat over your head or something.’… He’s a little emotional.”