HOUSTON — A day later, Bryce Harper was frank.
He discussed his argument with home plate umpire Angel Hernandez from Wednesday night, addressed the idea that he is frustrated by second-half numbers that are vastly different from his first and discussed a defensive miscue that his manager took as a sign that he was carrying his emotions to the field and decided to give him a day off.
“I’m not frustrated at all,” Harper said. “Not at all. I think I’ve been having good at-bats, and the only thing I think I’m frustrated about is (letting down) the 24 guys in my clubhouse. Going into those at-bats and being in crucial situations and having 3-0, 3-1 counts and trying to battle as best I can and then things happen. I could care less about my numbers, I could care less about anything like that as long as we’re in first place.”
Harper declined to address the idea that, just as manager Davey Johnson has said he gets pitched tougher than almost anyone else in the Nationals’ lineup, umpires might be calling his at-bats differently because of his age or his status.
“I’m not going to say that,” he said. “I think I’m just trying to battle as best I can. I’ll let everybody else talk about it.”
But he did discuss the confounding issue he’s had with trying to balance the strike zone as he sees it and the way his at-bats have gone, especially in the second half of the season.
“When they know they’re going to get two, three inches off the plate it’s good to pitch like that,” Harper said of pitchers not giving him much to hit. “And if I’m the catcher I’m calling that. You’ve got a lot of veteran guys that have been catching, especially in our division, and you’ve got guys who know how to call pitches. If they call a pitch two, three inches off they’re going to go there again. If I’m catching I’m doing the same thing.
“I just try to adjust to that as much as I can. I’m not going to change my zone or anything. It’s going to suck if you strike out with three runners on in a 3-2 ballgame, it’s just something you’ve got to battle with and you just try to take it with a grain of salt.”
Harper went on to say that he’s going to continue to stick with his plan at the plate and his approach as best he can.
“Against (Armando Galarraga) there was a pitch in a 2-1 count there called and I said ‘OK, that’s fine 2-1, I’m still ahead in the count.’” Harper said. “I look at that. If I’m still ahead in the count, it’s fine. I hit with two strikes, but when you have a to chase a 2-1 fastball two inches off? It’s not fun, especially when you could be 3-1 and be ahead in the count even more.
“Just try to really not expand your zone. With me, it’s either I’m trying to swing at every single pitch or I’m not. When he’s calling something that you don’t think is a strike you’ve got to battle with it, do the best you can. That’s his zone. You’ve got to deal with that that night. All these umpires, they’re human beings too. They make mistakes. Everybody does in this world. That’s their zone you’ve got to battle with that zone.”
A few Nationals veterans said they’d all been in the position Harper was on Wednesday night and understood the frustration that might have boiled over, but most also acknowledged that there’s rarely a positive that comes from arguing with an umpire, especially a veteran one like Hernandez who is routinely voted in anonymous players polls as one of the worst umpires in the major leagues.
Hernandez told a pool reporter Wednesday night that he called the pitches, which did appear to be low and outside the zone, the way he’d have called them on any player. The fact that it was Harper at the plate had nothing to do with it. He also said he was never close to tossing the 19-year-old, though he allowed Harper to air his feelings for quite some time.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson generally encourages his players not to expand their strike zone, but he did allow that part of learning the league is learning the umpires and knowing what could be a strike with one and not with another.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to deal with when somebody missed a pitch,” Johnson said. “What we were seeing there is, his emotions were a little strong and everything little thing is magnified in his eyes. You got to drop it. You got to take a little different approach. I’ve learned over the years, yelling at umpires and arguing with them a whole lot doesn’t do a lot of good. It may look good on TV or something. It doesn’t really do anything for your cause.
“Umpires have different zones. All umpires have all kind of different zones. One of the things where experience helps you up here, is you know which umpires do, and you expand your zone.”
Harper said Johnson did not talk to him about getting Thursday’s finale with the Astros off and that he’d be ready to pinch hit if necessary. He acknowledged that his errant throw in the ninth inning was a mental mistake and “right when I let it go I went ‘Crap, I should have thrown it to second base.’ But it’s something you learn from and you don’t do it again.”
“If he wants to give me the day he gives me the day but I want to play everyday,” Harper said. “I’m not frustrated at all, I haven’t been frustrated all year. The only thing I’m frustrated about is the other 24 guys I let down.”