BOSTON — It was clear from his answers, his body language and his general demeanor that Bryce Harper was not thrilled to be missing from the Washington Nationals’ starting lineup Sunday afternoon.
Harper, who has played all but a half-inning of all 37 games since his April 28 promotion to the major leagues, has been nursing what manager Davey Johnson described as a “tender” back. Harper has been getting treatment on the right lower part of his back for some time, though the ailment was believed to be no worse than any of the various bumps and bruises most players go through over the course of the season.
But Harper dove for a triple off the bat of David Wright on Thursday afternoon and knelt over in the outfield once he’d thrown the ball back to the infield. That, Johnson said, aggravated the back a bit. Bench coach Randy Knorr, as well as the Nationals trainers, told Johnson that Harper was hurting after Saturday night’s game so the manager decided Sunday was as good a time as any for his first day off.
“It’s mostly muscular,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s anything, but it was bothering him a little bit after the game… We’re just being on the safe side.
“This is nothing other than just being precautionary. Give him a day. I anticipate he’ll be in the lineup (Monday)… When a coach vocally says his back’s bothering him and the trainers says the same thing, normally I don’t have coaches and trainers saying that about players. Anybody that has a little something going on, nip it in the bud and be on the safe side, give him a day.”
Harper did not appear to be on board with the decision. Asked how he was feeling, the 19-year-old outfielder said: “I feel good.” Asked if he had expected to get the day off he said: “I had no idea.”
“(Jon) Lester’s on the mound,” Harper said, currently hitting .357/.426/.667 with two homers against left-handed pitching. “I was pretty excited to face him. I like lefties. Whatever. Whatever they want to do. Nothing I can do.”
Johnson made it clear that Harper has never once brought up the back to him specifically nor has he asked for any time to deal with whatever soreness he’s been feeling there. The Nationals, certain it’s simply a muscular issue, have no plans to send him for an MRI and Harper took batting practice on Sunday morning in the cage, making him available to pinch hit.
But despite Harper’s clear displeasure with the move (Johnson: “I went and asked the Franchise how he’s doing. He didn’t talk to me.”) Johnson felt it was the right one, especially given what various other eyes and ears had told him about the issue.
“If I hear something going on, a lot of times I use that to give somebody else an opportunity to play,” Johnson said. “But by and large, somebody’s going pretty good and still getting treatment, I just play them.
“The danger of that is I always want guys that have problems to get treatment. So I don’t always go by the guy in the training room getting (treatment) on his back.”
While it’d be easy to read more into this than what’s being said, it certainly seems as though whatever is ailing Harper is manageable for him. He hasn’t shown any let-up in his game, even as it’s been bothering him for a short while. He does, obviously, enjoy facing left-handers — calmer in the box against them than against right-handers, he feels — and the numbers more than support that claim. But with the series in hand, he won’t get a chance to face this one.