Late Friday night, Washington Nationals’ manager Davey Johnson said that he was considering giving Bryce Harper the rest of the weekend off. Harper’s first at-bat homer after returning from a month on the disabled list had electrified the Nationals Park crowd, but he was mired in an 0-for-18 stretch since.
Johnson saw a player who he felt was “grinding” too hard.
Harper fought back. He did not want to sit. He sent a text to his manager. “Play me or trade me,” Johnson said the text read. Harper wasn’t demanding a trade, really. Johnson chuckled at that part of the text, he said.
But Harper was trying to get across to Johnson how strongly he felt against resting for a few days. The two talked. Johnson listened, and he kept Harper in the lineup on Saturday and Sunday.
Harper rewarded that faith.
Since their chat, the Nationals’ 20-year-old outfielder is 4 for 6 with four RBI, two walks, one stolen base and two runs scored. Sunday he drove in a run in his first at-bat, and scored in his next two.
“He’s outstanding,” Johnson said. “He gets to grinding too much and I’m sure his timing was a little off after a month off. But he’s pretty focused right now. As is everybody in the lineup.”
Harper, voted by the fans to start for the National League in the All-Star game next week at Citi Field, was also asked to take part in the Home Run Derby. He has not yet decided if he will, and didn’t know if there was any specific deadline for him to do so.
The Home Run Derby, which is essentially batting practice for the players but with a focus of hitting only home runs, is often a lively event for fans to attend and for the other All-Stars to watch. It also has a history of screwing with players’ swings and some past participants point to it as the start of a second-half slump.
Johnson said he was not the least bit concerned about Harper in that regard.
“It ain’t going to mess with his swing,” Johnson said.
Harper has been a key part of the Nationals’ hit parade of late, but the rest of the offense has been doing their part, too. In their last seven games, the Nationals have scored 43 runs — and as previously mentioned, Harper was 1 for 19 through the first five games of that homestand.
“I think one through eight, even our pitchers, they’re doing well, too,” Harper said. “Drawing walks, getting hits and putting balls in play. So it’s good to see the top of our lineup, bottom of our lineup get it going in all counts and all situations. Two-out hits and just coming up clutch in every situation.”
So after staying in the lineup, and producing, does Harper feel as though his timing may be returning after a 31-game stay on the disabled list?
“I’ll tell you in three days after I face [John Lannan], [Cole Hamels] and [Cliff Lee],” Harper said of the three Phillies lefties the Nationals will face in the next three days. “That’s gonna be rough. Just trying to have good ABs, see a lot of pitches and try to put the ball in play.”
Johnson also offered up another insight into why he felt Harper may have been “grinding” a little too hard last week.
“He’s an intelligent guy, but he’s also very sensitive,” Johnson said of Harper. “Here he ran on the scene, he’s got commercials, he’s got a lot of people in his ear too much. I think he’s handled it pretty good.
“Through a little bit of that down period [when he was hurt] I think he was getting a whole lot of conversation from a whole lot of people about not running into walls, going head-first slide, take care of your career, blah, blah, blah. He only wants to hear ‘Just let me play. I’m going to play my way. I’m going to play hard.’ Sometimes all the attention, everybody is piling on and trying to help, but he just wants to go play baseball. That’s his focus.
“I think through that whole period a lot of people were telling him that he had to change his style and all this stuff. Prolong his career. He don’t want to hear that. He just wants to play baseball. His style of play is great. In my conversation with him I said ‘Have I ever told you to change anything? Have I ever told you not to run into walls? You’re going to run into walls. It’s just who you are. You’re going to slide head first.’ He just needs to not listen to all this extraneous talk.”