SAN FRANCISCO — In the sixth inning on Wednesday, with the Washington Nationals having just taken a 1-0 lead that they wanted to cling to, Hunter Pence hit a hard line drive to deep right center field.
On a similar play on Tuesday night, Bryce Harper appeared to flinch as the ball came toward him and he admitted later that crashing into the wall entered his mind. Most everyone involved in the organization felt that was only natural.
After Harper’s violent collision with the right field wall at Dodger Stadium 10 days ago, general manager Mike Rizzo said Wednesday that it’s “human nature and any outfielder who says after a collision with the wall that he’s going back on the ball not thinking about the wall, I don’t think he’s being truthful.”
Harper acknowledged it was something he’d have to overcome “or I’m going to be in Triple-A. That’s how I feel.”
But on Wednesday, Harper took a good route, didn’t appear nervous as he neared the wall, and made an important catch.
From the reaction of some of his teammates, Denard Span and Ian Desmond in particular, perhaps it was a breakthrough. Span came over to give him an excited high-five, and Desmond waited for him at the dugout railing for an all-out hug.
“I was just glad I was going to be able to see him for another day,” Desmond said, breaking into a smile. “He didn’t get sent down to Triple-A.”
“Those kind of things, people on the outside don’t really understand the type of mental hurdle that is,” Desmond added, more seriously. “You run into a wall or you steal a base and you get caught, whatever it may be, to bounce back from it is a huge mental hurdle. I just wanted him to know that ‘Hey, man, we appreciate you.’ Running into the wall full speed does not ever feel good. And for him to put it all on the line for us right there in a huge part of the game, especially after what happened yesterday, that took some big guts.”
Span, who has been the nearest spectator to two difficult moments for Harper in the outfield this trip, was equally impressed.
“It was a real big play,” Span said. “I was almost like, I don’t want to say a father — I feel like I’m almost old enough to be his father — but yeah, I was just happy to see him actually trust himself and go back there and get it, especially after what happened in L.A. and also (Tuesday) night.
“He looked more confident. I could tell maybe just a split-second he thought about it, but he just kept going. I think that was just big for him, to trust himself and trust where he was at and just play aggressive. That’s what we need him to do. We need him to be aggressive, because when he’s not aggressive he’s not the same player.”
The Nationals did not appear panicked at all over Harper’s admission that he was dealing with a little fear after last week’s collision. Manager Davey Johnson seemed almost incredulous when asked about it.
“I don’t blame him for that. He’s only human,” Johnson said. “Are we making him out to be super-human? I would be afraid, too, if I had (11) stitches on my chin and bruises on my shoulder and my knee all puffed up. I’d be kind of a little leery, too.”
For his part, Harper brushed off the idea of a “breakthrough” with regard to getting his collision out of his mind on Wednesday.
“Maybe a little bit,” he said. “But it’s still in my head. Trying to get past that, but it’s going to take time. We’ll see how it goes.”
Physcially, Harper did aggravate his knee a bit when he dove for a different Pence line drive in the eighth inning. The training staff came to Johnson in the ninth and said his left knee was swelling up a little bit, but Johnson cringed at the thought of removing him.
“I said ‘I don’t want to hear it. Please don’t tell me that,’” Johnson said. “I looked at Bryce and I said, ‘Can you go?’ He said ‘Yeah, I’ll go.’ He got the big hit the next inning, and I couldn’t imagine having to take him out. I’m one player short on the bench anyway. Having to take out him would’ve been all I could take.”
Harper, who then slid on his knee again when he scored the winning run, said it was “a little swollen,” but he didn’t appear too concerned. The Nationals have an off day on Thursday and he will continue to get treatment on it from the Nationals’ training staff.