Early Thursday evening, as they milled about by the bat rack in the dugout and waited for those final few minutes to pass before another baseball game would begin, Bryce Harper turned to Jayson Werth and confided in him.
A season scarred by injury and the wonder of what might’ve been had it not, brought Harper to this point. And while no one would question the outfielder’s desire to help boost the Washington Nationals’ playoff chances, or carry them there all by himself if he could, there was a personal goal he had yet to reach. He nudged Werth.
“Man,” Harper said. “I need one more for 20.”
Werth, who has a unique relationship with the Nationals’ 20-year-old phenom — in which being a mentor, a teammate, a friend, and just the right man to keep Harper grounded, meshes together — brushed off Harper’s talk of trying to reach a certain home run plateau. He told him the ball flies in Arizona, where the Nationals are headed next weekend. Then he paused.
“If you play to win, you’ll have everything you want,” Werth told him.
“And then I kind of sloughed him off, like I normally do,” Werth said later with a laugh. “I’m sure he was kind of bent out of shape, like, ‘(What a) jerk.’”
Their game was not 20 minutes old when Werth crossed home plate in the Nationals’ 3-2 victory over the Miami Marlins, turned around toward Harper — cruising in behind him after that 20th homer had given the Nationals all three of their runs — and could not keep the smile from his face any longer.
Werth smacked Harper on the head with both hands and Harper chuckled his way into the dugout to greet the sea of teammates awaiting him with congratulations.
“It was just pretty hilarious,” Harper said, though careful not to divulge the secret the two had shared.
“He was like grinning ear to ear,” Werth said. “It made me smile. We just kind of laughed about the whole thing in the dugout.”
Harper became just the second player in baseball history to tally two 20-homer seasons before his 21st birthday, joining only Tony Conigliaro on that illustrious list.
“It’s unbelievable and he’s only getting better,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “Twenty home runs now, and we’re going to look back and he’s going to be like, ‘Oh man, I only hit 20 home runs my first two years?’ I mean, those days are coming. It’s inevitable that those days are coming. I just hope it’s here and I hope I get to see it.”
On this night, with Gio Gonzalez walking a tightrope for six innings and the bullpen dancing their way through three more, his swing was all the offense the Nationals needed.
Harper’s history, though, came as another historic feat ended. Denard Span, owner of the longest hitting streak in the major leagues this season, went 0-for-4 and snapped the 29-game streak that he’d kept alive since Aug. 17. In the process, Span raised his batting average 23 points, from .258 on the day before the streak began to .281 at the close of play on Thursday.
After his final at-bat, a strikeout, the fans at Nationals Park gave Span a standing ovation, and he tipped his helmet on the way back to the dugout.
“I’ve gotten a lot of scrutiny this year, with how I started, and for me to do what I’ve done, (I) gave the fans an opportunity to see what I bring to the table,” Span said. “It’s just been good for them to see that I am a good player, and Mike Rizzo and the Washington Nationals brought me here for a reason. (The ovation was) just an unbelievable feeling, I’ll be honest.”
After the game, all of the Nationals gathered at the entrance to the clubhouse while Span finished an on-field interview. When he walked in, they applauded him, and then doled out hugs to congratulate him on his feat.
“Denard’s unbelievable,” Harper said. “He had a unbelievable streak… You’ve got to tip your cap to Joe DiMaggio because that’s a record that I don’t think will ever be broken. Denard made a good run at it. I tip my cap to him and I think everyone in baseball did.”
As the Nationals’ season approaches its final week, they moved to five games back of the Reds with the win, but have only nine left to play. Every win is important, and they were down early on Thursday when Gonzalez gave up back-to-back hits to the first two batters he faced, and then posted four scoreless innings until the Marlins tacked on another in the sixth.
But Harper made any deficit a moot point. He came to the plate with Ryan Zimmerman on second and Werth on first, and then laced a 2-2 slider into the first row of seats in right center field. For the second straight season Harper has hit at least 20 home runs and 20 doubles. And he won’t turn 21 for another three-and-a-half weeks.
“I’m excited about it,” Harper said of his 20th, before steering the conversation back to the team. “We’ve got a long ways to go, we’ve got nine or ten games left and that’s what I’m focused on. Hopefully I can build off that.”
Everything that Harper does is viewed through a prism that includes some of the game’s other top young talents. His name is rarely mentioned without that of Mike Trout’s or Yasiel Puig’s, their feats posted for comparison sake despite how different all three players are. His accomplishments often register less awe than perhaps they should because, for so long, he’s been expected to be exceptional.
But sometimes it’s OK to simply view his accomplishments as his own, and to remember how remarkable what he’s doing is. Thursday night, as he leaned back in his chair in an otherwise empty clubhouse, Werth tried to do just that.
“That’s like one of those things that when you’re done playing and you’re sitting around with your buddies drinking beer you’re like, ‘Man, he had two 20-homer seasons before he was 21? God, he was good.’” Werth said. “I really make it a point to not give him too much credit because everywhere you look, this day and age, everybody wants to blow things out of proportion and give people credentials before they’ve really done anything. So, I kind of make it a point to keep him grounded, I guess.
“But he’s good. There’s no doubt that he’s good. I don’t think that’s up for discussion, really… When I was 20-years old I could barely swing a wood bat. I was like a stick figure playing baseball… Him and Mike Trout are like two biggest young guys I’ve ever seen. They’re like those little league kids who are like shaving and they weigh 220 pounds. He’s ahead of the curve for sure. He’s still learning and he’s got a long way to go but I’m glad he’s on my team.”