- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Two years to the day after he made his debut with the Nationals, Bryce Harper was in the news again.

This time it wasn’t as exciting. Harper, the Nats’ brilliantly talented prodigy, is hurt again. We may see Fourth of July fireworks before we see Harper patrolling left field again.

The current problem is a thumb that was injured as Harper slid into third with a triple Friday against the San Diego Padres. Surgery is required to fix it and two months seems like an optimistic timetable for a return.

Last season it was a lot of lost time thanks to a knee injury after a collision with a wall while going after a fly ball.

The linebacker mentality is what makes Harper what he is and it is also what makes Harper what it looks like he is going to become: a guy who will have a hard time going a full season without a visit or two the disabled list.

It is a problem with no simple solution because you simply can’t tell Harper to tone it down. Well, you can, but doing so takes the Harper out of Harper.

Would you rather see a Harper who plays with no fear for 120 games a year or a watered-down version for 162 games?

Neither, really, is very palatable.

The Nats go deeper than Harper, obviously, and might be able to survive a long stretch without him if he was the only one missing. Of course, Ryan Zimmerman is also out a while longer after one of his thumbs lost its own battle with a base. Wilson Ramos has been out since Opening Day after a hamate bone injury. While Doug Fister’s debut in the rotation is close, he’s still not been seen on the mound in a Nationals uniform during the regular season. It’s not even May and the Nats are pretty banged up.

Of the injured, Harper is the one people will pay to see first. Even when he’s struggling, he’s fun to watch because you know at any point of the game with him, something crazy or spectacular or both could be about to happen.

Perhaps he will crush a ball so far it has to be seen to be believed, as he did with his first home run of the year.

Perhaps he will gun someone out from the outfield with a ridiculous throw, or send a throw sailing into the next zip code, as he’s done a number of times in his two years in the big leagues.

Or perhaps he will crash into a wall trying to make a catch or dive headfirst into a base trying to stretch a hit and come up injured.

He’s a beauty. He’s a marvel. He’s a risk.

The Nats, no doubt, have talked to him plenty about being a little less reckless. Davey Johnson, the Nats’ previous manager, talked last season about wishing Harper would stop sliding headfirst so he’d quit banging his injured knee against the ground. Not going to happen, Harper said, and it hasn’t. The latest injury happened on a headfirst slide.

Besides, it isn’t as simple as saying, hey, cool it out there before you end up like Humpty Dumpty and smashed beyond repair. Though he’s still a kid at 21, Harper didn’t just start playing this way. It’s instinct. It’s ingrained. He goes full-bore, except for those times when he’s aggravated and goes a quarter-bore and gets benched, like he did last week.

When Harper is engaged in the game, he’s going to go all out and he’s going to be at risk.

His style of play is said to remind people of Pete Rose, who was dubbed Charlie Hustle. Rose played hard and never seemed to get hurt. Six times in his long career, Rose played every game in a season. Most others, he only missed a handful. He had a 15-year stretch where he never missed more than 10 games in any season.

The hustle thing is a viable comparison, the overall comparison is not quite as much. Rose played a lot of outfield and a lot of infield, where walls come into play much less frequently.

Harper played 139 games as a rookie, or just about all of them after being recalled from the minors. He was an All-Star and the league’s rookie of the year. It’s sad to think the 139 may be his high-water mark for games played. He only played 118 last season and will be lucky to hit that total this year after his thumb surgery.

He hasn’t been around long enough to say anything for certain. The sample size remains relatively small. But it isn’t too early to wonder if this is what the Nats will always have in Harper. A lot of energy, a lot of wow moments and a lot of time on the disabled list.

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