When the Washington Nationals arrive at Citizens Bank Park on Friday, Bryce Harper will prepare to play his 102nd game in the majors. It will be his 102nd game in the past 118 days, a grueling stretch that bests any the 19-year-old phenom has experienced — and that doesn’t include the 21 he played in Triple-A in April.
And in that time, Harper has learned that he’s going to have to make adjustments at the major league level. The same way he must now adjust his approach when pitchers continue to feed him off-speed and breaking pitches, figuring out how to get his body and mind through the season is another challenge.
“Bryce, even though he’s 19, he plays the game so hard I think it’s got to have an effect,” said veteran Mark DeRosa. “I don’t think he’ll necessarily feel it or say that, but there’s a flow you’ve got to get into throughout the course of the year. You’ve got to learn how to lift, learn how to eat, learn how to sleep.”
Harper has lost about 12 pounds since spring training, down from nearly 225. The grind of the season — the games played in 100-plus degree weather, the extra-inning contests, the long road trips — wears on all players, and it’s not uncommon to drop weight during the season. Adam LaRoche said he usually loses 20 pounds each summer. Ian Desmond used to drop anywhere between 10 and 15 pounds by season’s end.
Even last year, in his first full pro season, Harper was down to around 185 pounds by the end of the minor league season, a drastically low number for him.
But the word fatigue is almost like a four-letter curse around Harper.
“I don’t feel fatigued at all,” Harper said, chuckling at the suggestion and jokingly adding, “I’m ripped right now, so I’m good. That was water weight in spring training.”
He has had to adjust to the schedule, though. With the added benefit of a weight room and kitchen at his disposal inside the Nationals’ clubhouse, Harper has had an easier time keeping his weight on this year. He tries to keep up his lifting two or three times per week, and he makes sure to eat a large breakfast as well as another large meal before he goes to sleep — but his metabolism is almost too fast for his own good.
“I’m eating as much as I can,” Harper said. “Morning and nighttime I try to crush as much as I can even if I feel crappy with all that food in my body, because I wake up in the morning and it’s all gone.”
So, no, he said, fatigue is not an issue or the reason for his second-half numbers, which are drastically lower than his marks in the first half.
Since the All-Star break, Harper has hit just .188 with seven extra-base hits and 39 strikeouts in 38 games. And opposing teams have been feeding him a steady diet of breaking and off-speed pitches down and away from the zone. In the series against the Braves, Harper saw just 19 fastballs in 40 pitches. He was 2 for 13 with six strikeouts.
“He’s just overly aggressive,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who may mix in Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore and Roger Bernadina more down the stretch. “Trying to put a big charge in it. He wasn’t quite that aggressive early, and now he’s going through a little slump. But he’ll make adjustments. He’ll get through it.”
The Nationals have relied heavily on their veterans to guide Harper along, to help him figure out the things that can only be learned through the wisdom of experience.
In that regard, LaRoche and Chad Tracy, who called it “working your brain out,” pointed to the idea that mental fatigue can often take more of a toll than the physical nature when you’re that young. By the time you’ve got the mental side figured out, they said, then you’re old enough for your body to start dealing with the physical fatigue.
“It’s just understanding that it’s still a game,” LaRoche said, often stressing to Harper, Moore and Lombardozzi that they never have to carry the whole team. “Be able to laugh at yourself when you screw up … Instead of the next day stressing about those at-bats, be able to laugh about it and be like, ‘Yeah, that was a worthless game.’
“Being young, everything’s the end of the world. Whatever’s going on, when you’re raking, you’re [flying high] and as soon as you’re not, you’re like ‘I’m done. I’m never going to play in the big leagues again.’ It’s an emotional roller coaster … I want to get that to them at as young of an age as possible because you’ll be better and better for it, to not take it serious.”