WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 8: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals adjusts his batting gloves while on deck against the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park on September 8, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Ned Dishman/Getty Images)
Over an eventful couple days in the nation's capital, Washington Nationals' rookie Bryce Harper threw some runners out, set off a brawl, hit some home runs and earned more praise from his manager.
• You Don't Run On Bryce Harper: The Miami Marlins should have known better. Friday night, in what ended up a 9-7 extra innings loss to to the Fish in Nationals Park, Nats' reliever Drew Storen gave up back-to-back one-out singles in the top of the ninth after Michael Morse's 13th home run of 2012 had tied the game at 6-6 in the bottom of the eighth. Marlins' infielders Greg Dobbs and Donovan Solano singled in succession off Storen to put runners on first and third with one down for catcher Rob Brantly. Brantly lined to center on the first pitch he saw, but Bryce Harper caught it coming in. Dobbs tagged up and broke for home. The Nats' 19-year-old center fielder loaded up and threw a one-hop bullet to Nats' catcher Kurt Suzuki. Suzuki braced for impact and tagged Dobbs out for an 8-2 inning-ender that kept it tied at 6-6. "You can't run on Bryce Harper!" Nats' radio announcer Charlie Slowes screamed, "You can not run on Bryce Harper!!" The Marlins should have known better...
• You Don't Throw At Bryce Harper: Cole Hamels welcomed Bryce Harper to the majors with a fastball in the back. Harper didn't react. The 19-year-old outfielder made his way around to third on a Jayson Werth single after he was put on and stole home on the Phillies' left-hander, aware because of conversations he'd had with Werth, Hamels' former teammate, and the Nationals' coaches, that the pitcher had a slow move to first. Harper timed it once, saw how quick Hamels' move really was and then took advantage of the knowledge to steal home.
Harper hadn't been hit by a pitch since then, (he ended up getting hit for a second time this weekend) but this past Thursday, in the finale of a lopsided four-game set with Chicago, as SI.com's Tom Verducci put it, Cubs' pitcher Lendy Castillo and catcher Steve Clevenger decided, "... to show the world how macho they are by hatching a plan to throw at Bryce Harper."
Was it all the home runs the Nationals hit off the Cubs in the four-game series which was wrapping up that night? Was it Harper scoring from third on a grounder to the pitcher earlier in the game? Was it Harper hustling around the bases for a triple on a line drive to left-center? Bryce Harper never stops hustling, did that bother the Cubs? Is that why the Cubs decided to throw at him in a game in which they complained about Jayson Werth swinging 3-0 with a five-run lead in the fifth? Why throw at the 19-year-old teenager? Don't believe they did it on purpose? The Chicago Tribune's Paul Rodgers reported that, "The Cubs denied Castillo was throwing at Harper," and quoted Cubs' first baseman Anthony Rizzo saying, "'Lendy doesn’t have the best control.'" Cubs' coach Dale Sveum told reporters, as quoted by CSNWashington.com's Mark Zuckerman, that it was indeed a control issue. "'Castillo's a Rule 5 kid that's thrown a lot of those pitches today,'" Sveum said, "'There was no intention to hit Bryce Harper.'" Really? Watch the pitch:
Notice anything odd? A fellow writer pointed it out to me. Watch it again (that's the beauty of a gif). Steve Clevenger never even reaches for the pitch. If it was simply one that got away from Castillo, don't you think the catcher might have tried to catch it? Another writer said since there was no one on it's no big deal the catcher didn't reach for it. Decide for yourself. Harper took a few steps towards the mound. Clevenger was up and in his face before Harper had a chance to get very far. The benches cleared for the second time that night and this time there were some punches thrown though none seemed to connect. The Nationals, or reliever Michael Gonzalez at least, were clear in explaining the motivation for the second altercation of that game. "'You don't come into our house, and you can't mess with our kid brother,'" Gonzalez told reporters.
Nats' skipper Davey Johnson was asked Friday night if he thought other teams around the league were bothered by the ultra-aggressive 19-year-old Nats' outfielder. "No," the 69-year-old skipper said, "Because that's baseball. Everybody likes Pete Rose and the way Pete Rose played. Harper is like that. He's full bore. What I do like with Harp, he's learning, he's playing smarter, he's understanding what they're trying to do to him at home plate. He's even hitting the cutoff man now. A lot of things."
Harper's constantly forcing the issue. In the first inning of Friday night's win Harper tripled, hustling around second in spite of his third base coach telling him to hold up. "Bo [Porter] was trying to hold him at second," Davey Johnson told reporters after the game, but Harper, Johnson said, "He was having no part of that."
When Ryan Zimmerman grounded back to the mound in the next at bat, Harper waited for Cubs' starter Justin Germano to throw to first and then broke for home. Cubs' first baseman Anthony Rizzo tried to throw him out, but it was too late to catch Harper.
"As soon as the pitcher goes, he's gone," Davey Johnson said, "He doesn't care if the [first baseman] is right-handed of left-handed. He's going."
"The ball ended up short-hopping the [first baseman]," Johnson explained, "and then [Rizzo] was kind of shocked when [Harper] was going when he looked." Why was he shocked? Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore captured it best:
"Just off third base, Harper froze as Germano looked him back. Germano, satisfied Harper would behave like the other 99 percent of major league baserunners, turned his back and threw to first.
"Harper did not behave like other major league baserunners. He did not take two quiet steps back to third base. He ran like the fastest kid in Little League, the one who runs until he is tagged out..."
"Probably nobody else would do that," Davey Johnson said afterwards. "He might be one of the only guys who can do that. He had great instincts on that. Very aggressive. Overly aggressive when he hit the double and stretched it into a triple. Good throw, he's dead meat. But that's just the way. He's going to be all-out."
And this is a tamer version of Harper. No less aggressive, but more under control than he was even earlier this year. "Early on," the Nats' skipper said, "He was running the bases early in the Spring like he thought there was a high school left fielder or a high school right fielder and I think he's learned that they're a little bit better than what he was facing in high school or college."
Harper's learning every day. He learned his lesson about getting tossed out of games after a few broken bats and a slammed helmet and his manager reiterated this point after Harper took a few steps to toward the mound this past Thursday. "We had a little chat last night after the wild pitch when he went toward the mound, and I've had the conversation before. 'You've got to keep your cool I don't want to lose you in a ballgame, no matter what the score is.'" The Nationals have run Harper out there every day even as he struggled in the second-half, telling reporters they believe the Nats are better off with their rookie outfielder in the lineup.
Harper's response when Davey Johnson told him he can't get himself tossed when other teams go at him?
Harper took a few steps towards the mound. But backed off when Jayson Werth intervened and stayed out of the fray while some of his teammates defended him. "It was just unfortunate that the guy threw the ball [at] him," Johnson said, "We heard from one of the guys that we know over there who said that it definitely wasn't an order from the bench, so I don't know the whole story there but I thought [Harper] handled it pretty good."
The aggressiveness on the basepaths. The all-out, all the time approach. It's all part of the package, and Davey Johnson, when asked this weekend, said he wouldn't change a thing. "I like him just the way he is, to answer your question," Davey Johnson said, "A lot of people around the league tip their hat to that kind of all-in."
Given a minute to think about it, however, Johnson did come up with one thing that he'd like Harper to change.
"I hope he gets to softening his slam into first base," Johnson said, "But other than that everything else is pretty good."