The frustration in Bryce Harper had been simmering for some weeks, emerging during the growing pains of his tough second half of the season. A strikeout here resulted in a smashed bat on home plate. Another strikeout there yielded the same result. A double switch in Sunday’s game and the rookie, according to Nationals Manager Davey Johnson, was smashing helmets in the runway near the dugout in Philadelphia.
When his performance hasn’t gone as he has hoped, Harper has worn his emotions openly. In fact, maybe too openly. In Wednesday’s 8-4 win in which he notched his first career multiple home run game, Harper spiked his helmet onto the ground trying to beat out a double play in his final at-bat in the ninth inning for his first-ever ejection in the majors.
It prompted a postgame talk with Johnson. This behavior, though earnest, couldn’t continue, Johnson concluded.
“He’s just a 100 percenter,” Johnson said. “And he expects great things out of himself. He breaks bats, throws his helmet. He’s just got to stop it. Can’t afford to be losing him in a ballgame with that. He’ll learn. He’s young.”
With Jayson Werth on first base following a single, Harper rolled a ball from Heath Bell to first baseman Carlos Lee, who started a double play by throwing to second base. Shortstop Jose Reyes threw back to first and Harper, chugging down the line, was out by a step.
As soon as first base umpire CB Bucknor signaled the out, Harper tossed his helmet to the ground in full stride. Bucknor turned to face Harper and instantly tossed him out. First base coach Trent Jewett got in Bucknor’s face and Johnson jumped out of the dugout.
“At that point, it didn’t matter to me,” Johnson said of his talk with Bucknor. “It was done and [Harper is] wrong in doing that. He’s wrong in breaking his bats. He’s wrong in throwing his helmet down in frustration. It’s just, like I say, 100 percenter. He’s full bore. When he doesn’t like the outcome, he shows it off that way. It’s just a learning experience.”
Harper is fully aware of his behavior. Though he thought there was one out and was grounding into an inning-ending double play, Harper knows he tossed his helmet down and that caused the ejection. And he knows he can’t continue reacting so forcefully when the result doesn’t go his way.
“I just need to stop getting [angry] and just live with it and there’s nothing you can change,” he said. “I just need to grow up in that mentality a little bit. Try not to bash stuff in and things like that I’ve always done my whole life and those need to change.”
What made matters worse, in Harper’s mind, was his inability to drive the ball in the final at-bat. He was locked in enough in the two at-bats that produced the home runs, but when he grounded out to first base for a double play, it ate him up inside.
“That’s what [angered] me off the most,” he said. “When you feel good up there and you roll [bad pitches] over and you miss some pitches you should drive I think that makes you more upset.”
Part of Harper’s second half slump, Johnson has said, is his over-aggressiveness: swinging too hard for the fences and struggling to lay off breaking balls away. He has worked with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, adjusting to major league hitting and slowed down his feet in his swing. He showed improvement with his patience on Wednesday, Johnson said. But his emotions are still coming along.
Since his time in the minor leagues and, especially, in the majors, some close to Harper say he has matured. The cocky demeanor that rubbed some people the wrong way in the past was well-controlled in public view. When situations such as Cole Hamels plunking him or Ozzie Guillen trying to throw him off arose, Harper handled them well by saying all the right things. Now his maturity is being tested in other ways.
“It was just terrible timing, a bad decision to begin with but those are the things that he has to learn,” Ryan Zimmerman said of Harper’s helmet-tossing. “And I guess you can only have that excuse for so long but he usually learns from his mistakes and I think because he gets so emotionally invested in the game and he wants to do so well and he wants to continue to help us whenever he doesn’t do something or isn’t successful when he thinks he should be, he gets upset. We all do. We just don’t do that. We did it, a long time ago. He’s just doing it now. He knows he needs to stop.
“… Davey’s good with that stuff. He let it slide probably the first or second time with the bats and stuff like that and now that the principal kind of tells him to stop, hopefully, he’ll stop. But that’s the kind of player he is. He plays hard. He’ll learn. We all make mistakes. Nothing he does is malicious or tries to hurt anyone. It’s just young, immature stuff.”
FROM TODAY’S POST
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 3, Charlotte 2: Starter Zach Duke earned his 15th win, allowing two runs on seven hits over 5 2/3 innings. Christian Garcia pitched a scoreless inning to lower his ERA to 0.59. Zach Walters went 2 for 2.
Syracuse 7, Charlotte 5: In a makeup game, Mark Teahen went 2 for 4 with three RBI. Eury Perez and Corey Brown each added two hits. Starter Yunesky Maya allowed four runs on six hits over four innings.
Richmond 3, Harrisburg 2: Jonny Tucker went 2 for 3, and Sean Nicol and Seth Bynum drove in the only runs. Starter Ryan Perry allowed two runs on five hits over six innings.
Carolina 6, Potomac 2: Adrian Sanchez went 3 for 4, and Matthew Skole and Kevin Keyes drove in the only runs. Starter Taylor Hill allowed four hits on six runs over 6 1/3 innings.
Greensboro 4, Hagerstown 0: Billy Burns went 1 for 4 and is hitting .320. Starter Taylor Jordan allowed four runs on seven hits over five innings.
Auburn 6, State College 4: Mike McQuillan went 3 for 4, with a double, triple and two RBI. Estarlin Martinez went 0 for 3 but drew two walks, scored two runs and is hitting .314. Derek Self notched his 12th save of the season.