Bryce Harper may already be the most talented player in the majors, and that talent may sometimes be too much for his experience, at age 20, to reign in. On Saturday in the Nationals’ thrilling, 7-6 victory over the Reds, he hit his third home run of the year, an absolute laser into the right field seats in the third inning. But he also raised eyebrows when he airmailed a cutoff man and, afterward, shrugged it off.
“Bryce is a special player,” right fielder Jayson Werth said, with a smile. “I think we all know that. I’ve said it more than once – he’s got a lot to learn in this game. He’s young. He’s a work in progress.”
First, the home run. In the third inning, Harper came to the plate with Werth on second base after a double. He lashed the first pitch Mike Leake threw him, an 87-mph cutter that will forever regret staying up in the strike zone. The blast whistled into the right field bleachers, a two-run shot that put the Nationals up, 2-0. Harper has hit seven of his 25 career home runs swinging at the first pitch, more than any other count.
“Having Werth lead off with a double, I was just trying to get him over to third base, get him in,” Harper said. “There was nothing going through my head other than, just barrel something up, try to get a hit.”
There is basically nothing on a baseball field Harper will not try, as evidenced by a subtle play in the seventh inning. He singled on a chopper off shortstop Zack Cozart’s glove. As the ball rolled around the infield, Cozart walked to pick it up. Harper took several aggressiveness steps off first base, moving about 15 feet off the bag. For a minute, it looked like he may try to take a base while the ball lay in the basepath. He thought better of it.
The play showed his mind-set – he always wants to go for something extra. With two outs in the eighth inning, Jay Bruce stood on second and Todd Frazier stood on first. Devin Mesoraco laced a two-hopper through Ian Desmond’s legs and into left field. Harper charged the ball, scooped it with his barehand and came up firing home, trying to throw out Bruce.
“I dropped my elbow really bad,” Harper said, and the throw soared on him. The ball flew over Wilson Ramos at home plate, and Drew Storen, backing up the play, had to retreat almost to the backstop and leapt to even catch the ball.
“I’m trying to throw him out,” Harper said. “Maybe not the right throw in that situation. If I throw him out, I’m perfect. If I don’t, everybody looks at me and says, ‘You’re terrible.’ Nothing I can do.”
Manager Davey Johnson may disagree with the “nothing I can do” part. He wants Harper to improve on hitting the cutoff man. His throw Saturday, for example, allowed Mesoraco to scoot to second base, putting the tying run in scoring position. And a more controlled throw may have allowed Ryan Zimmerman to cut off the ball and possibly nab Frazier as he moved to third.
“He just can’t control his emotions,” Johnson said. “He wants to just airmail it all the way, and he’s got to learn. He’s going to have to learn. … He’s a smart player, but he gets wound up in the moment. If he keeps the ball down there, he throws him out.”
In the end, getting on Harper for not hitting cutoff men is nitpicking. Today, he became the first player 20 or younger to hit three homers with five RBI in his team’s first five games. The Nationals will gladly take his slugging if it means a few airmailed cutoff men. But they also want him to make the smart play, the kind of small thing that can turn into a big thing.