Bryce Harper gives the Nationals another scare

brushback_harperThe first thing Bryce Harper wanted to know was, “Is it bad?” That’s what he kept asking Denard Span, the first person who reached Harper last night after he ran into the right field wall. As Harper lay motionless, his manager was concerned he had a concussion. Blood started to trickle down Harper’s neck. Span would later thank God that Harper was not carried off the field on a stretcher, that he had 11 stitches and no concussion, and could walk off without assistance.

When he rose to his feet, though, Harper did the kind of thing that defines him. In a 6-0 game in mid-May, as blood formed a morbid necklace under his chin, Harper pleaded with Davey Johnson to let him keep playing.

“He actually was trying to stay in the game,” Span said. “I was looking at him like, ‘No, you need to come out of the game.’ He’s a warrior. I guarantee he’s going to try to play tomorrow. I just thank God he’s okay.

“He was trying to tell the trainer and Davey, ‘I’m okay, serious. I’m okay, serious.’ I’m like, ‘Is somebody going to step up and say he’s not okay? Because he doesn’t look good here.’ ”

Harper can do just about anything he wants on a baseball diamond, but at 20 he lacks the instinct to protect himself. He has still not found an internal off switch or learned how to turn the dial to the left. Harper’s lack of abandon helps make him the player he is, helps separate him from so many others. It also may endanger his long-term prospects and threaten the Hall of Fame career earmarked for him since his youth.

“He’s not worried about the wall or anything,” Johnson said. “He should know it’s on the warning track and back off, but that’s not his nature. I don’t want to change that. I feel sorry for the wall if he keeps running into them.”

I feel sorry for the wall if he keeps running into them. It was easy for the Nationals to joke about Harper’s latest brush with injury once they learned he didn’t have a concussion and that the X-rays he went for were only precautionary. Should they be more concerned? Should the Nationals be worried that he doesn’t worry about walls?

Monday night, any kind of effort to remove danger from Harper’s purview may not have mattered. “Tonight, he was just going after a fly ball,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “That could happen to anyone.”

Still, Harper has survived an awful lot of close calls in such a short career. It could have been worse in April last season, in the second game of Harper’s major league career, when he ran into the center field wall at Dodger Stadium making an oft-replayed catch. The collision left him with a back injury that lingered but forced him to miss no games.

“We’re used to it,” Zimmerman said. “I would rather him not go all out into the wall, ever. But that’s the way Bryce plays. That’s the way he’s always played. I think some people look at it as a bad thing, maybe, and that’s why some people boo or don’t like him. As a player and someone who plays the game, if you play that hard every day, there’s something to be said about that. That’s what Bryce does.”

It could have been worse last May, when he slammed his bat against a wall in Cincinnati and hit himself in the left eye. He suffered only a cut then, but his bat connecting with his and doing damage to his sight could have had stark consequences. “He doesn’t know how close he came to ending his career,” one front office official said at the time.

It could have been worse this April, when Harper tried to steal home in Atlanta, in the fifth inning of a 5-1 game, and badly bruised his left side. He had to leave the next night’s game, and he went 2 for 19 as he swung through the bruise.

It was the kind of play, like his all-out effort Monday night, that engenders him to teammates. “That’s all you can ask for as a pitcher,” Jordan Zimmermann said. “A guy going 110 percent.” The Nationals have to hope his mentality won’t lead to long-term consequences.

“He’s going to play this game for a long time,” Zimmerman said. “To do that, you have to start taking care of your body, and that means not injuring it yourself. But I would rather have someone at that age playing too hard and have to harness it down than not play hard enough, and you have tell him, ‘Hey, you have to run that ball out.’ I don’t see any problem with any of it. As he grows, he’ll learn what to do and what not to do.”

Even the routine for Harper seems to invite risk. The violence in Harper’s swing has led some to wonder how long he can maintain it. General Manager Mike Rizzo said Harper earlier this year he would need to be vigilant in his stretching and working out. Glenn Fleisig, a leading biomechanist, said his studies have shown no predictive ties between how hard a player swings and back or oblique injury. Reds first baseman Joey Votto actually believes Harper’s natural ability will give him added longevity.

“I think he has the size, the lack of long levers, the strength, the bat quickness to be able to fall,” Votto said. “It’s really important, as a hitter, to be able to age and slow and still be able to do some things. You see a lot of guys who are bigger guys who age a little bit, it’s hard for them to get to their youth, because they were so strong and quick when they were younger. If they lose even a couple percent off of it, all of a sudden they’re missing. I think he’s got a long way to fall. You compare him to Justin Verlander. He throws 101 miles an hour, and if he falls five or six miles per hour, he’s 95-96. Bryce is one of those guys. He has a 100-mph swing. Even if he ages or gets hurt, or if something happens to him, something lingering, he’s still so strong, so quick.”

The fury with which Harper plays makes him great. He and the Nationals just have to make sure that same quality does not prevent Harper from exploring his greatness for years to come. Harper is blameless – it would be asinine to fault him for playing hard. But there is a fine line he must tread. He can only ask, “Is it bad?” so many times before he hears an answer nobody wants.

FROM THE POST

Jordan Zimmermann dominated again in a 6-2 victory, a performance overshadowed by Bryce Harper’s nasty collision with the fence.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Harper leaves, receives stitches

Werth to rehab in Potomac

Davey changing catcher rotation

Pinch-hitters not producing

Nats head west

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Norfolk 8, Syracuse 7: Danny Rosenbaum allowed six earned runs in 4 2/3 innings on 10 hits and three walks, striking out five. Jeff Kobernus went 2 for 5 with a stolen base. Wil Rhymes went 2 for 5 with  double and is hitting .320.

Richmond 4, Harrisburg 0: Anthony Rendon and Paul Demny were named the Eastern League’s player and pitcher of the week. Rendon went 0 for 3 with a walk. Brian Goodwin went 1 for 4 with a walk. Bill Bray allowed no runs, no hits and no walks in a scoreless innings, striking out. Ian Krol allowed no runs in two relief on two hits and no walks, striking out four as he lowered his ERA to 0.93.

Winston-Salem 7, Potomac 0: Cutter Dykstra went 2 for 3 with a walk. Robbie Ray allowed two earned runs on two hits and two walks in only three innings, striking out seven.

Hagerstown 9, Greensboro 4: Tony Renda went 2 for 5 with a double. Will Piwnica-Worms went 1 for 2 with a home run and three walks. Pedro Encarnacion allowed one earned run in five innings on eight hits and two walks, striking out four.

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Bryce Harper receives 11 stitches, no concussion after nasty collision with Dodgers Stadium fence [UPDATED]