Rafael Soriano explains comments to Bryce Harper as hitting the wall lingers


(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

This morning, Rafael Soriano strolled to the back corner of the Nationals clubhouse inside AT&T Park. Dressed in all black, he dropped a bag in his chair and removed silver headphones from ears, hanging them on a hook in his locker. Behind him, Bryce Harper sat facing his stall, pecking on his phone. Soriano turned, took three steps and tapped Harper on the shoulder. They walked together into a side room, away from the eyes of teammates and reporters.

“Just talking about it,” Harper said later. “It’s all good.”

Soriano explained to Harper the comments he made to USA Today, which he had already discussed with The Post before coming to the clubhouse. The conversation, both players said, put the incident behind them. Soriano’s original statement also underscored frustration at the end of a rocky West Coast trip and highlighted Harper’s admitted leeriness of the outfield fence.

“We’re good,” Soriano said. “I don’t talk to him every time, but sometimes I talk to him. Two days ago I talked to him about something about this game and he said, ‘Thank you for telling me that.’ You know, before I talked to you guys I wanted to talk to him and, it’s fine. The [USA Today reporter], I’ve been joking. He asked me something. I said, ‘Yeah, my son, 4 years old, he can catch that ball.’ I said, ‘He can catch that ball, he’d be in better position.’ But that guy, he put it in the paper like I’d be fighting with [Harper] or it’s be his fault. It’s not his fault. I’m not that kind of guy.”

Manager Davey Johnson downplayed Soriano’s remarks as representative of the entire team’s disappointment.

“As far as I was concerned, he was just voicing sentiments that a lot of guys on the ball club feel, that we’re not doing the things we’re capable of doing,” Johnson said. “One of the reasons, which people overlook, is we’re a young ball club. … We’ve got an outfielder out there that hasn’t been out there that much. He might have been out of position a couple feet or so. But that’s just part of it. I don’t know what the big the deal is about it. The comments I read in the paper, he was just voicing some frustrations a lot of us feel. Did he go too far? Maybe.”

Johnson also spoke with Soriano this morning. He told his closer the Nationals lack leadership with Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos on the disabled list, and Washington’s young roster will look to him.

“I knew that the strength of this ball club last year was the young guys coming in and succeeding at a high level,” Johnson said. “Harper. [Steve Lombardozzi]. Tyler Moore. Just to name a few. This year, it’s been more of a struggle because of the adjustments clubs have made against us. It is what is. Will we come out of it? Yes, we’ll come out of it. But I don’t like to overreact to little things like this.”

General Manager Mike Rizzo lauded Harper’s honest and self-critical reaction to the game-tying triple last night. He said he wished Soriano had met with Harper last night rather than taking his frustration to the USA Today reporter, who conducted the interview in Spanish.

“I think that it’s not the first time that players have been frustrated and had issues with teammates,” Rizzo said. “But we pride ourselves on this team to handle that stuff in house. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with players being frustrated and talking to their teammates and asking questions, but that stays in house. That’s taken one-on-one and man-to-man. That’s how we handle our business here. But I feel that Harp owned up to what he thought was a mistake and he was a professional and a mature, professional player who took it on himself, and I know that since then those two have discussed it. We’ve all addressed it and it’s over with.”

The next, more important step for the Nationals will be making sure Harper feels at ease making plays on balls hit to the wall. He admitted Tuesday night his violent collision at Dodger Stadium weighed on him as he tracked Gregor Blanco’s line drive, a play that ended with him bracing for the wall when he had yet to even reach the warning track.

“I don’t blame him for that,” Johnson said. “He’s only human. Are we making him out to be super-human? I would be afraid, too, if I had 15 stitches on my chin and bruises on my shoulder and my knee all puffed up. I’d be kind of a little leery not knowing the warning track.”

Said Rizzo: “It’s not troubling at all to me. It’s human nature and any outfielder who says after a collision with the wall that he’s going back on the ball not thinking about the wall, I don’t think he’s being truthful. I think it’s human nature. I think he’ll get over it if he’s not over it already and he’s going to be a terrific defensive outfielder. He’s already a good defensive outfielder and just learning the position.”

On the play in question, Harper positioned himself a few steps back from his normal depth to prevent a double, the kind of hit that could score the game-tying run from first.

“I was playing where I was supposed to be,” Harper said. “I have nothing to say about it.”

Soriano still insisted the outfield should have been playing deeper.

“That’s what I think,” Soriano said. “More like when you’ve got two out, you have to play ‘no doubles.’ I know he’s a little bit scared after what happened in LA and Atlanta, that’s what I think when I see it. When I told you guys that last night, that’s what I think. You know what? That’s it. Game over. Come back today and we try to pitch better and he can make a better play.”

Johnson said the Nationals played their usual alignment in that situation. He suggested the result had been overblown.

“Were we back against the wall doubles prevention, where everything drops in front? No,” Johnson said. “And who expects Blanco, a little guy like that, to hit a line-drive bullet that short-hopped the wall? Let’s not panic here and overreact to the situation. The pitch wasn’t as good as it should have been. Maybe [Harper] wasn’t as deep as he should have been. That’s baseball. You can second-guess everything that goes on in this game. But I know a little more about it than most. And I’m not concerned with it.”

After Harper’s difficulty in right field this road trip, it bears a reminder about his experience. The Nationals converted Harper from an amateur catcher to full-time outfielder when they drafted him in 2010, just three years ago. They believed it would lighten his long-term physical toll and allow for his thunderous bat to reach the  major-league level more rapidly.

As a rookie last season, Harper excelled in center field – the statistically driven web site FanGraphs.com rated his center fielder defense as one of the best in the majors last year. Harper has said he feels most comfortable in center. This year brought another transition, first to left field and then to right after Jayson Werth landed on the disabled list with a hamstring. He is still learning the outfield, particularly the corners.

Even if Soriano meant to criticize Harper’s positioning and not denigrate his play, the comments were particularly ill-timed in the wake of Harper’s collision with the wall at Dodger Stadium.

“Soriano’s comments about Harper are totally inappropriate,” said one rival official who requested anonymity to speak freely about another team. “He’s the last guy on the planet that needs to be scolded.”

Nationals outfield coach Tony Tarasco pointed out the unusual right field wall in AT&T Park made for a unique circumstance Tuesday night. Harper could have been playing proper depth, but the sharp angle the high, brick wall travels from the line toward center could affect his spatial awareness.

“It’s difficult to tell in this park, because you’re looking at the deepest part of this ballpark,” Tarasco said. “You’re looking at going from a very short side in right to extremely deep in right center. The wall sort of shoots out. So a ball that hits track in right center would have gone off the wall in the right field, and h would have played it off the wall. It’s difficult to judge that.

“I think you got a mix of all three. You got the mix of what he’s trying to overcome. You got the mix of the diagram of the park. You got things going the way they are. It’s an unfortunate play, and we’re not playing to the best of our ability right now.”

Harper vowed he would improve on making plays on balls hit over his head. Tarasco plans to work with Harper.

“He’ll get over it,” Tarasco said. “It’s just the repetition of it. Reps, over and over and over, until it goes away. As much as it is mental, you can train yourself. So he’s going to get reps.”

The Nationals stood at 3-6 on their 10-day road swing entering Wednesday afternoon’s finale against the Giants. The trip has included reliever Ryan Mattheus breaking his hand punching a locker and, now, the Soriano flap. Johnson was asked if he feels has control of the team.

“Well, I hope so. Otherwise, I would recommend they fire me,” Johnson said. “This ball club has got great makeup. They get along well together. The clubhouse is relaxed. We just need to make those adjustments we need to do in order to be as good as we can be. Right now, 25 percent of our lineup is struggling. We’ve got too many outs in the lineup. That’s very hard to get some momentum going in the offense.”

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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James Wagner · May 22, 2013

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