On Tuesday night, Gregor Blanco smashed a ball over his head that could have been the final out. As Harper leapt to catch it, he braced for the wall – even though he had not yet reached the warning track. It fell for a game-tying triple. Afterward, Harper admitted his collision last week with the fence at Dodger Stadium remained on his mind. “I better figure it out soon,” Harper said. If not, he said, “I’m going to be in Triple A.”
In baseball, they say, the ball finds you. With two outs in the sixth, the Nationals led by a run after Harper himself had hit a solo homer in the top of the inning. Hunter Pence launched a fly ball to deep right-center. Harper drifted back, just like he had the night before. Harper sprinted on the warning track. He made a running catch at almost the exact point the game-tying hit landed Tuesday, then tapped his feet and ran alongside the fence, ball securely in his glove.
On the mound, Gio Gonzalez smiled and clapped his hands. Center fielder Denard Span, having ranged close to the spot Harper made the catch, patted him on the head. Shortstop Ian Desmond Desmond waited for Harper by the dugout, arms outstretched. Harper tried to high-five him. Desmond moved in for a hug.
“I was just glad I was going to see him for another day,” Desmond said. “He didn’t get sent down to Triple A.”
Desmond could laugh, because Harper had apparently conquered the wall. In his mind, though, Harper still had work left. The play helped him overcome his trepidation “maybe a little bit,” Harper said. “But it’s still in my head going into it. I’m trying to get past that, but it’s going to take time.”
Harper, remember, has only played outfield since August 2010, when the Nationals signed him and converted him from an amateur catcher into a professional outfielder. He played center for the majority of last season. Even though he played the corner spots in the minors for one-plus seasons, he is reading angles and ball flights that seem new to him.
And then he ran face-first into the Dodger Stadium wall.
“People on the outside don’t really understand the type of mental hurdle that is,” Desmond said. “You run into a wall, or you get caught stealing, whatever it may be, to bounce back from it is a huge mental hurdle. I just wanted him to know, ‘Hey, man, we appreciate you taking it.’ Because running into the wall full-speed does not ever feel good. For to put it on the line for us right there, in a huge part of the game, especially after what happened yesterday, that took some big guts.”
While Harper felt he still had at least a partial mental to overcome, he seemed different from center field.
“He looked more confident,” Span said. “I can tell maybe just a split second he thought about, but he just kept going. I think that was just big for him, to trust himself and trust where he was at, and just play aggressive. That’s what we need him to do. We need him to be aggressive. When he’s not aggressive, he’s not the same player.
“It’s definitely a big hurdle. Mentally, psychologically, however you want to put it, hopefully he’ll turn the page on that. He’s still learning how to play the outfield. I think he’s just going to continue to get better.”
FROM THE POST
At the end of a strange, painful road trip, Bryce Harper lifted the Nationals to a 2-1 victory over the Giants.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse was off.
Erie 7, Harrisburg 6: Anthony Rendon was out of the lineup. Jerad Head went 2 for 4 with a double and a home run. Destin Hood went 2 for 4 with a double. Nate Karns allowed four earned runs in six innings on eight hits and a walk, striking out nine.
Potomac was rained out.
Greensboro 6, Hagerstown 2: Wander Ramos went 2 for 3 with a walk. Pedro Severino went 1 for 3 with a double and a walk. Kylin Turnbull allowed five runs, none earned, in four innings on five hits and a walk.