Around 1 p.m. on Saturday, Bryce Harper walked into Nationals Manager Davey Johnson’s office to chat. After an 0-for-4 performance Friday dropped his recent mini-slide to 0 for 18 since his first-inning home run on Monday, Johnson wanted to give Harper a mental and physical break. “He’s just grinding too hard,” the manager said following Friday’s game.
Harper, however, wanted to play. He returned Monday from the disabled list after missing 31 games because of left knee bursitis. He didn’t want out despite his slump. According to Johnson, Harper sent him a tongue-in-cheek text message on Friday night that read: “Play me or trade.”
Johnson found the message funny but didn’t respond until Saturday morning. He told the 20-year-old star to come see him in the morning to chat. Johnson was worried that Harper’s recent body language was a sign of mental or physical wear, perhaps from the rehab and return.
“I explained to him the body language I see if someone is mentally beat up or tired physically,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘I can’t imagine you ever being either one of those.’ But my job when that happens is the best way I know to rest them up and sit them next to me. …. And so since trading is out of the question, I guess I’m going to play him,” added Johnson with a smile.
Before Saturday’s game, Harper explained why he wanted to continue playing despite the recent results. “I just went in and told him I want to play,” he said. “And we talked a little bit and he put me back in the lineup. Happy to be back in there.”
Harper attributes his recent slide to the natural lag when returning from extended time away. In his four-game rehab assignment across Class A Potomac and Class AA Harrisburg, he swung the bat well, finishing 4 for 11 with a double, triple, homer and three walks. The majors, however, are different. He has struck out seven times in his past 18 at-bats. He has also hit a few balls hard that found gloves or fell short of the fence.
“I just think I need 30-40 ABs to get back with everything,” he said. “Just trying to have good ABs and go from there. I just think it takes time to get back in the swing of things. I missed 31 games. I’m trying to get back. I feel good, though. … A little bit of timing is a little bit off. Chasing some pitches that I shouldn’t be chasing. [Friday] night I missed two balls that could have been in the seats. I think it’s a little bit of timing and trying to get back in the swing of things.”
So far this season, Harper has also struggled against left-handed pitchers. The Milwaukee Brewers intentionally walked Ian Desmond on Thursday to load the bases with two outs to face Harper because a left-handed reliever was on the mound. Albeit a small sample size, Harper is hitting .163 in 49 at-bats against left-handers this season compared to .240 in 183 at-bats against them last season. Harper said left-handers aren’t pitching him any differently; sinkers down and in and off-speed pitches away.
“I try to have good ABs against them,” he said. “It’s more of not chasing and trying to get a pitch I could drive and if not, trying to walk. I think [Friday] night, I didn’t have a very good AB against him and got myself in a hole early and when you do that against a lefty that comes out of the ‘pen, you’re down 0-2, you’re pretty lucky if you get a knock.”
The most positive development of the past week, for Harper, has been the condition of his left knee. When he chased down a flyball in left field that fell in the gap in the first inning on Friday, Harper said it “felt good to put the pedal to it and not feel any pain.” He hasn’t been held back by his knee in any way on the diamond.
“It feels really good,” he said. “I’m happy about that. The results may not be good but I’m happy my body feels good and I have no pain. I’m happy about that.”
Because of the health of his knee, Harper said he would be happy to play in the All-Star Game if selected. He fell to fourth among National League outfielders by 15,000 votes in the most recent voting results. The fan voting ended Thursday and results will be announced Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Harper could still make it by fan vote, manager selection or as the final player voted in. “Absolutely, I would love to be in the all-star game again and play for the National League,” he said.
He said he wouldn’t want to take the all-star break to rest his knee because he is confident in the shape of his knee.
“I feel like I’d want to go,” he said. “It’s only two or three innings you’re playing and watching the rest of the game. It would be a lot of fun. For the experience.”
1. Denard Span, CF
2. Ian Desmond, SS
3. Bryce Harper, LF
4. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
5. Adam LaRoche, 1B
6. Jayson Werth, RF
7. Anthony Rendon, 2B
8. Kurt Suzuki, C
9. Jordan Zimmermann, SP
1. Everth Cabrera, SS
2. Will Venable, CF
3. Carlos Quentin, LF
4. Chase Headley, 3B
5. Jesus Guzman, 1B
6. Chris Denorfia, RF
7. Logan Forsythe, 2B
8. Yasmani Grandal, C
9. Jason Marquis, SP