Tomorrow morning, Matt Williams will seek out Bryce Harper to “relive” certain moments in the Nationals’ 6-5 victory over the Marlins and “give him options” if similar situations arise again. In other words, Harper’s manager will tell him to hit the damn cutoff man.
This afternoon, Harper gave Williams the truest example yet of what it is like to manage him. Williams could look upon his immense talent and gasp. He could also glare at Harper’s misdeeds and smolder. Saturday, he leaned more toward the former.
In the eighth inning, Harper gathered Donovan Solano’s double off Ross Detwiler in deep left field. With one runner close to scoring and Solano on second base, Harper heaved the ball over the head of two cutoff men. The ball landed in Wilson Ramos’s mitt just as Jake Marsinick scored. Solano dashed to third, and he would score on a sacrifice fly.
“Again, we want to keep that guy at second base,” Williams said. “But do you understand where he threw the ball all the way to the plate from? It’s almost the warning track, right? So I go, ‘Wow. Wrong move, but wow.’ It’s phenomenal talent, and he’s well on his way to harnessing that when he needs to and being aggressive when he needs to.”
Williams did not like the airmailed cutoff men. But he also appreciated the talent Harper needed to have the audacity to try the throw.
“He comes up and most guys go, ‘Well there’s no chance for me to throw him out at the plate,’ ” Williams said. “His brain goes, ‘Well, I’ve got a chance.’ So that’s what young, special talent does. We’ll take the good and the bad and move forward into tomorrow. And run him out there again.”
On the bases, Harper alertly took second on a ball in the dirt. He also got picked off. Williams will discuss the plays with Harper tomorrow. But reiterated the stance he developed as soon as the Nationals hired him: He wants to promote Harper, not to change him.
“It’s hard, because if you take away his aggressiveness, you take away from his ability as a player,” Williams said. “He’s aggressive and we love that about him. And he’s 21 years old and he’ll learn from everything that happens on the field, good and bad.”
Even Harper’s 2-for-4 day at the plate veered in multiple directions. Harper entered Saturday still searching for his swing. Williams described him this week as “hippy,” overanxious and using too many moving parts. Harper made progress with two hits, a pair of line drives that went for a double and a single. The single, off Kevin Slowey, came after he fouled away several pitches and he hit a sweet liner to the opposite field.
“That just tells me he has that capability behind in the count to fight a ball off the other way,” Williams said. “That’s good evidence for him today that he can do that whenever he wants to, take that approach.”
Along with second extra-base hit of the spring, Harper also submitted an at-bat that suggests he hasn’t quite kicked his spring search for his swing. Against reliever Arquimedes Caminero, Harper took two awkward swings on his way to a strikeout. He looked like he was trying to draw the letter ‘V’ with his bat.
“You start feeling good about yourself, get a couple hits and then [your swing] can get big again,” Williams said. “We saw that a little bit with the last at-bat.”
** Right-hander Chris Young came on in relief of Doug Fister and threw 2 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out three and surrendering one hit and no walks. Young, who has not been ruled out, at least publicly, as a fifth starter candidate, has been impressive this spring. He struggled to crack the low-80s with his fastball last year, but he hit 88 mph today. One scout raved about his slider and deception. “They just can’t see him,” he said.