Bryce Harper says Matt Williams should keep Ryan Zimmerman in left field

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

On the day outfielder Bryce Harper returned to the Nationals lineup, he openly disagreed with how Manager Matt Williams filled it out.

Harper, the 21-year-old star slugger who missed 57 games following left thumb surgery, said he believes Ryan Zimmerman should remain in left field, implying that the Nationals’ best chance would come with himself in center field and veteran Denard Span on the bench.

With the Nationals at full health for the first time since opening day, Williams placed Zimmerman at third base, Harper in left field, Anthony Rendon at second base and Danny Espinosa on the bench. Standing in front of a pack of reporters at his locker, Harper was asked about Zimmerman moving to left field when Zimmerman came off the disabled list in early June.

“I think it’s great. I think he should be playing left,” Harper said. “Rendon’s a good third baseman. He should be playing third. We’ve got one of the best second basemen in the league in Danny Espinosa. Of course, we want the best-hitting lineup in there. I think Rendon playing third and Zim playing left is something that would be good for this team. I think that should be what’s happening.”

When apprised of Harper’s opinion, Williams responded diplomatically.

“I would say we’re happy to have him back,” Williams said. “When he’s out there, regardless of where he’s at, we’d like him to catch it when it’s hit to him and hit it when it’s thrown to him, and play the way Bryce plays. I don’t have any comment other than that. We’re glad to have him in our lineup. And hopefully I can write his name in there every single day for the rest of the year. That would be very important to our club.”

Harper also intimated he would prefer to hit elsewhere in the batting order. Williams slotted Harper sixth in the Nationals’ lineup.

“I’m in the lineup. That’s all that matters,” Harper said. “If I had the lineup, it would maybe not be the same. He’s got the lineup card. He’s got the pen. That’s what he’s doing. So there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m hitting sixth tonight. Hopefully I can be able to get some runners on base in front of me and get some protection and hopefully get some knocks.”

Williams said it would not be proper to place high expectations on Harper in his first game in more than two months, facing a left-handed starter in Yohan Flande.

“Part of the thought process was, Bryce has been out a long time,” Williams said. “We got three straight lefties, so we take a little bit off the expectation there, coming out first time against a lefty, and ease him back in there a little bit. That’s today’s lineup. It may change tomorrow. For today, he’s going to be right in the thick of it. We hope to provide him an opportunity with guys on base today.”

When asked about his expectations for playing time and his position going forward, Harper said he learned where he would play Monday night only when he saw the Nationals’ lineup on Twitter.

“I haven’t talked to nobody about anything, so I have no clue,” Harper said. “I know I’m playing left tonight, via Twitter. So I guess that’s where I’m going.”

Williams said he communicates with players daily, and he would even before Harper’s return from the disabled list created a lineup logjam.

“It’s a daily thing, talking to guys, if in fact we’re going to shift it around,” Williams said. “If Denard gets a day off, does Bryce play center? Or is it Nate [McLouth]? If Bryce does play center on a particular day, then I’m going to have to let him know potentially the day before. ‘Listen, you’re going to get that, so maybe today you work in center in anticipation of tomorrow.’ That communication happens everyday. It’s nothing different than what goes normal.”

Span said Harper’s return would be “a plus for any ball club, especially ours.” He didn’t divulge the content of discussions between him and Williams regarding his playing time. But he said he trusted Williams, and that because he’s a former player, he expects Williams to have an open dialogue with individual players.

“He’s the manager, so he’s going to handle it the best way he can,” Span said. “That’s bottom line. He’s the boss. So however he decides to handle it, knowing him being an ex-player, I’m pretty sure he’s going to handle it as if he were the player. He’s not that far removed from the game. I trust he’s going to do what he thinks is best.”

On April 19, Williams benched Harper in the middle of a game for not running out a ground out, an offense that had followed multiple warnings about playing lackadaisical.  Six days later, Harper slid into third base for a triple, and in the process he tore a ligament in left thumb that had been damaged since his high school days.

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