Bryce Harper’s return takes a weight off Nationals’ shoulders

Thomas Boswell
Columnist July 1, 2013

Three hours before Bryce Harper’s return from the disabled list after 31 missed games, Nats reliever Drew Storen couldn’t contain his imagination.

“It’d be just like Harp to hit a home run his first at-bat. You know he’s going to shoot for it because it’s been driving him crazy to be out,” said Storen. “Remember opening day? First two swings, two home runs.”

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

On the second pitch he saw — and his first swing on Monday night from Milwaukee ace Yovani Gallardo — Harper homered over the 377-foot sign in left field into the Brewers’ bullpen. It was just a high fly but with an extra gland. The ball kept carrying as if willed until it cleared the leap of left fielder Sean Halton by a few feet. You can be sure that not one National was shocked.

“Told you,” Storen said after that homer ignited a 10-5 win for 23 Nats runs in consecutive games. “Too predictable.”

Some athletes are wired differently, much differently. They want to be the lead dog, the center of attention, the star. And every first-rate team has to have at least one in its lineup. For the Nats, that’s Harper. At the age of 20, this is his team, not because he demands it or takes status away from veterans but because his energy, talent and presence make it obvious.

Perhaps he wasn’t quite satisfied that only about a third of the crowd at Nats Park had given him a standing ovation as he got in the box. By the time he crossed the plate with his right fist raised to the crowd as he ran, that all changed. They cheered until he took a curtain call.

Harper didn’t call his own shot, but he nailed his state of mind in a tweet on Sunday night: “Probably going to sleep in my uniform tonight since I am really excited and ready to get back! Little League days! #TimeTo Go.”

Afterward, he played down his homer, saying, “I gotta back it up in a day.” But he emphasized the Nats were “only six games out” of first place and “I think we’re a pretty damn good team.”

What have the Nats endured without Harper? He’s their best hitter and best overall player, though the second distinction may not be by a lot over all-star shortstop Ian Desmond. But he’s their pulse. “He means 20-year-old energy 100 percent of the time,” said Manager Davey Johnson.

Actually, the Nats went 53 games — almost a full third of a season — without a healthy Harper since he ran into that Dodger Stadium scoreboard on May 13. At that time he’d already set franchise records for April slugging and had 10 homers. What’s it been like, especially on offense, where the Nats are still 27th in the major leagues in runs, in all that time without him?

“Think about swinging a bat in the on-deck circle with the doughnut on the barrel,” Storen said. “When you take it off, that bat feels pretty good. Getting him back feels like taking the doughnut off the bat.”

Actually, getting Harper back, with starting catcher Wilson Ramos due to return on the Fourth of July, feels like the Nationals’ best chance — and perhaps one of the last — to take the doughnut off their entire season.

They’ve played as if weighted, anchored, all season. Now, they are as close to full strength as any big league team normally gets in midseason. Better actually. Their opponent Monday night, the Brewers, was more typical of MLB attrition in July, playing without ’11 MVP Ryan Braun and unable even to name its Thursday starting pitcher (to be announced).

The Nats have brought up rookie Anthony Rendon, hitting .308, to replace lost Danny Espinosa at second base. They’ve found two left-handed relievers and a long man, Ian Krol, Fernando Abad and Ross Ohlendorf, all with ERAs under 2.00 in their brief stays. Except for the void at fifth starter in their rotation, they are more than just out of excuses. If they are good, it’s time to stop talking about it, with the irritating quotes about how “we are too talented to be playing like this” and start showing it.

“We get Willie [Ramos] back this week. Having our whole lineup back one through eight will be huge for us,” said Harper. “We have the whole second half to get going.”

In his second season, the Nats no longer disguise Harper’s importance. “It’s Bryce Harper. He adds electricity, he adds everything everybody tells you about — intensity, energy, talent,” Storen said. “Even if he doesn’t hit, if he’s on deck there is a trickle down effect. For hitters, it matters who’s in front of them and behind them.”

Storen called that aspect of this game, too, just like the Harper homer. The second time Harper batted, he struck out with a man on third, no outs. But he’d already ignited a blaze. In that third inning, Harper made the only out before the Nats had scored five runs. It was their most imposing bullying inning of the year. By the end, they had seven extra-base hits, five RBI from Jayson Werth and three hits by Jordan Zimmermann, who got his 12th win.

Just coincidence? On Sunday, the Nats scored 13 runs, their first game with more than 10 runs all season. Was it just the anticipation of their No. 3 hitter’s return? Whether it’s true or not, teams know they should pretend to believe it as part of internalizing their own season mythology. They’ll try to ignore the actual facts: When Harper has played this year, the Nats have scored more, but only 0.34 more runs a game. That’s helpful, not transformative, except to the degree that it alters a team’s sense of itself.

“Harper is the guy who can hit it out of the stadium any time you face him. It changes things,” Storen said. “It’s like basketball — you have a point guard and a rebounder. And then you’ve got LeBron James.”

The implication was clear — everybody has a role. But one role is different: star.

How long will this star, with bursitis, last this season? “I’m going to do everything full force, play hard just the way I’ve been playing,” said Harper.

“He’s probably still going to run into a wall and slide head first,” said Johnson, who must have been a magnificent facilitator of juvenile delinquency as a teen. “I don’t want to put a damper on that. That’s who he is and how he plays the game.”

The Harper story always has a next chapter. They’re never boring. This one may open the book on a very different second half of the Nats’ season.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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