Harper has only played the outfield full time since 2010, the year the Nationals drafted him and converted him from catcher. Lack of experience, rather than too much hustle, may be the real culprit. Monday night, Harper said, “I thought if I had about five more feet, I was on the ball.”
“He hasn’t been out there enough to probably even realize he’s running into the warning track,” Johnson said. “But he’s hit the fence enough times that he’s going to get the translations of how close he can get to the wall. But I don’t want to put a damper on his enthusiasm. That’s who he is. It’s just going to come with experience. One of the best teachers in the world is hitting that wall hard.”
Harper has endured several close calls in such a short career. Some of them happened in the course of the game, and some happened outside of it. The episodes all display Harper’s lack of regard for his health.
It could have been worse last April, in the second game of Harper’s major league career, when he ran into the center field wall at Dodger Stadium making an oft-replayed catch. The collision left him with a back injury that lingered but didn’t force him to miss any games.
“We’re used to it,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I would rather him not go all out into the wall, ever. But that’s the way Bryce plays. That’s the way he’s always played. . . . As a player and someone who plays the game, if you play that hard every day, there’s something to be said about that. That’s what Bryce does.”
It could have been worse last May, when he slammed his bat against a wall in Cincinnati and hit himself in the left eye. He suffered only a cut then, but his bat connecting with his eye, a few inches away, and damaging his sight could have had stark consequences. “He doesn’t know how close he came to ending his career,” one front office official said at the time.
It could have been worse last month, when Harper tried to rob a home run in Atlanta, in the fifth inning of a 5-1 game, and badly bruised his left side. He had to leave the next night’s game, and he went 2 for 19 as he swung through the bruise.
It was the kind of play, like his all-out effort Monday night, that endears him to teammates. “That’s all you can ask for as a pitcher,” starter Jordan Zimmermann said. “A guy going 110 percent.” The Nationals have to hope his mentality won’t lead to long-term consequences.
“He’s going to play this game for a long time,” Zimmerman said. “To do that, you have to start taking care of your body, and that means not injuring it yourself. But I would rather have someone at that age playing too hard and have to harness it down than not play hard enough, and you have to tell him, ‘Hey, you have to run that ball out.’ I don’t see any problem with any of it. As he grows, he’ll learn what to do and what not to do.”
The fury with which Harper plays makes him great. But there is a fine line he must tread. He can only ask, “Is it bad?” so many times before there comes an answer nobody wants.