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Bryce Harper’s hustle is a fair topic, but let’s not go crazy

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In his first two at-bats Friday night, Bryce Harper grounded to second base. And do you know what he did? He ran. He raced down the line and extended his head forward as he hit the base, like a sprinter at the tape.

In his last at-bat Friday night, Harper grounded to second base. And what he did next, of course, has become today’s conversation piece. Harper flicked his bat, frustrated he had not crushed a crushable 3-1 pitch, and he jogged. When Murphy bobbled the ball, everyone noticed. Reporters asked Randy Knorr about it after the game. Knorr gave his unvarnished thoughts.

Does Harper play hard enough? It would have been a ridiculous question to ask last year. Even earlier this year, there were people trying to make the case he played too hard. (Those people, in the aftermath of Harper slamming into the Dodger Stadium wall, were confusing moderated effort with spatial awareness.) But now it’s a fair question, and not just because of one at-bat last night.

In the afternoon, some eight hours before Harper’s final at-bat, Knorr was talking about his belief in teams playing hard and running out groundballs. He mentioned Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond as two shining examples. He said he understand there were times during a 162-game season when players may not have the will or the energy to burn down the line on a two-hopper to second. All he wanted was an honest effort.  And Knorr pointed out that sometimes, Harper allows frustration to prevent an honest effort.

“That’s just him,” Knorr said. “He’s just 20, and sometimes, he just pouts. Sometimes, he pouts. I don’t know why. That’s the thing about him. You can’t be this guy who says you’re going to play hard every time out, and then not do it. You can’t do that. He’ll learn that. He’ll get better with it. He’s 20 years old. He’s still a kid, and sometimes kids pout if things don’t go their way.”

In late June, Jayson Werth was asked about how Harper’s return from the disabled list would impact the Nationals. He began a cryptic answer by saying, “We’ll see which Bryce shows up.”

Harper’s occasional lack of hustle is not the end of the world, and it’s not nothing, and yes, it is possible for a discussion to fit between those poles when Harper is involved. Frankness is not equivalent to controversy. Knorr spoke some truth, and Harper should benefit from hearing it. “I guess I’ll learn from it,” Harper said.

The topic should be covered, and we should also remember Harper has played through pain in his knee all year. As Knorr pointed out, Harper has been the one who has vowed from the moment he became a public figure he would play all-out, every day. Would Harper have been safe last night if he ran hard? It’s impossible to say, and it’s irrelevant. Part of Harper’s appeal as a rookie was the way he applied constant pressure to the other team. He could almost invent new ways to make opponents aware of him. If he stops doing that, he will still be a great player — let us not overlook his 144 OPS+ at age TWENTY. He just won’t be the same player.

“Bryce is one of those guys that plays hard just like everybody else,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “There’s a big difference between playing hard and – not playing too hard, but playing over-hard is one way to put it. You don’t need to be on second base when you pop it up to the second baseman. It’s impossible to do that for 162 games. But when you ground out, you should run hard. I’m not saying that he didn’t or anything like that. Bryce plays the game hard, and he always has as long as I’ve been here. I don’t really think anyone has a problem with it. But at this level, you get paid a lot of money to play baseball and if you ground out or you fly out, you should run the ball out. That’s the way I’ve always been taught and that’s the way I’m always going to play.”

The Nationals’ loss last night should not be placed at Harper’s shuffling feet. They managed three hits off Dillon Gee in the first seven innings. Start there. Ryan Zimmerman could have held on to the throw that led to the Mets’ insurance. It’s good to be bold, but it’s also necessary to know limitations. Zimmerman, post-surgery, simply isn’t making that play.

Many have blamed Harper for swinging at the 3-0 pitch, but it doesn’t seem like taking that pitch would have made a difference. Rice’s fastball caught the inside corner, and if Harper was looking down-and-in, it may have represented the Nationals’ best chance to score.