The ball smacked off the front of the left field wall in the sixth inning of Friday’s 6-1 in over Philadelphia. Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz raced around first base. Bryce Harper read the ball’s trajectory, fielded it cleanly on one bounce, turned quickly towards the infield and fired a one-hop strike to Steve Lombardozzi. In a close play at second, Ruiz was called out.
In excitement, Lombardozzi pointed out at Harper out in the outfield with his glove and smiled. Harper slapped hands with Denard Span, who came over to congratulate him.
“I like throwing guys out, I get fired up,” Harper said later. “It doesn’t happen very often. Homers don’t happen very often, but I get a little adrenaline rush when I throw guys out.”
Harper’s cannon for a right arm has been on display since he was called up last season. But on Friday, Harper notched two crucial outfield assists on long throws from left field to help the Nationals secure their seventh straight win. He nearly had another assist. “He should’ve had three if I didn’t cut that one off, so that was my fault,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, referring to Harper’s throw in the fifth inning that could have cut down Kyle Kendrick at second base on a double.
Harper also caught Freddy Galvis at second base in the fifth inning. Galvis singled to left field to lead off the frame and Harper chased down the ball in the corner. From far left, he fired to second base as Galvis tried to stretch it into another base. Galvis slid into the base, seemingly safe, but his momentum carried him slightly past and off the bag. Lombardozzi alertly tagged Galvis out.
“He had to slide in hard,” Lombardozzi said. “I kept my glove there in case. He came off just a little bit. Once he came off, I made sure I tagged him.”
Both of Harper’s throws proved crucial in the game. After he threw out Ruiz in the sixth inning, Cody Asche followed with a single to left two batters later. Ruiz, a catcher, is a slow runner, so it is unlikely this throw saved a run, but it make the inning more manageable for Craig Stammen on the mound. After Harper threw out Galvis in the fifth inning, Kyle Kendrick smacked a double to left off starter Ross Ohlendorf. This Harper throw surely saved a run.
“You’d think they’re sure doubles,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Back to the wall, and make perfect throws. It’s good to take his mind off hitting. Give him something else to do.” Added Johnson later about Harper’s improvement at reading balls off the wall: “He’s getting better. He’s still a real young outfielder, but he’s got a good arm. Accurate. He likes it.”
Harper, who was a catcher at the College of Southern Nevada when the Nationals drafted him, has only played 239 major league games in the outfield. He is still learning how to read balls in the corner, off the wall and how to play them.
“I don’t know if I’m that good,” Harper said. “I’m just trying to get better every single day. I’m just trying to get better. I’ve got a lot of support from [first base and outfield coach] Tony Tarasco and him helping me out. Trying to get my angles right and trying be as accurate as I can, try to show off my arm a little bit when I can.”
Added third baseman Ryan Zimmerman: “People forget that he caught a lot growing up and that outfield was a relatively new thing a couple years ago. People think you just put guys out there and they become good outfielders. He’s worked at it and he’s come a long way. Tonight those plays were a huge part of that game.”
Harper now has 12 outfield assists on the season, tied for second among National League outfielders. With any ball to left, Lombardozzi said he always checks the runner because of the power of Harper’s arm. (“You never know with his arm,” Lombardozzi said. “You’ve always got a chance.”) When Harper was a catcher, he loved throwing runners out on the bases and show off his arm. But now, he is learning to be more judicious.
“Now it’s more about picking my spots and not throwing to third when I don’t have to or not throwing to the plate when I don’t have to,” he said. “I’m trying to save as much of my arm as I can and throw guys out when I can.”