WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Bryce Harper is no longer hampered by an ingrown toenail and seems to be treasuring the freedom that has come with that healing. In his first two games since a procedure to alleviate the problem, Harper seemed determined to catch up quickly. He is swinging — and swinging hard — at every opportunity.
On Sunday, one of those vigorous swings yielded a no-doubt, line-drive homer over the Nationals’ bullpen behind the right field wall at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
“Through the wind!” his manager, Dave Martinez, noted afterward. The wind blew in at 14 mph throughout the Nationals’ 6-2 win over the Detroit Tigers. Had it been less persistent, Harper’s shot might have cleared a concourse.
One of Harper’s more controlled swings of the past two days yielded an opposite-field single in his next at-bat, one that brought home another run. These swings came against Tigers roster hopefuls, not established pitchers. And the big swings he took in between making contact revealed shaky timing and disregard for the patience he demonstrates when all is well. No one could expect him to have everything together March 4. But for a guy who hadn’t played much over the last week, for a guy whose approach in the past two games appeared to be something like “see it, swing at it,” Harper looked like a former MVP should.
“We just want to see quality at-bats in spring training, and we’ve seen that over the last few days,” Martinez said. “I think now the hitters are starting to catch up a little bit. We just want to see quality at-bats. We aren’t trying to chase hits.”
Despite the aggressive swings Harper has taken since his return, a more memorable demonstration came after he didn’t swing at a pitch in the first inning Sunday — and that pitch was called strike two. Harper did not like the call, and he voiced that opinion to home plate umpire Tom Woodring, going as far as to point to the spot while shaking his head. In other words, he showed up the home plate ump. Visibly frustrated after that call, Harper then swung through a pitch out of the zone for strike three and continued to chirp at Woodring as he took off his batting gloves.
“I really don’t pay no mind,” Martinez said of Harper’s visible protests. “They get it. They get a strike zone. Umpires are working on their strike zone down here, too. It’s all part of the game to me.”
Nothing much came of the heated conversation. Maybe, as Martinez said, nothing that happened between Harper and Woodring matters. But in a meaningless game in early March, the incident stood out, seeming out of place. At the very least, it provides grounds for that never-ending Harper speculation. Maybe he is just so pumped up for this season that he can hardly contain himself. Maybe he is sick of it all already. Maybe … well, maybe a 25-year-old just got upset for a second. History suggests that has happened once or twice.
Whatever his mind-set, Harper looked healthy and strong in his five innings Sunday, which is all that matters for stars such as him at this time of year.
“My biggest thing about spring training is the fear of injuries,” Martinez said. “Every day we get through a game and nobody gets hurt, it’s a good day.”
— Gio Gonzalez allowed two runs on six hits in three innings in his second start of the spring. He threw 53 pitches, 33 for strikes, and felt well enough to stay out for another inning. Martinez was happy with Gonzalez’s performance, as was Gonzalez, who is emphasizing landing his curveball and change-up for strikes earlier in the count.
— Wander Suero, the Nationals organization’s pitcher of the year last season, struck out the side in the eighth inning around a base hit. Suero is a 26-year-old righty who closed for Class AAA Syracuse last season but somewhat mysteriously never got the big league call. Martinez wouldn’t say exactly where Suero fits in his plans, but he did say “he’s really good” and praised the cutter that helped Suero emerge as one of the more reliable relievers in the Nationals’ system last season. “Right now, he’s starting to get that confidence, and I like to see that,” Martinez said. “Let’s just continue to get him out there and see what he does.”
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