NEW YORK — The first thing Bryce Harper wanted to get straight — when approached at his locker before Saturday afternoon’s game against the Mets — was that Dave Martinez didn’t initiate the conversation about running out a double play ball Friday night, reporters did.
“Why?” he asked, curious as to why anyone would bring that point up to his manager at all. He was so surprised by the question that he asked for clarification about which play was being talked about. After he hit a fifth-inning groundball 108 mph to shortstop Amed Rosario, who picked it up for what became a no-doubt double play, Harper took a few steps toward first before he stopped running. The outcome of the play didn’t change because he did.
But Mets broadcaster Keith Hernandez called out Harper for a lack of effort on the air. This underachieving team held a players-only meeting 10 days ago to remind themselves to, among other things, start scratching and clawing. Harper has not had the kind of season his résumé suggests he should, at least not in terms of all-around production. In fairness to Harper, he is tied for fourth in the majors in homers and has walked more than anyone in the National League. Still, whatever one makes of batting average, his has plummeted to a point worth noting — particularly with runners in scoring position. He entered Saturday hitting .220 in those situations. His career average is .268.
So why did anyone bring up that play? Optics, mostly. It looked like his frustration got the best of him and prevented him from meeting the traditional standards of baseball hustle for a team that needs to fight for every inch right now — or, at the absolute least, needs to look like it is fighting for every inch.
“Is it [frustration]?” Harper said, presented with a pared-down version of that analysis. “Or is it that I hit a ball 108 miles per hour and walked out of the box?”
Harper gets nitpicked like few others in the game. Sean Doolittle once said he doesn’t think anyone can relate to the kind of scrutiny Harper faces. Ryan Madson said he was surprised at Harper when he came here, having heard the unflattering narrative that sometimes circulates around him. He said he now tries to tell anyone who asks about how respectful Harper has been to him, a veteran. Harper is not villainous, as many think he is, and is far quieter than most would expect. He jokes with teammates now and then. He praises his manager when asked about him. He is short when answering questions about himself — even the positive ones — but expounds upon answers about teammates.
But answers like the one he gave about not running — “… after I hit the ball 108 miles per hour?” — stir perceptions.
Harper ended the conversation shortly after that answer, simply saying, “I’m done.”
When those outside the baseball clubhouse discuss violations of unwritten baseball rules such as this, they risk making something out of nothing, of creating a problem where players do not see one.
No one in the Nationals clubhouse brought up the play, though no one besides Harper and his manager was asked. Generally speaking, players notice those things, even if they do not say them. But exactly how many people noticed (or cared, or even thought about) Harper’s play remains unclear.
Dave Martinez acknowledged Harper didn’t run the ball out like he would like him to, and he said he spoke to him Saturday but wouldn’t disclose the details of that conversation; it’s between him and Harper.
“Here’s a kid who’s all about winning. He wants to win. That’s all he cares about,” Martinez said. “Look, regardless of his average, he’s got 23 homers and 53 RBI. I believe he’s going to hit 40 and drive in 100. He plays hard. He really does. One little thing happens and it gets blown out of proportion.”
“I’m a big fan of Bryce. I love the kid because of what he brings every day,” Martinez added. “I never have to ask him. He always wants to play. I try to give him days off and nope, he says, ‘I’m playing,’ he wants to help us win. He’s a good kid. That’s all I can say. He’s a good kid.”
Martinez has not shied away from criticizing players when he felt it was warranted. He expressed his displeasure with Pedro Severino’s bat flip in a blowout last week and did not filter his feelings for reporters. He was blunt about Gio Gonzalez’s Jekyll-and-Hyde ways. He genuinely did not seem to think the Harper groundball was a big deal and admitted he had forgotten about it by the time reporters came to his office Saturday.
Harper has always been a different animal, one treated carefully by the organization that raised him. Mike Rizzo will defend Harper until the end and stormed to his defense when an unnamed executive called him a “losing player” in a recent report. Martinez always goes out of his way to defend him, too.
But this team is surrounded by questions about effort and underachievement, a team trying to spin itself forward as its public narrative spins sideways. The play didn’t change because Harper didn’t run. The Nationals are not .500 merely because Harper is struggling. The whole thing amounts to bad optics, whatever those are worth, and another unflattering chapter in a season that has seen more than this team would have hoped. Harper is back in the lineup Saturday. The whole thing is behind the Nationals — to the extent that it was ever in front of them — Martinez said. But the questions linger for Harper and the Nationals, who are still struggling to find the answers.
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