MIAMI — The Washington Nationals flew home to Washington early Wednesday morning, landed at Dulles International Airport and drove back to their apartments, many of which are probably packed up by now. Even in playoff seasons, the clubhouse staff helps players pack up their lockers and ship out stuffed cardboard boxes that populate the space outside their lockers on the last home stand. The Nationals, who are fending off mathematical elimination, will almost certainly will not return to Nationals Park in October.
So this trip home for seven games against their division rivals might be the last flight “home” to D.C. some of these Nationals ever take. Bryce Harper is one of those players, his much talked-about free agency hurtling nearer by the day. What might be his final season with the Nationals could be over in fewer than two weeks. These seven games could be the last he plays in front of Nationals fans as one of their own.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” Harper said Tuesday as he signed a few bats and balls in front of his locker at Marlins Park. “I think it’ll really hit that last game I guess, running off the field or something like that. I’m just trying to enjoy it and see what happens.”
Harper’s trajectory — this year, over the years, whenever — is always well-documented. No part of his emergence as the Nationals’ first true, homegrown superstar has surprised anyone. No part of this season, of the fact that he never signed an extension, of the endless speculation, felt shocking. Even the fact that he struggled early in the season made some sense. Contract years affect players in different ways, and Harper has been thinking about this deal for some time — if only, but certainly not only, because has been asked about it for years. But publicly, he has not let that explain, excuse, or even factor into how he talks about this season.
“[Nothing’s been different] for me. For me, I’ve just been trying to enjoy my last year in D.C., if that’s how it’s going to happen,” Harper said. “Like I’ve said all along, I love D.C. I love being here. I love being a part of this organization. We’ll see if I’m in those plans or not going forward, but for me, at the beginning of the year, I want to enjoy my last year if it’s going to be like that.”
Earlier this season, Harper seemed to have difficulty enjoying himself. His answers were quiet and calculated. His numbers were low, low enough that some industry insiders wondered whether he had cost himself millions on what many had long speculated would be a record deal. In 94 games before the all-star break, Harper was hitting .214 with 23 homers and 102 strikeouts — swinging for the fences, and swinging through pitches he normally hits. Then came that stunning Home Run Derby comeback, which seemed to restore some of Harper’s swagger. In 55 games since, Harper is hitting .304 to up his average to .247 and has pushed his on-base percentage to .394 for the season. He is one walk shy of tying his career high.
“I’m never worried about anything that I do. Whether it’s 0 for 4, 4 for 4 — well, I don’t like breaking bats,” Harper said. “But as for numbers or stuff like that, I just try to stay the course.”
Harper’s manager, Dave Martinez, says Harper has handled a crazy year “really well,” and that he hasn’t seen the contract situation affect him as it has other players. As for whether he’s seen Harper lapse into any kind of sentimentality about his time here, Martinez dodged.
“I don’t think he thinks of it that way. I really don’t. He wants to finish out the season and let it play out,” Martinez said. “I know he wants to come back. Whether that happens or not, we’ll see. But I love having him. I love the fact that he’s a National and still is a National.”
The most complicated part of this homestand is that the Nationals cannot stage a farewell party, and Harper cannot totally treat it like one. Whatever internal leanings both parties have, whatever sense they have of whether this is the end of their partnership, both sides have worked hard to maintain neutrality and not betray their intent. It behooves both sides to remain coy heading into the offseason, since each could use the leverage in any negotiation with the other down the line.
But that cat-and-mouse game prevents closure, leaves fans in limbo, and everyone unsure of entirely how to handle it. Whatever happens, emotions are coming, as they seemed sure to do in that Home Run Derby, as they always seem to do when it comes to Harper, for better or worse. This season will not end the way Harper or the Nationals hoped it would. The question, of course, is whether his Nationals tenure will end with it.
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