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At All-Star Game, Bryce Harper wins HR Derby, talks pending free agency

Bryce Harper gets a lift from his manager, Davey Martinez, after winning the Home Run Derby on Monday night.
Bryce Harper gets a lift from his manager, Davey Martinez, after winning the Home Run Derby on Monday night. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The camera panned to the man the masses came to see Monday night, and he was ready. Bryce Harper looked into the lens and pointed to the D.C. flag bandanna wrapped around his coifed hair as his name was announced at Nationals Park with the vigor saved for the hometown favorite. He pumped his fist and bellowed. The crowd, after showering the seven other Home Run Derby contestants with boos, responded with a deafening roar.

The baseball universe had converged on Washington, and the city’s beloved slugger put on a show. Swinging a bat emblazoned with the American flag and with his father, Ron, pitching to him, Harper delivered the resounding performance the 43,698 people in attendance wanted. He mashed his way through two rounds before hitting nine home runs on 10 swings in a 90-second span to tie Kyle Schwarber in regulation in the final, then passed him with a blast to straightaway center field during bonus time to claim his first career Home Run Derby title, 19-18.

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“It’s unbelievable,” Harper said. “Just having the crowd out there and really feeding off them [helped]. We have some of the best fans in all of baseball, and to be able to do that with my family out there, that’s an incredible moment, not only for me but for the organization and the Nationals fans.”

Harper flipped his bat when he launched No. 19. He jumped up and down. Nationals teammates Max Scherzer and Sean Doolittle brought his trophy out to him, and he hoisted it before passing it along to his father to lift. Confetti flew. Manager Dave Martinez picked him up. It was an emotional moment, and Harper took it all in.

“I don’t think you can overstate that feeling of — I don’t know if there was a monkey on his back,” Doolittle said. “I don’t know if maybe he felt like this was something that he had to do. This was definitely on his calendar. You could tell this was on his radar. He came here to win.”

Earlier in the day, the throng surrounding Harper during the league’s annual all-star media crush was bigger than every other player’s for the 45 minutes all-stars were required to sit at a dais and take on all questions. It didn’t matter that Harper is batting .214 for an underachieving .500 club. He is the face of the host franchise in a contract year with a monster payday on the horizon. He is still one of the most popular players in the big leagues. He was the main attraction.

Harper addressed a variety of topics in those 45 minutes, from his musical taste to his time in junior college to his batting average flirting with .200 — perhaps an uncomfortable reality for a player voted in by the fans to start an All-Star Game for the fifth time. Harper didn’t think about it that way, though.

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“The voters wanted to see some of the best in baseball,” Harper said. “That’s why they go out there and vote. I look up there and see my average as well, and I look up there and go, ‘Aw man, well, that sucks.’ But I look over a little bit to the right side of that and see 23 homers and [54] RBI and [78] walks and runs scored and stuff like that. I don’t know. Should I be hitting .300 or .280? Yeah, absolutely. But I guess I am where I’m at, and hopefully the only way I can go is up.”

Harper even addressed the one subject he emphatically declared back in spring training he wouldn’t: his impending free agency and the prospect of playing elsewhere starting next season. He insisted he doesn’t feel any additional pressure to perform despite the 96-game sample size’s results. The pressure, he said, is there every year. It comes with his rarefied territory. But he also acknowledged his future is unclear.

“That’s always a possibility,” Harper said of calling another city home next season. “I think that everybody knew that at the beginning of the year, this could be possibly my last year in D.C. Everybody knows that. There’s no elephant in the room. Everybody knows that that’s a possibility. But I’m not really focused on that. I’m focused on what I can do to help the team win on a daily basis. I look forward to doing that.”

For a couple of hours Monday night, that focus shifted to hitting home runs over the wall for his fan base, the one that has watched him evolve from fiery 19-year-old rookie to a 25-year-old superstar. With his team stumbling to a 48-48 first half, this night may have offered Harper a final opportunity on such a stage as a National, and it began with an introduction from the in-house DJ perched in left-center field.

“Who’s ready for your hometown hero?” DJ Irie hollered.

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Harper emerged to eliminate Atlanta Braves nemesis Freddie Freeman in the first round with 13 home runs and time to spare in his four-minute period. Two homers soared to the concourse beyond the second deck in right field. Four traveled at least 455 feet. He played along with the crowd, egging on the packed house for more noise. Scherzer and Doolittle supplied Gatorade and towels during his 45-second timeout.

Harper advanced to the finals with 13 more, knocking out the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Max Muncy in the semifinals with over a minute remaining before coming back to beat Schwarber in the championship round.

After tallying 21 home runs in the semifinals to beat Philadelphia’s Rhys Hoskins, Schwarber posted 18 in the final, a mark Harper didn’t seem likely to reach down nine with 90 seconds remaining. But then Harper began stringing together blasts.

“He had to go,” Doolittle said. “His back was against the wall. He had to start his run. Max [Scherzer] is standing next to me, and he’s going nuts. He’s like, ‘He’s got to catch five in a row. He’s got to catch five in a row. He’s got to start right now.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ Then he did.”

Harper tied Schwarber as the clock wound down before he was given an additional 30 seconds after hitting three balls over 440 feet. He then smacked No. 19 on his second swing to take the crown and give his home crowd at least one more indelible memory.

“This was a show,” Scherzer said, “and he put on a show.”

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