Since the all-star break, when Harper won the Home Run Derby batting against his father as a packed Nationals Park rained dozens of ovations on him, he has driven in 14 runs in 15 games and hit .367.
Since Rizzo took the trade-deadline worries off his shoulders — dealing him would have been an acknowledgment by the Nats that they had little realistic chance, or even interest, in re-signing the soon-to-be free agent — Harper has hit .471 in the past five games and hit to all fields, as he does when he is hottest.
If, somehow, against what appear to be the logical baseball odds, Harper ends up staying in Washington after this season, perhaps even for plenty of years, part of the reason will be his old-shoe comfort in his Nats world.
“I know everybody here, every single person that I see every day,” he said, including every person who opens every door or polishes every spike. “I understand that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.”
If the Nats, against what appear to be logical probabilities of pennant races, somehow reach the playoffs, plenty of the reason will be that Harper is now finally partly relaxed, strongly resembles his best self and is happy he is still here. Harper doesn’t hide emotion well — or even try.
“Is Juan Soto really this good?” someone asks.
Harper starts chuckling, thinking of the 19-year-old rookie who is tearing up the game as a teenager better than anyone since . . . Bryce Harper.
“Soto’s amazing. And he’s just a great person,” Harper said of the player who may, to a degree, be the reason the Nats can imagine a future without him.
Many wonder who Harper is. But, at least for the practical purposes of enjoying watching him play baseball, it’s quite easy. He is perhaps the only Nationals player who is such a baseball nerd that he has a sense of the team’s entire schedule for the last two months — whom they play, where and when — and what the schedules of the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves look like as well, and in detail.
The Nats are about to enter deep water beginning with a four-game series against Atlanta that starts with a day-night doubleheader Tuesday. In a span of 41 days the Nats play 33 of their next 39 games against winning teams. By the time that trek ends Sept. 16, their division chances, or their entire season, could be stone dead.
In that same span, the Phillies play 23 of 40 games against losing teams. Considering that the Phillies are already six games ahead of the Nats in the NL East, that Stephen Strasburg is unlikely to be back in the rotation within two weeks and that closer Sean Doolittle will be out even longer, who would pick the Nats?
Well, Harper kind of likes their chances. He has already studied the Phillies’ schedule. Of their trip to Arizona and San Diego this week, he says, “The West Coast is always tough.” Then he points at those home-and-home series with the Phillies on Aug. 21-23 at Nationals Park and Aug. 27-29 in Philadelphia.
“Oh, man, those are going to be exciting,” he says. “But we have to do well because you know they are going to sweep this series,” he says, referencing a losing team the Phillies play in between.
Harper even has every series of the last two weeks of the season worked out — who’s where, what will need to happen. Maybe you’re different, but this is how I like my ballplayers. I asked Gene Mauch what the worst part of being a manager was. He thought and said, “The day you realize that you care more than they do.”
That’s not a Harper problem. Sometimes he screws up. He doesn’t “not care.”
What excites Harper? “The next two months,” he says.
Maybe the Nats will need to hope for a wild-card berth. Right now they are 4½ games behind the Braves for the second and last spot, but Atlanta has an even worse schedule than Washington with an almost ridiculous 43 of its last 54 games against teams that are at or above .500. The Braves will be tough this week, but if they are still a factor by the season’s last week, I’ll make a deep bow.
The coming days and weeks may be the last stand of the 2012-2018 Nationals with Harper at their center. They are certainly due for some breaks. Their bad injury luck has been well documented. But the Nats have also maxed out their misfortune in one-run games (11-18) and in run distribution. From 2011 through 2017, formulas that predict a team’s record based on its run differential said the Nats should win 637 games. In fact, they won 635.
This year, the run differentials of the teams in the NL East predict that the Braves should lead by a half-game over the Nats — 61-47 to 62-49 for Washington (yes, 62-49, not 57-54) — with the Phillies back at 59-52.
Winning a game 25-4, as the Nats did last week, may show raw talent. And it certainly gave Rizzo a chance to send a loud, in-plain-view shape-up message to his entire team when he fired (designated for assignment) relief pitcher Shawn Kelley on the spot after a mound tantrum. But it sure isn’t the best use of run differential.
The Nats will need many factors, and tons of luck, to make the playoffs in a rare year when the NL has 11 of its 15 teams at or over .500. But one of those catalysts will have to be the missing man: Harper.
Part of his poor season so far has been bad luck on batting average on balls in play. Part has been a sport that now shifts much more often against pull hitters like him. He has anxiously chased more bad pitches this season than usual, so he strikes out more. But part of what nags him is not knowing whether, or how much, the only team he has ever played for really wants to keep him. Freedom of choice is fine, but don’t you also want the one you’re already with to choose you?
Because Harper is a total baseball geek, he understands every twist of his situation. The issue now is whether the Nats, who like him personally and understand exactly how valuable a player he is, see him as the best use of their resources in the immediate future. And Harper truly has no idea about that. He may already be gone and not know it.
But, just days ago, he got one big answer. The Nats could have gotten a semi-decent basket of prospects for Harper, just as the Baltimore Orioles did when they dealt Manny Machado for the 57th-best prospect in the minors, plus four warm-body lottery tickets who appear not to be in the top 300 prospects. But they didn’t.
Rizzo said, “I believe in this team.” So far, the team appears to have heard it. What Harper seems to have heard is: We still believe in you, Bryce.
So far, his thank you note is signed, “.471.”