Bryce Harper stood at his locker, his back to the solemn Washington Nationals clubhouse. Teammates stopped for a hug, and the 19-year-old paused from packing up his belongings to oblige. One by one, they stopped to congratulate the teenager who helped lift the Nationals to their first-ever playoff berth and won over his teammates with his non-stop fire. One of the most remarkable seasons for a rookie professional baseball players had come to an abrupt, heartbreaking halt at 12:30 a.m. Saturday with a 9-7 loss.
“I’m pretty upset we lost,” said Harper, a large throng of cameras encircling him as he spoke. “It’s not how I wanted my year to end, definitely. I wanted to play deeper into the postseason, not ready to go home, don’t want to take off that uniform. That’s just something that happens every day, that happened. You’ve got to come back next year and not let it happen.”
With a 2-for-5 performance on Friday, Harper broke out of a 1-for-18 slump in the NLDS in ferocious fashion. He smashed an RBI triple in his first at-bat and then a towering home run in his second time up to the plate. An usually lifeless Nationals offense got a needed boost from its No. 2 hitter.
With his third-inning home run, Harper became the second youngest teenager to homer in the postseason. At 19 ½, Andruw Jones homered for the Atlanta Braves in the 1996 postseason. Harper, who is three days away from his 20th birthday on Tuesday, also became the youngest player to ever triple in the postseason. Trailing 9-7 in the bottom of the ninth, he struck out swinging against closer Jason Motte and trudged to the dugout for the final time.
There were many memorable story lines to the this magical Nationals season, but Harper is chief among them. Harper was called up from Class AAA Syracuse and shipped to Los Angeles to face the Dodgers on April 28 out of need. The Nationals needed offense as they dealt with a rash of injuries, Ryan Zimmerman heading to the disabled list the same day. The Nationals didn’t want to rush their prized 2010 first-overall pick to the majors and stunt his development. He was hitting .243 at Syracuse with only one home run in 21 games. If he struggled, there was a possibility he would return to the minors.
Harper erased that notion instantly. His aggressive, run-until-I’m-tagged-out style of play provided a spark. He stole home in his eighth game. By his 40th game, he was hitting .307 and was perhaps the Nationals’ best player at the time. He became the youngest position player to ever be selected to the All-Star Game.
And at times, he was, not necessarily a fault of his own, at the center of the action. Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels plunked him with a pitch, his way of introducing him to the majors. He drew the ire of Miami Manager Ozzie Guillen for the amount of pine tar on his bat. He was at the plate when Chicago’s Lendy Castillo threw too far inside and cleared the benches for the second time that game. Throughout it all, Harper, who once had the reputation for being too cocky, said all the right things. He was guided by his teammates — Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Rick Ankiel, who protected him and admired him as he matured before their eyes.
“Watching what Bryce did was amazing,” said veteran Mark DeRosa, who may have put on a Nationals uniform for the final time. “Absolutely amazing.”
He grew quickly into a fan favorite, his jersey becoming one of the highest-selling ones in baseball in the second half. Nationals fans consumed every bit of news about him. He was bona fide star at only 19, one of baseball’s most recognizable names. He grew to love Washington and called it home.
While most 19-year-olds were still in college, he was playing major league baseball with players several years his senior. He finished his rookie season with the most total bases and extra base hits for a teenager. He fell two home runs shy of the regular season record of 24 set by Tony Conigliaro in 1964. His on-base plus slugging percentage of .817 stands at third all-time in the regular season, behind Mel Ott (.921) and Conigliaro (.883). He finished near the top of many of the major offensive categories: hits, runs, stolen bases, walks and more. He joined Nomar Garciaparra (Boston in 1997) as the only rookies in the modern era to notch at least 90 runs, nine triples, 20 home runs and 15 stolen bases. This list could go on.
But now with the season over, facing a different reality, Harper’s feelings of sadness had a tinge of optimism. He turned and looked a clubhouse filled with young players under team control who would take the field with him for years to come. His feelings were tempered with hope.
Harper would head home to Las Vegas maybe on Sunday or Monday. He would pack up his belongings at his apartment in Pentagon City. He was excited to see his dog at home and head down to the University of South Carolina to watch some college football with his brother Bryan, a Nationals minor league pitcher who played baseball there. He wouldn’t pick up a baseball until likely January, resting and lifting in the gym until then.
“I get 20 more years of this,” he said.
More on the Nats-Cardinals NLDS:
Boswell: A bitter pill for a first taste
Gallery: Scenes from Nationals Park
Bog: Teddy wins again
Video: Military family reunites