Bryce Harper was criticized for a lack of hustle in a loss to the Mets on Friday night. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

In the Washington sports market, where we demand that virtual children for the most part carry our professional teams, Bryce Harper is considered less than the second coming of Charlie Hustle today.

After failing to sprint to first base on a routine infield grounder that was bobbled Friday night against the Mets, a rally-killing out in the pivotal eighth inning of a 3-2 loss, the Nationals’ young star is suddenly Manny Ramirez — on Ambien.

Somewhere in between — and I’m leaning more toward Pete Rose, the hyperintense player, than Manny being sleepwalking Manny — resides the real Bryce.

Which I’m okay with, mostly because Bryce Harper is 20 years old, people!

The Nationals are a few weeks and about 10 losses away from having myriad problems to address this offseason of discontent. But evolving emotional maturity and everyday professionalism of their all-star outfielder is not a problem; it’s a process.

Almost daily, Harper and, for that matter, Stephen Strasburg (who too often beats himself up psychologically after a so-so or worse outing) are growing, getting better at handling the grind of 162 games and all the pre- and postgame drivel a major league season entails.

Harper’s rare lack of hustle might be the subject of the moment and may be worth a day of finger-wagging by fans and a lecture by bench coach Randy Knorr. (By the way, I love that Davey Johnson’s bench coach didn’t mince words in calling out Harper even as his future with the organization is uncertain.) But it’s not what’s really ailing this team, why the Nationals are in prayer mode trying to seize a wild-card berth with a month left in the season.

Harper, in fact, is why they still have a slim shot.

Look, Nationals Manager Davey Johnson has always been a hot dog, and the theory here is that he secretly hoped his “World Series or Bust” boast before the season would fire up his 98-win club of last season, which was still walking around in a daze, crestfallen from its Game 5 loss to the Cardinals in their division series.

He wanted so badly for these Nationals to develop a swagger resembling his ’86 Mets, whose young guns and old reliables won his only World Series title. And with the possible exceptions of Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth, Harper is one of the few players on the roster to epitomize that swagger. This clubhouse too often has been placid and almost robotic in its demeanor as the season slipped away.

Enter the whiskered young hellion, who often leads with his heart before his head. Harper is still learning veteran pitchers and the dimensions of National League parks. But at his best, nothing matches the fire and flair that the kid plays with the vast majority of the time. It’s not coincidental that Davey almost gave Harper a pass Saturday afternoon, and dropped the fact that he may need a small knee procedure in the offseason.

Now Harper needs to focus in on that remaining 10 or 15 percent and sprint out every grounder. He needs to use more of an economy of movement and conserve a burst or two around the base paths when it doesn’t matter (“You don’t need to be on second base when you pop it up to the second baseman,” Ryan Zimmerman told The Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore on Friday night, referring to Harper’s misspent energy. “It’s impossible to do that for 162 games.”)

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether opposing players purposefully hit Bryce Harper because they dislike him. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

What he doesn’t need to do is kick himself when he’s down because of his lack of effort Friday night. If much of this season’s roster, including some lackadaisical-looking veterans on the bench, had played as passionately and purposefully as Harper did while battling injury, the Nationals aren’t currently looking at the playoff field from the outside.

Again, he’s 20.

Gifted young people, especially young athletes, hate the “he’s still a kid” qualifier because, from John Wall to Robert Griffin III to the Alex Ovechkin of several years ago, they all arrived here based on the premise that their age didn’t serve as any real impediment to professional greatness.

For the most part, they were right.

But here’s the dangerous flip side: No handicap for growing up in pro sports exists for teens and early twentysomethings. Everything they say and do is parsed to no end. I’m as guilty as anyone of calling athletes like Harper “kids” while often failing in my daily judgment to give them the leash to actually act their age.

The harsh truth is many of us would not have the jobs or the life we have today if someone was writing down and photographing everything we did in public at 20 years old. (Did I mention I once tipped a soda machine on myself trying not to pay for a Coke?)

I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve a stern talking-to by his direct supervisors. I am saying give me Bryce Harper’s swagger and effort most nights and I’ll take that over almost anything out there in baseball.

Throw stones elsewhere. Let Bryce be.

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