Harper’s treatment is “no different than any other good young player,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “If they can intimidate you, they will. That’s all about how you get a guy out. We used to have a book on who not to throw at, who not to knock down, because he’s going to get real mad and hit one nine miles. It’s still in part of the game. If I pitch a guy inside and brush a guy back, is he going to get a little chicken? It’s just part of it, boys.”
Harper has been hit a team-high five times this season. He has remained quiet about the incidents, declining to address them following the Atlanta series, but most Nationals believe he was purposely hit by starter Julio Teheran on Aug. 6 in Washington with a first-pitch fastball to the right thigh in the fifth inning. In the previous at-bat, Harper had smashed a 437-foot home run, his longest of the season, then watched it, taking an uncharacteristically long 24 seconds to round the bases. After being hit, Harper yelled and pointed at Teheran as he walked to first base. The benches cleared, but no skirmishes occurred. Teheran denied the plunking was intentional.
Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr believes opponents have focused too intently on Harper because he is already a two-time all-star at the age of 20. In the past, he feels teammates policed themselves, and now opponents do that more.
“I think there’s a lot of jealousy involved with Bryce,” said Knorr, a former catcher. “I think he plays the game harder than a lot of people do. Not all the time, which drives me crazy. But 90 percent of the time, he plays the game as hard as he can, and he’s good. . . .I think guys are jealous of him because maybe they’re not as talented or they choose not to play that hard.”
In the second meeting between the Braves and Nationals since that Harper-Teheran incident, Harper was hit two more times on Aug. 16 in Atlanta. Rookie starter Alex Wood yanked a first-pitch curveball inside and hit Harper on the back in the fourth inning. Harper took first and shared smiles with first baseman Freddie Freeman. But four innings later, with the tying-run on base in a one-run game, left-handed specialist Luis Avilan hit Harper with a first-pitch fastball on the left arm.
Wood’s plunking of Harper was brushed off as accidental because it was a breaking ball that missed. Avilan’s fastball, however, was interpreted as intentional by some Nationals, which Avilan and Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez denied. Instead, Gonzalez gushed about the outfielder.
“Sometimes it is just an accident,” Gonzalez said. “It really is. To sit here and say we’re picking out Bryce Harper. . . . [Shoot], I like the way he plays the game. . . . He runs until somebody tags him. That type of mentality. It’s refreshing to see a young player play the game that way.”
After the third plunking of Harper by the same team, the intent didn’t matter. The day after Harper was hit twice, Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg fired a first-pitch fastball at Braves outfielder Justin Upton’s thigh in the first inning. The Braves clearly expected the move: Upton smiled as he took first, and teammate Jason Heyward clapped from the top step of the dugout.
Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche, who has played with several of the Braves in the past, doesn’t believe Harper is being targeted, apart from Teheran’s plunking. He presented the case of 22-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers phenom Yasiel Puig, a brash rookie who is also known to push the envelope.
“When we go play Puig, do we have it out for him because maybe he’s a little cocky?” LaRoche said. “He’s obviously an unbelievable player. All the stuff that’s going on, I don’t see it. I don’t know why a pitcher or team would be upset with an individual player if he hasn’t done something.”
But if a player is hit, regardless of intent, LaRoche believes retaliation is warranted based on the game’s unwritten code of behavior. He said the New York Mets, for example, could expect one of their players to be hit for starter Jonathon Niese accidentally drilling the Braves’ Heyward in the face and breaking his jaw Wednesday.
“I’m not saying every time that you do that, but I’m saying, ‘He hits me in the head, he deserves at least to scare somebody, brush somebody back,’ ” LaRoche said. “And if you hit one guy and keep accidentally hitting the same guy — it’s just coincidence — we can’t let you get away with drilling one of us, especially one of our young studs, one of our everyday guys, just over and over without doing something back.”
Harper surely will be at the center of more attention throughout his career. His appeal and talent warrant it. And so far, he has responded angrily and publicly just twice for being hit or thrown inside: when Teheran hit him and last season when Chicago Cubs reliever Lendy Castillo threw a ball far inside. When Hamels hit him last year on May 6, Harper took first base without any issue, stole home against him and said all the right things following the game.
“He’s responded pretty good,” Johnson said. “Again, he’s 20 years old. He’s learning how different guys change patterns and how they pitch him. He’s learning the strike zone up here for each individual umpire. It’s all part of his learning curve.”