Bryce Harper knew the questions were coming. He sensed the horde closing in as he approached his locker Tuesday afternoon in the clubhouse at Nationals Park. Washington had not hosted the Yankees since 2015. The first game of their two-game series ended up being suspended by rain, tied at 3 in the sixth, and will pick up Wednesday at 5:05 p.m. before the start of the regularly scheduled game.
Though there was no result to make the papers, the New York papers will definitely feature Harper.
“Come on over,” he said, motioning with his arm as if to lasso all the New York reporters there to ask him about his future without explicitly asking about where he wants to play next year. After all, Harper’s spring training declaration warned that he would walk out the room if anyone asked about 2019. Tuesday, no one brought it up — at least not explicitly.
One reporter said he heard Harper admired Mickey Mantle and was a Yankees fan growing up. He asked if that was true.
“I’m a National now,” he said, before moving on to canned phrases about doing what he can to help the Nationals win games.
Another reporter asked if he had paid attention to the Yankees’ offseason moves, most notably the offseason trade for Giancarlo Stanton, that left little room in their star-studded outfield.
“Not much,” he said, before moving on to canned phrases about doing what he can to help the Nationals win games.
Another asked Harper if he still feels any affinity for the teams he liked as a kid. Harper said it didn’t matter, then listed a few teams that apparently didn’t matter a little more than the others.
“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing — if it’s the Yankees, Cubs, Dodgers, Phillies, name it — it doesn’t really matter the team or the atmosphere. Just trying to go in there and win ballgames. Doesn’t really matter, anything else.”
Then one creative reporter asked about young Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier, who once tweeted at Harper about joining the Yankees years ago, suggesting they could trade hair tips. The reporter asked if Harper had noticed Frazier later cut off his hair in accordance with Yankees rules — a thinly veiled attempt to see how much Harper had thought about all this.
“Not really,” Harper said. “I don’t know what you’re trying to ask me.”
But Harper, 25, knew exactly what they were trying to ask him. He refused to indulge them. The stage was set for him to make a statement, but five months or so before he finally begins one of the most talked-about free agencies in baseball history, showing is a safer approach than telling.
Harper didn’t make much of a statement in the six innings the Nationals and Yankees played before the rain came Tuesday night, going 0 for 2 against Masahiro Tanaka on a night when the stands and Twitter-verse were packed with Yankees fans buzzing about his every pregame word.
His team entered the game trying to make a statement of its own. The Nationals had won 13 of 15 and are playing like a team that can compete with the best, and the Yankees (28-12) entered this series as baseball’s measuring stick.
The Nationals (24-18) also entered Tuesday night’s game knowing a storm was coming, perhaps more than one, that would threaten their ability to play nine full innings against a team not scheduled to return here this season. So when they jumped out to a 3-0 lead, thanks to RBI singles from Andrew Stevenson and Pedro Severino and a home run from Anthony Rendon, a race began: Play five innings, an official game, before the rain began.
They could not do it without giving up their lead. The rain began falling in the top of the fifth, when Gio Gonzalez seemed to slow after working out of jam after jam.
The Yankees scored two runs against him on Tyler Austin’s fourth-inning homer, and another in the fifth, but he had stranded seven runners, too. His 111th pitch ended a lengthy fifth inning as the rain began to fall. Gonzalez allowed three runs — two earned — on six hits and stranded seven Yankees in five hard-fought innings. He walked four batters but held down the big bats of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.
When Judge emerged as a star in right field last season, and when the Yankees traded for another stationary slugger in Stanton to go with him, many believed they had ended their pursuit of Harper before it began.
Harper wouldn’t admit it Tuesday, but he always had admired Mantle — chosen 34 because the sum of the parts was Mantle’s number 7 — and watched the Yankees as a kid. Given his proclivity for the big stage, and the Yankees’ proclivity for big spending, he seemed destined for the Bronx.
Teammates joked about it whenever the Yankees games showed on clubhouse TVs. Other players, like Frazier, joked about it publicly whenever the occasion arose. Harper knew people would ask. He also knew he wouldn’t have answers.
But even as the Nationals and Yankees watched rain wash away their evening, Harper was the center of attention, the spectacle within a spectacle — the man destined to be the talk of the town, though he didn’t say much at all.