The pressure or least the public conversation about the possibility of giving Bryce Harper a rest was growing. A reporter asked Davey Johnson the day after an 0 for 4, 4 K game against the Atlanta Braves on August 21st what he was going to do with the then 19-year-old Washington Nationals' outfielder who had a .186/.266/.307 line 37 games and 160 PAs into the second-half of his rookie campaign. The 2010 no.1 overall pick put together a .282/.354/.472, 15 double, 4 triple, 8 HR first-half that earned him an All-Star nod as a late addition to the NL's roster, but after a strong start to his major league career Harper was struggling at the plate, especially against left-handed pitching.
"What can you do for or with Harper against lefties?" a reporter asked.
"I think the first month he was here he was hitting like .400 off [left-handers]," Davey Johnson said, "He's getting a little anxious. He's pushing himself to do great things like all young players, not staying within himself. Trying to crush the ball. You do that, you go from being a good hitter to then being a little more of a swinger. He's going through that. [Ian Desmond], [Danny] Espinosa, they've all gone through that and they still have lapses back in it, but it's just pushing themselves and wanting to do something great, so they're all in."
"How do you get him through it?" the Nationals' manager was asked.
"Just keep running him out there," Johnson said.
The next day, Harper went 1 for 4 with a single and the Nationals' only run scored in a 5-1 loss to the Braves. On the six-game road trip through Philadelphia and Miami that followed, the second-year pro went 6 for 20 (.300/.300/.700) with two doubles and two home runs. The best way to turn things around and get things going for Harper, D.C. GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s Holden Kushner and Danny Rouhier at the end of the series with the Marlins, was to just, "Let him play every damn day."
"Just let him play," Rizzo said, "Because we're a better team when Bryce Harper is in the lineup. For today, for tomorrow and in the distant future, we're a better team when Bryce Harper is in the lineup because he's one of our best players and he's an impact guy who changes the dynamic of the lineup."
"He's a guy that still to this point other teams circle on the advanced scouting report," Rizzo continued, "and they still pitch him like Babe Ruth and they know what he can do in the lineup." Over the next 33 games and 136 plate appearances, Harper was 41 for 121 (.339/.407/.653) with eight doubles, three triples, eight home runs and 29 runs scored, finishing his first major league season with a .270/.340/.477 line, 26 doubles, nine triples, 22 HRs, 18 stolen bases and 98 runs scored in a +4.9 fWAR campaign.
Though Harper finished strong, he struggled in the first postseason games of his career, going 1 for 18 with six Ks through four games of the Nationals' NLDS matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals. What were the Cardinals doing to keep him in check? Davey Johnson said it wasn't the Cards as much as Harper himself. The shadows in St. Louis were tough on all the hitters, the manager explained, and Harper tends to try too hard when he struggles. "When he doesn't do something spectacular," the Nats' 69-year-old skipper said, "It's hard to believe, but he tries harder; and trying harder is not always better."
"He's done great," Johnson said, clearly not worried, "I mean, the tension of a pennant race in September, he played like a veteran. But he still expects a lot of himself and even one ballgame, if it doesn't go where he does a lot of good things, he's going to just try harder. And he's going to expand the zone. But I look for him -- I mean, he's had four games now, so he should be calmed down, he should be all right." Harper went 2 for 5 with a home run and a triple in the Nationals' final game of the 2012 season.
When it was all over, it was Johnson's ability to work with players young and old that the Nationals' GM said really impressed him about the way the 2012 BBWAA NL Manager of the Year handled his roster. "The way he can relate to all groups of players," Rizzo explained in an MLB Network Radio interview in November, "You've got the wily old veterans, the young players, kind of the superstar potential-type of guys, some guys that have an ego, the guys that you have to get out of [their] shell a little bit. This guy does a masterful job of motivation and he's also a terrific teacher."
Davey Johnson lobbied for Harper's inclusion on the Opening Day roster, guided him through the ups and downs of his rookie campaign and stuck with the outfielder when he struggled, running him out there every day and forcing him to learn how to adjust. Was he the best rookie Johnson ever managed? The Nats' manager told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s The Sports Junkies Harper was. "He's been the most fun to coach and watch play. Makeup off the chart. Effort off the chart. Skill off the chart. So, [it] would be hard for me to say anybody could beat him out for the best rookie I've ever managed." The only decision to make going into Spring Training this year is which corner of the outfielder Harper will occupy in 2013?