No one was surprised when Bryce Harper came back from over a month on the DL and hit a home run on the second pitch he saw from Milwaukee Brewers' right-hander Yovani Gallardo. It probably shouldn't have surprised anyone when Harper went 0 for 18 over the next few games either though, considering he'd spent a significant time on the sidelines rehabbing from bursitis in his left knee which was bad enough he eventually required a cortisone shot and PRP injection. After Harper went 0 for 4 Friday night in the Nats' 8-5 win over the San Diego Padres, Nationals' manager Davey Johnson decided it might be time to give his 20-year-old outfielder a rest.
"I'll probably give Harper a couple days off," Davey Johnson told reporters after the Nationals' win over the Padres. "I think he's just fighting himself." Harper was coming of a long layoff and looked rusty. "I just need to back off him a little bit," Johnson said. "He expects a lot of himself. And I think, coming back from that long layoff, he's just not as relaxed as you'd like to see him. He's probably not 100% physically either." The plan was to sit Harper for the second and third games with San Diego.
In a text exchange that night, the Nationals' 2010 no.1 overall pick made it clear that he wanted to remain on the field to sort out his issues and get comfortable at the plate. Harper sent his manager a text he would later say was at least part tongue in cheek.
"Play me or trade me," Harper told Johnson as the Washington Post's James Wagner reported. Johnson told his left fielder and three-hole hitter to come and see him when he got to Nationals Park on Saturday morning. "'I explained to him the body language I see if someone is mentally beat up or tired physically,'" Johnson told reporters including the Washington Post's Mr. Wagner, and he explained that it was his job to give players a rest if he saw those signs. Harper told his manager he just needed to play and talked his way back into the lineup.
On Saturday, the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year went 1 for 2, walked to force in a run, singled in another and hit a sac fly to tie the Padres up at 4-4 in the seventh before Ryan Zimmerman's RBI single put the Nationals ahead for good. Sunday afternoon in the series finale with San Diego it was more of the same. 3 for 4 with a walk, two runs scored, an RBI single in the bottom of the first and two stolen bases.
Davey Johnson was happy with the change he saw in his outfielder. "He's outstanding," the 70-year-old skipper said after the Nationals' 11-7 win on Sunday gave them four straight wins, a series sweep and a 46-42 record after 88 games. "He was a little bit -- he gets to grinding too much," Johnson explained, "and I'm sure his timing was a little off from over a month off, but he's pretty focused right now, as is everybody in the lineup. I think everybody in the lineup is giving quality at bats, all the way through."
Harper wanted to remain in the lineup so he could get the at bats he needed to figure things out. He told the Washington Post's Mr. Wagner that it would just take a little time. "'I just think I need 30-40 ABs to get back with everything,'" Harper told the WaPost reporter, "'Just trying to have good ABs and go from there.'"
Davey Johnson said Sunday night that Harper's better off on the field where he can concentrate on playing the game. "He's an intelligent guy, but he's also very sensitive," Johnson said, "I mean, here, he ran on the scene. He's got commercials, and he's got a lot of people in his ear too much and I think he's handled it pretty good."
When he was on the DL, the Nats' skipper explained, Harper had a lot of people offering advice. "Through a little bit of that down period, I think he was getting a whole lot of conversation from a whole lot of people, you know, about not running into walls. Don't headfirst slide. Take care of your career. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And he only wants to hear, just let me play. I'm going to play my way. I'm going to play hard. Sometimes all the attention, everybody is piling on and trying to help and he just wants to go play baseball. That's his focus."
"I think through that whole period," Johnson said, "a lot of people were telling him he had to change his style and all this stuff to [lengthen] his career. He doesn't want to hear any of that. He just wants to play baseball. And his style of play is great."
When Johnson spoke to Harper, he assured him that he didn't want the outfielder to change anything about how he approached the game. "In my conversations with him I said, 'Have I ever said you need to change anything? Have I ever told you not to run into walls? You're going to run into walls. That's just who you are. You're going to slide headfirst. But he just needs to not listen to all this extraneous talk."
Let Harper be Harper.