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In Home Run Derby win, Bryce Harper puts struggles aside to captivate a city

The Home Run Derby came calling. Bryce Harper answered.

MLB: All Star Game-Home Run Derby Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, maybe you’re tired of his act.

Bryce Harper is in the midst of a disappointing season — to put things lightly. That grisly .214 batting average just won’t sit right in your stomach like a bad dish of Chinese takeout. His lazy routes in the outfield and lack of hustle on groundballs in the infield make you want to pull every last strand of hair out of your head.

This isn’t the light-your-hair-on-fire Bryce Harper you’ve grown accustomed to seeing take the field at Nationals Park over the years. Gone are the days of crashing into walls and stealing home on lackadaisical pickoff attempts. The financial future of his family looms, forcing Harper to become a man who realizes he can’t simply throw caution to the wind.

Perhaps the pressure of the contract has gotten to him. Maybe he’s lost a fundamental element to his swing. An injury or two could be involved. Regardless, this was supposed to Harper’s year. Yet here we are at the All-Star Break and not much has gone right for the former NL MVP.

Nationals fans still love Harper. That much was evident Monday night when he went on a heart-stopping, simply unforgettable run for the Home Run Derby title on his home field. A packed house of 43,698 chanted his name as he launched nine homers in 50 seconds to tie Kyle Schwarber and eventually beat him to win the damn thing. It was as incredible a moment as that ballpark has ever seen.

“I wanted to do it in front of my home crowd,” Harper told reporters after the Derby. “If it wasn’t in front of my home crowd this year, I wouldn’t have done it. … I know people were upset I didn’t go last year or the year before or whatever. But I knew this year I wanted to be here this year in D.C.”

But as much as you may have enjoyed the home run barrage, that probably doesn’t change whether you want him back in D.C. next season.

The Nationals are still 48-48. Harper is still struggling at the plate. He’s going to command hundreds of millions of dollars to retain and Washington has a contingency plan in the form of two polished outfield prospects that go by the names of Victor Robles and Juan Soto.

These are all valid reasons you might be basking in the idea of Harper rocking the pinstripes in 2018. But Monday night didn’t just serve as a reminder of who Harper can be when he’s at his best. It represented the flair, excitement and unparalleled spark of energy that allowed him to captivate the hearts and minds of Washington D.C. in the first place.

Nobody in the stadium could take their eyes off him. They stood on their feet religiously, willing the 25-year-old phenom to scrape his way to victory. The circumstances set the stage, but it was up to Harper to seize the moment.

There are so few people capable of captivating the spirit of an entire city, but then again Harper isn’t like most people. If the Nationals do decide to fork over the money to keep him in the District for the foreseeable future, it will be a massive investment in a player who gets injured and endures cold streaks just as much as the next guy. Yet Harper is so much more than that.

He embodies the success of a franchise that was coming off consecutive 100-loss seasons the year it drafted him. Harper grew into a man under a national spotlight — unapologetically, I might add. He was the center of so many low and high notes you could’ve sworn he was conducting an orchestra.

This is a fanbase that endured 26 years without a championship before the Capitals hoisted the Stanley Cup in May. This is a fanbase that didn’t even have a baseball team from 1971 until the Nationals in 2005. This is a fanbase that watched as Harper pulled its ballclub from the depths of the NL East basement and perch it on the pedestal of an annual contender.

His current struggles aside, Harper has done so much more for D.C. than crush baseballs. He’s given it a reason to be optimistic, a reason to spend an afternoon at the ballpark, a reason to argue with your out-of-town buddy who insists he’s the most overrated player in the majors.

So sure, maybe you’re tired of his act.

But Harper’s performance in the Home Run Derby gave the most powerful city in the world a glimpse at what the most polarizing baseball player in the world is capable of.

And I’m not talking about the home runs.