WASHINGTON, D.C.: The sight of catcher-turned-outfielder Bryce Harper taking grounders at first base early on Monday afternoon in Nationals Park was bound to raise questions, even though they were likely to get some variation of “Don’t read too much into it,” as a response.
Still, reporters asked Washington Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez if Harper was preparing for a day he might actually play first or if the 25-year-old outfielder was just out there mixing things up to do something different in his pregame preparation.
“Did it catch you by surprise?” Martinez asked the reporter who brought it up.
“It’s just kind of him getting outside his comfort zone,” the manager explained, “... and letting him do something different. And he’s actually not bad. I don’t know if he’ll ever start a game there, but I believe that if we’re in a pinch and we have to make some kind of decisions in-game, he probably could play there. So it was good to see, and see him out there fielding and working with [first base coach Tim Bogar].”
So Harper at first is not the answer to the Nationals’ logjam in the outfield?
“Like I said,” Martinez reiterated, “... we’re in a game and making double-switches, players going here, it’s just another option that we have, which would be nice.”
Harper, who’s been in right field mostly the last few seasons, has seen a lot of time in center since Adam Eaton returned from ankle surgery though, and Martinez, a former major league outfielder himself, was asked for his thoughts of the job Harper’s done out in center field.
“He’s done really, really well,” the first-year skipper said. “[Harper] has really good jumps out there, and I’ve said this before, as a former outfielder, center field was the easiest place for me to play, because the balls were right at you and you could see the balls right off the bat fairly early, so I watch him out there, he gets really good jumps, he really does. I think he’s having fun out there and he really enjoys it.”
Martinez also explained that the outfield alignment he featured in the series opener with the Red Sox, one he’s used often since Eaton came back, with Juan Soto in left field, Harper out in center, and Eaton in right, is the lineup he things gives the Nationals the best offensive mix, even if it means Michael A. Taylor, who’s put up a .344/.382/.469 line since June 1st, is relegated to the bench in that set-up.
“We’re blessed with five really good outfielders,” he said.
“Everyone keeps forgetting about [Brian] Goodwin, but he’s pretty good. Unfortunately we can only start three in a game. Adam Eaton is doing well, and he leads off, Soto, I can’t say enough about what he’s doing, and Harper is that power bat that we need in the lineup, so those three guys are the constants. I want to play Michael, and I will play Michael, he’ll play, but he gets it, and he’s done wonderful here in the last month or so. But he’s another one that he just wants to see us win and he’ll do whatever it takes too. And it’s hard. And I get it.
“As a player you want to play every day. I mean I sat the bench a lot, but I always told myself I can only control the controllables, and I told Mike that, just hang in there cause you’ll get a chance to play.”
Martinez is trying what he can to spark the offense somehow, and with the Nationals in a spot similar to what the Cubs were in last season after their World Series win in 2016, when he was the bench coach in Chicago and they struggled and were a .500 team on July 2nd before a second-half run to a spot in the NLDS and [whispers] ... a win over the team Martinez is managing now... what helped turn things around for the Cubs?
“I honestly think that we thought of rest being important,” Martinez said. “And that’s what we did. I can remember going through a stretch where we closed the [batting] cages, we did everything and we just told the guys, ‘Stay away from the ballpark, show up a little later, and just relax and let’s come back and have some fun.’ And it seemed to work, and we’ll do something like that here fairly soon.”
As for any day-to-day changes as the Nationals might make to try to get things turned around with the team now a game above .500 and 7.0 back after last night’s loss?
“You stay in the here and the now and stick to the process,” Martinez said before last night’s game.
“I truly believe, like I said, things will turn around, and they can often turn around quickly.
“We can’t control what the Braves do, what the Phillies do, or what any other teams do, let’s just control what we can do and that’s to go out there and play good baseball, daily.”