Harper's heroics shows patience pays off
Walk-off home run could ignite Nats phenom's underwhelming season
All right, that ought to settle any debate about whether Bryce Harper should go to the Minors.
With one swing of the bat Thursday afternoon, Harper changed the tone and the tenor of the conversation that had bubbled over in D.C. this week. That's the beauty of a walk-off wallop such as the one that came from Harper's bat in the bottom of the 13th inning against the Mets.
That one swing doesn't solve all Harper's struggles, but it does shift the subject. Changes in latitude, changes in Nattitude. Or something like that.
Anyway, the conversation that preceded that swing is still worth revisiting, if only for a moment, because Harper's troubles at the plate and Matt Williams' brief troubles with the media should prove to be learning experiences for both men.
To review, Williams, in a radio interview Wednesday morning, did not entirely dismiss the notion of Harper temporarily going down to Triple-A Syracuse. Williams was making his weekly appearance on 106.7 The Fan's The Sports Junkies, and he was asked if a Minors stint for Harper is a "stupid idea."
Williams responded as follows:
"I don't know. I don't think it's stupid. Generally, if you have young players, that's what you do. But this guy is a special young player. We all know that. It's different. I think he works hard every day. He's the first one in the ballpark, generally, to get his day going. He's grinding.
"We're doing everything we can to get a good feel going in there, and help him with his confidence and all that. It's not easy, by any stretch. But I don't know if it's a good idea at this point to do that, because it's completely different pitching. We all know the big difference between Triple-A pitching and big league pitching. It's probably more of an option to have him feel good here, get it back."
Long story short: I won't call it stupid, but we're not going to do it because we believe in Bryce Harper.
Fair enough, but Williams had to know he was going to be pressed on the matter later in the day. And it's hard to know what happened between the two interviews -- how his words got interpreted within the Nationals' hierarchy or by Harper himself. Clearly, between the time a still-shaken Williams uttered those comments mere hours after a frustrating loss and a wide-awake Williams was asked about them before an uplifting win, the Nats' manager had decided a more forceful answer was necessary.
So when asked by a reporter if demoting Harper was "in the realm of possibility right now," Williams got testy.
"I will caution everybody in this room," Williams said sternly. "The minute you think you can read my … mind, you're sorely mistaken. It [ticks] me off to even think about the fact that somebody would take a comment that I make on the radio and infer that I am thinking one way or another. I've had it. Don't do it anymore."
Hey, we all have our moments, and we'll forgive Williams for lashing out at the wrong target. But if he had anybody to be irritated with, it was himself. Because if the Nationals, as a group, believed strongly that Harper can right himself at the Major League level, Williams should have taken the bait and said, "Yes, to us, that is a stupid idea."
But all of that parsing of quotes and pointing of fingers merely distracted us from the bigger issue, which was that Harper has looked lost the better part of this season and, more frustratingly, since his June 30 return from thumb surgery. He entered Thursday batting just .218 since the return, including just five extra-base hits, two of which were homers. When Harper hit a fly ball Tuesday night and it died at the warning track, he slammed his helmet to the ground in disgust, giving us in the media a perfect visual to accompany the numbers.
Again, one sweet swing off Carlos Torres in extra innings doesn't fix all that. Harper is still adjusting to the reality that hand injuries sap power and require mental fortitude in lieu of major mechanical tweaks.
This could be a case in which the Harper so many of us expect to see -- the guy who looked untouchable in April 2013 and, for that matter, for a brief stretch in April 2014 -- might need a full offseason to strengthen his hand and regain the thump in his bat. I know that doesn't exactly mesh with this Nats team's legit shot at winning a World Series, but Harper, batting in a low-profile spot in the order, can still be productive enough to impact the bottom line, as he proved in Thursday's 5-3 win.
That Triple-A idea? It was not exactly essential, but I wouldn't say it was truly terrible. Confidence is such a separator in this sport, and maybe going down and bashing a few homers -- like when he hit three of them in a Double-A rehab start earlier this summer -- during a 10-day visit might would have allowed Harper to build up his confidence level.
But the walk-off winner should solve that little riddle, and it takes the pressure off the Nationals, whose judgment on this one always seemed sound.
Harper, after all, has been putting in the work, and the frustration he took out on that helmet does not seem to extend to his pregame routine. For as much and as long as he's been on our radar, he is not yet 22, and the lesson he's learning about the effect of hand injuries on a Major League hitter is the latest in a long line of them.
Hopefully, though, Williams learned a lesson here, as well. If you think an idea is stupid, just say so. We won't hold it against you, and we'll all move on with our lives.
Especially when your guy goes out the next day and changes the subject completely.