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It’s been a trying year for Bryce Harper

Aug 8, 2014, 7:44 PM EDT

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WASHINGTON — Before we can get into Harpergate – the silliness, the confusion, the panic – we must begin by talking about October 10, 2012. That was the date of the first baseball playoff game in the nation’s capital in almost 80 years, the first playoff game since Goose Goslin and Heinie Manush played in these parts.

That was a crazy American day because baseball in Washington is a crazy American thing. For a long time, baseball in Washington was simply lousy, hysterically so; those Senators were the team that inspired the Vaudeville joke, “First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.” And then the Senators were gone, shipped off to Texas to become Rangers, and Washington baseball was mourned loudly and often by real senators and congressional leaders and political writers and various power brokers.

So that day – October 10, 2012 – was a pomp and circumstance, marching bands, political leaders waving celebration day. Flags unfurled. The afternoon was bright and warm, one of those bold-faced days when colors pop, like everything is freshly painted, and the Nationals had the best record in baseball. They also had two of the most exciting young players in recent memory – flame-throwing pitcher Stephen Strasburg and 19-year-old phenomenon Bryce Harper. This team looked like baseball’s next superpower, a potential dynasty. Washington was the shining city on a mound.

Yes, everything seemed possible that day.

Well, yeah, then the Cardinals clobbered the Nationals 8-0. Washington lost the series two days later after blowing an early six-run lead and a two-run lead in the ninth inning. Strasburg didn’t pitch at all in the series – Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo had shut him down to protect his healthy arm. The preseason World Series predictions in 2013 did not prevent Washington from an abysmal, unfocused injury-laden start, Harper smashed into a wall, and the Nationals still had a losing record in late August. Manager Davey Johnson was pushed overboard. This year has been marked by stops and starts and more injuries and arguments.

The story never changes. It is really hard to get things done in Washington.

* * *

Before we get into Harpergate – the absurdity, the misunderstandings, the climax – we must note that the Washington Nationals are in first place. It is easy to miss that when you’re inside the beltway. More than that, at this moment the Nationals are in first place by 4 ½ games, which is the biggest lead in the National League. More than that, the Nationals have the best run differential in the National League.

They have a five-man pitching rotation so extraordinary that you could argue their fourth and fifth starters at the moment are Strasburg (who leads the league in strikeouts) and Gio Gonzalez (who could have legitimately won the Cy Young Award two years ago). Their bullpen has a sub 3.00 ERA. The Nationals also have a lineup that, when healthy, has six or seven above average hitters, and that does NOT EVEN INCLUDE Bryce Harper, who we will get into in a moment.

“We’re a good team,” Rizzo says, but it is like he’s shouting into the wind.

“I’m really happy with the way this team has battled,” Rizzo says, but it is like no one is listening.

“We have a lot of players that …” oh, wait, I forgot to write down the rest. This Washington thing is contagious.

Baseball is not a sport for the restless or the impatient. It’s a long season. A loss is just a loss. A slump is just a slump. In baseball, a week is nothing, a month barely registers. The all-star Tommy Helms when he was a minor-league manager, used to do his postgame interviews in front of the mirror, while shaving. “Turn the page,” he would always say without looking away because one baseball game in the summertime, win or lose, is never worth cutting yourself shaving.

But Washington is a particularly restless city, an agitated and frenetic place where today’s news is the most important thing that ever happened … until tomorrow. So the Nationals 62-51 record is not simply that. It is a record of spectacular and calamitous events, a talking point followed by another talking point followed by another. For a while in July, the Nationals were healthy – healthy enough that they had their slugging shortstop Ian Desmond hitting seventh – and they went 15-5 with that impressive lineup. Then, at other times, they have seemed utterly helpless, unable to score.

The Nationals have the best record in baseball when scoring four or more runs – 53-6. But they have one of the worst records in baseball when failing to score four runs (9-45). This schizophrenic tendency drives Washington’s most extreme impulses. One Washington insider I know who is otherwise known for his calmness in crises will fluctuate from elation to utter alarm on a daily basis when it comes to his Nationals. He seems to more or less fit the Washington Nationals fan profile.

* * *

Stephen Strasburg has been at the center of this Washington whirlwind for – believe it or not – five seasons already. He came up as one of the most hyped pitching prospects in a half century; some thought his debut was the most anticipated since a 17-year-old Bob Feller took the mound. Well, why not? He brought a 100-mph fastball, a lane-changing curveball and a change-up that made hitters jolt awake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. He came up to the big leagues very quickly and struck out 92 batters in 68 innings. And then he blew out his arm.

Everyone knows the story that followed. He had Tommy John surgery. He missed almost the entire 2011 season. Then, in 2012, he was often brilliant – he did not pitch more than seven innings in any game, but he still struck out 10 or more five times, allowed zero runs six times, righties batted just .185 against him. Rizzo had said from the start that he would shut down Strasburg after a certain number of innings, but then the Nationals began winning. And winning. And winning. Rizzo kept repeating that he would stick to the plan, but few believed him. Hey, if the Nationals made the playoffs, they would HAVE to pitch Strasburg, right? Right?

Wrong. Rizzo had made up his mind. Some thought he was capitulating to Strasburg’s powerful agent Scott Boras. Some thought he was just stubbornly refusing to give in to public pressure. But the most common thing I heard inside baseball was this: Rizzo felt sure that he had a brilliant young team that wasn’t quite ready to win, a team that he felt sure would get better over the next few years. He saw no need to push in all his chips. He was betting on Stephen Strasburg and the future.

So now what? Well, Strasburg is having an unusual year. He leads the National League in starts and strikeouts and his 177-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio is fantastic. But he also is posting the highest ERA of his career so far (3.39) and the Nationals are just 12-12 in games he starts. He has honed his change-up into one of the most devastating pitches in the game, but his velocity slowly comes down and hitters have teed off on his fastball for much of the season. Even teammates have commented on how aggressively hitters attack his fastball. He could get to 200 innings for the first time this year, but he does not have a complete game and has only twice even started the eighth inning.

And so Strasburg has been one of the most argued about people in Washington – not quite at the level of President Obama but probably on par with, say, John Boehner. Some see an emerging ace. Some see an enigma who doesn’t pitch inside enough. Some see a pitcher with great stuff but not great presence. Some see a young man who is maturing because he recently became a father. Some see a pitcher who has not improved at all since coming to the big leagues. Every day there’s something new about Stephen Strasburg. Every day.

“So I thought I’d write something on Stephen Strasburg,” I told Mike Rizzo.

“How novel,” he replied.

If he was any 26-year-old pitcher leading the league in strikeouts … but he’s not. He’s Stephen Strasburg. This is Washington. The pontificating never ends.

There’s only one player who feels it even more.

So, here’s what seems to have happened in Harpergate. Nationals manager Matt Williams went on a radio show Tuesday morning and the hot topic was Bryce Harper because Bryce Harper is always the hot topic. Harper talk is especially hot now because he has been hitting about .225 with no power since returning from his latest injury on June 30. He has been swinging and missing a lot.

The hype for Harper, if possible, even trumped the Strasburg stuff. Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16 years old with the understated headline: “Baseball’s Chosen One.” In case you missed the point, the subhead was: “Bryce Harper is the most exciting prodigy since LeBron.”

He got his GED and left high school after his sophomore year, went to junior college at Southern Nevada when he was 17 and smashed 31 home runs. He was the first pick in the draft, of course. Comparisons? Mickey Mantle! Barry Bonds! The work ethic of Pete Rose, the power of Willie McCovey, the hand-eye coordination of Ted Williams! The head of a hawk, the body of a lion, the force of Reggie Jackson! Baseball America called his raw tools “freakish,” and that was one of the more understated things said about him.

He came up at 19 and showed everything – power, speed, arm, the whole package. He was selected Rookie of the Year and made it back on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which this time used its headline to ask a question: “What does Bryce Harper have in mind for his encore?”

The answer was below: “Some seriously monumental numbers.”

It did look that way for a while last year – he hit two homers on Opening Day. He hit .337 and slugged .700 in April. Then it started to go bad. He slumped. He got hurt running into a wall. When he returned, he wasn’t the same. He was beat up. His knee hurt. He hit just .266 the rest of the way with just eight homers in 74 games. People started talking about how he needed to adjust his game, be a little less aggressive, be smarter. He didn’t agree with any of that.

This year has been trying. He started off reasonably well then got hurt again, this time sliding into third base. When he came back he griped about Matt Williams’ lineup. And he just stopped hitting. One scout told me that he looks lost up there, like he’s completely lost his feel for hitting. On Tuesday night against the Mets, he looked particularly overmatched. He struck out looking, then he struck out swinging, then he lofted a fly ball to deep left that died at the warning track. When he reached first base he slammed his helmet down in frustration.

The next day, he dove into first base on a play that wasn’t even all that close. “He has got to stop doing that!” echoed throughout the stadium.

So, yes, Harper was going to be the conversation for Matt Williams’ radio show. But it took an odd turn – the idea of Harper going down to the minor leagues was brought up. But it wasn’t exactly brought up as an idea. It was brought up in a sort of passive-aggressive way, with the kicker being: “is that just a stupid idea on my part?”

This might have been a good time for Williams to say, “Yes, stupid idea,” and everyone could laugh and move on. Instead – maybe to be nice, maybe because this is something that has been on his mind, maybe because it was early in the morning and his brain wasn’t quite awake – he said this according to the Washington Post transcript:

“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 player, we all know that. It’s different. … But I don’t know if it’s a good idea at this point to do that because it’s completely different pitching. … It’s probably more of an option to have him feel good here, get it back.”

Well, you can imagine what happened next: The Bryce Harper-to-the-minors talk in Washington pushed to 11. Could they really send him down? Should they? Don’t they realize that, even with the latest slump, he has accomplished more at 21 than all but a handful of major leaguers? But could sending him down shake him up?

Well, of course this happened — this is Washington, and this is Bryce Harper, and Matt Williams can ask any politician of note what happened: He had just fed the beast. In a few hours he would come into the press room and lambasted the media. “I will caution everyone in this room,” he said, “The minute you think you can read my frickin’ mind, you’re sorely mistaken.”

But it was too late then. You can’t go on the radio as the manager of the Washington Nationals, tell someone that sending Bryce Harper to the minors is NOT a stupid idea, and then expect Washington to sit still. It’s WASHINGTON for crying out loud. (Williams later realized this an apologized).

Rizzo said shortly after Harpergate began that Bryce Harper is fine, he’s matured a lot, he’s got a great work ethic, this little slump is nothing more than a little slump. He’s going to work through it. He’s going to be a great player. And, oh, by the way, maybe you can notice that the Nationals are in first place.

“Bryce is a key part of this team,” Rizzo says. “We have a lot of key parts … that’s what makes us a good team.”

Well, yes. Doug Fister missed a few starts for injury, but he has one of the lowest ERAs in the game (2.47) and the Nationals have won 12 of his 16 starts. Tanner Roark has emerged as one of the better starters in the National League. Late inning guys Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and closer Rafael Soriano all have sub-2.00 ERAs.  Twenty-four year old third baseman Anthony Rendon looks like he is going to be a big star. And so on.

But … Bryce Harper? What about Bryce Harper?

Thursday afternoon, in the 13th inning against the Mets, Bryce Harper mashed a long walk-off home run to extend the Nationals lead.

“I haven’t felt like that in a long time,” he said afterward, and for a few hours all was all right in our nation’s capital.

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