Nationals' Bryce Harper: 'Everybody in This League Wants to Beat Us'

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistMarch 5, 2015

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VIERA, Fla. — This is the spring of Bryce Harper's greatest hits, one fabulous quote at a time. He's like The Beatles in 1964, pumping out one gem after another seemingly every five minutes.

Upon his arrival here this spring, talking about the Max Scherzer signing, he said, "I just started laughing. I was like, 'Where's my ring?'"

He reiterated that he's going to bring a title to D.C. And he repeated during an early morning conversation with Bleacher Report on Wednesday that with a rotation like the Nationals have built, "How can we lose?"

The guy is hyper-excited about this Nationals team, and can you blame him? Wait, let me answer that: Sure, you can blame him.

The haters have been out in full force since he first graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16. He's been blamed for being cocky, arrogant, playing too hard, playing too recklessly, being out of control, wearing god-awful eyeblack, too many injuries and desecrating the great game of baseball with his ego. And oh yeah, he probably got some flak for having poor taste in music and enjoying crappy television shows. 

Bottom line is he's still only 22. He's been run through the media car wash since long before he could grow a beard, and it is impossible to come out dry on the other side.

Public opinion, most of it preconceived, has been formed and decisions made.

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So given that this is an organization with World Series aspirations but has never won a playoff series, and considering that Harper debuted with trumpets blaring in 2012 but has yet to stay healthy for an entire season, of course many people will hear this stuff and dismiss it as so much tripe.

"I just have confidence in my team, in our ability," Harper tells B/R. "If you look at it, I don't say it arrogantly. It's genuine, how I feel about my team. People don't have confidence in our team. I mean, they do, but the average person is going to look at it and say, 'We hate the Nationals. We hope they don't play well, blah, blah, blah.'

"You've got to have the confidence you need coming in because everybody in this league wants to beat us. We've got to have that confidence of wanting to win and doing the things we need to do to get us a ring, get a title. That's how it is."

It is 7:30 in the morning, the quiet time just ahead of the Nationals' final workout before the Grapefruit League schedule begins. But little is quiet about Harper, of course, from the stylish hot-pink headband taming his mop of hair to his highlighter-yellow workout pants.

That he has blown into town with his chest out, full of confidence and vigor, is a very good sign, many around the Nationals believe. It means he's in a good place both physically and mentally.

Oct 7, 2014; San Francisco, CA, USA; Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper (34) celebrates with catcher Wilson Ramos (40) after hitting a solo home run against the San Francisco Giants in the 7th inning during game four of the 2014 NLDS baseball
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He certainly ended on a good note in 2014, with three home runs in the four-game division series against the San Francisco Giants, batting .294/.368/.882 before the Nats were eliminated. This was after returning from a thumb injury to smash 10 homers with 19 RBI over the season's final two months.

But missing all but one game from April 26 to July 1 with the thumb injury suffered while sliding into third after legging out a triple took much of the air out of his 2014 season.

Then there was the knee injury suffered after crashing into the wall while making a catch in Dodger Stadium in 2013, which limited him to 118 games played.

Both the Nationals and Harper are entering a pivotal year. Can he stay in one piece? Will he become the superstar we've been waiting for?

It is tempting to say he's reached a crossroads in his career. If he doesn't reach that next level soon, will he ever?

He disagrees.

"I'm not at a crossroads because I would have graduated college last year and still be in the minors," he says. "Being 22 and being in the league, just playing the game I love, having fun and doing what I need to do to help this team win...I've got a long time to get better and better."

Here's an incredible fact that covers Harper's 357 games in the majors and 139 games in the minors: As the good folks at Baseball Prospectus point out, he has never faced a pitcher younger than him as a professional.

"I've played against guys older than me my entire life," he says. "We're all on the same level out there. Everybody's a big leaguer. If you're in the big leagues, you're a good player."

He thinks for a moment, figuring this year will probably be the time he faces a pitcher younger than him. He rolls through the scouting reports in his head but comes up blank.

"I'm trying to think," he says. "I'm not sure how old Noah Syndergaard is."

Close. The Mets' Syndergaard (Aug. 29, 1992) is a little less than two months older than Harper (Oct. 16, 1992).

Nick Wass/Associated Press

There is little about the game that Harper does not enthusiastically embrace. Teammates. Opponents. Competition. History. Trivia.

Get to know him, and the black-hat reputation becomes all the more cartoonish. That's not who he is. This is a guy who respects the game and plays hard.

What's not to like?

I've written that he is the closest thing to a modern-day Pete Rose, who once said, "I'd walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball." As I mention this, Harper finishes the quote that I've started.

"I don't think anybody plays the game like Pete," Harper says. "He had his style of baseball, and that's the way he played. But, you know, I try and play this game hard. I try and play it the right way. Sometimes, you've got to play a little smarter.

"Talking about that play in L.A., we were up 7-0 with Jordan Zimmermann on the mound. There's a ball over my head, and there you go. I blew my bursa sac, and for what reason?

"That situation, my whole April and May were pretty ridiculous [.287, 12 homers and 23 RBI in 44 games in 2013]. And then I got hurt, and we saw how that year went." (Harper missed the entire month of June, and the Nationals missed the playoffs.)

"I just need to be a little smarter, pick my spots, but I'm still going to play hard and play this game the right way. That's just how I play. How I am."

This also includes the thumb injury last year on the triple.

"Did I really need to get that triple, or could I have had a sure-shot double and let Desi [Ian Desmond] drive me in with the next pitch?" Harper says. "In my head, I'm thinking to myself, 'I've gotta get to third base, I've gotta get to third base. We've gotta get this run just in case.'

"Maybe [I need to] tone it down a little in that aspect. It's going to be hard for me because when I sniff three, I'm going for three. I'm thinking three out of the box. That's just how I've always been. Hopefully, I can tone it down a little bit in that regard, but I'm still going to play hard."

There is that ultra fine line, sometimes invisible, between playing hard and pulling the team with you and ill-advisedly doing something that knocks you out. At 22, Harper certainly doesn't have all the answers. Sometimes, he doesn't have as many answers as you would expect because he's still younger than he seems.

VIERA, FL - MARCH 01:  Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals poses for a portrait during photo day at Space Coast Stadium on March 1, 2015 in Viera, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

"My dad always used to say that cowboys are the toughest people in the world," Harper says. "They get on these bulls, and they break their clavicles, and they do all this stuff, and they still get on that bull the next day.

"I've always tried to cowboy up and do certain things. I'm going to play hard. And I ran into the wall, and I played the next day. That's just how I am. Maybe it's not the smartest thing. I try to battle for my team every day, and that's what you're going to get out of me."

Noticeable last year was the fact that, in 18 fewer games played, Harper's strikeout total increased (to 104, from 94 in 2013) while his slugging percentage decreased (to .423, from .486).

"My on-base percentage was pretty good," he says, and it was, at .344 (though down from .368 in '13). "As long as I'm getting on base and doing the things I'm doing, if I strike out, I strike out. That's just how it is. Just like a groundout to third or a popup to second baseman. Instead of putting the ball in play, you're striking out. It's still an out.

"If my on-base percentage is still there, that's the biggest thing. If I get on base, I make things happen. That's biggest thing for me."

This spring, he's moving to right field, his third position since '12. He mostly played center field as a rookie, then left the past two seasons. He's excited about right field because among other things, he figures he'll be able to use his arm more. From left field, it's mostly throws to the plate, and sometimes second. On balls into the corner, there are more chances for plays at second and third from right.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

That's just one more way he can help his team, he figures. And by extension, of course, the solid-gold rotation the Nationals employ. Harper was with his brother in Las Vegas this winter when the Scherzer news came.

"And it was like, 'Wow, this is unbelievable. With the team that we've got and adding him, how can we lose?'" Harper says. "That was the first thing that came to my head. Knowing we have such a great team, great guys and the camaraderie that we have, it's a lot of fun.

"We've still got to do it out on the field, of course. You can talk and talk and talk, and until you do it out on the field, it doesn't mean anything."

Especially in D.C., where the Nationals produced the game's best record in 2012 only to lose to the Cardinals in the division series, and where they won another National League East title in '14 but were KO'd by the Giants.

Last time a hardball team from Washington, D.C., won a series in October? When the Senators won a seven-game World Series over the New York Giants in 1924.

So now begins the latest charge at changing that, behind a glittering rotation of Scherzer, Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and perhaps even Tanner Roark.

Feb 21, 2015; Viera, FL, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer (31) throws during the spring training workouts at Space Coast Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
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"I believe in our pitchers, and I believe in the offensive production of the guys we have," Harper says. "One through nine in the lineup, and one through five on our staff, there's nobody better. I truly believe that.

"I think a lot of people agree with me, but a lot of people don't. And that's part of it. We've got to come in having the confidence we do and enjoy the game that we play, knowing that we're very, very good."

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. 

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