Bryce Harper Shows D.C. Is His Town as He Saves Star-Lacking HR Derby

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterJuly 17, 2018

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 16:  Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals and National League celebrates with the trophy and teammates Max Scherzer #31 and Sean Doolittle #62 after winning the T-Mobile Home Run Derby at Nationals Park on July 16, 2018 in Washington, DC. Harper defeated Kyle Schwarber of the Chicago Cubs and National League 19-18.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Bryce Harper sure didn't look like a guy anxious to get out of town. And Washington, D.C., sure didn't look like a city ready to show him the door.

Harper almost single-handedly saved a Home Run Derby sadly lacking in stars with the show he put on Monday night at Nationals Park. It wasn't just that he won it—it was how he won it.

And it wasn't just how he won it, with home runs on nine straight swings to draw even with Kyle Schwarber in the final round and then a no-doubt homer to center field to put it away, followed by arms raised and a two-handed bat flip.

It wasn't just that. It was what he said. It was what they chanted.

"I freaking love this crowd!" Harper shouted at ESPN's Buster Olney. "Washington Nationals, baby! Let's go! Nice job!"

"Let's go, Bryce!" the fans had screamed as Harper got ready for his first-round matchup with Freddie Freeman.

"Let's go, Har-per!" they yelled, as he came to the plate in the final round.

When it was over, his Nationals teammates Max Scherzer and Sean Doolittle handed Harper the trophy, which he gave to his father, Ron (who was also his pitcher). Dave Martinez, the Nationals manager, picked up Harper and carried him.

Obviously, the disappointing Nationals could use Harper carrying them in the second half of the season in a way he rarely has so far in 2018. Obviously, what happens when he hits free agency after the World Series will be determined by what he and the Nationals do between now and then—and by the numbers on the contract offers he gets from the Nationals and other teams.

But there was a sense at one time that Harper would definitely be a goner after 2018, that the Nationals wouldn't pay him or even that he would prefer to go somewhere else (pinstripes, anyone?).

Harper gets a lift from Dave Martinez, the Nationals manager he praised Monday morning.
Harper gets a lift from Dave Martinez, the Nationals manager he praised Monday morning.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

That sense may not have ever been totally correct, but there's no way anyone can say now that it's a given he's going to leave. Were you watching Monday? Were you listening to what Harper said Monday morning as he helped dedicate the Bryce Harper All-Star Complex in suburban Washington?

These were Harper's words then, according to Zach Silver of MLB.com: "[Martinez] is one of the best managers I've ever played for. … I look forward to hopefully playing with him for the next 10-12 years. He's one of the best. We'll see what happens."

Notice, he said the next 10-12 years, not the next 10-12 weeks.

People in the Nationals organization have long said Harper has an affinity for the area and for the Nationals franchise. He has a close relationship with general manager Mike Rizzo and heaped praise on Rizzo when the Nationals gave Rizzo a contract extension earlier this season.

And while Harper has been one of the stars who skipped the Home Run Derby often in previous years, he always said he would take part in front of the hometown crowd at Nationals Park. Good thing, too, since Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout, J.D. Martinez, Jose Ramirez and so many others said no thanks.

If baseball truly sees this event as a showcase, the powers that be must find a way to get the biggest stars to take part. But that's a column for another day, because on Monday the Washington Home Run Derby had the only star it needed.

Harper played the part, taking the field with a bandana that displayed the D.C. city flag. He had the stars and stripes on his bat, sleeve and socks, and earlier Monday he showed off a cherry-blossom-themed bat and spikes to wear for Tuesday's All-Star Game.

Harper shared the moment with his father, Ron, but he also shared it with all of Washington.
Harper shared the moment with his father, Ron, but he also shared it with all of Washington.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Cherry blossoms...Washington…yes, this is his town.

It hasn't always been easy for Harper this season. He has 23 home runs and 54 RBI, but he also has a .214 batting average that's more than 100 points lower than the .319 he hit last season. The Nationals reached the All-Star break at 48-48, 5.5 games out of first place and five games out of a playoff spot.

People have actually asked whether they could fall far enough off the pace to consider trading Harper by the end of the month, given his status as a pending free agent.

It's hard to believe they could fall that far. It's hard to believe they would say goodbye to Harper by choice.

Think about this: In their seven seasons of existence pre-Harper, the Nationals never had a winning season. In their first six seasons with him, they averaged 93 wins and went to the playoffs four times.

He was hardly the only reason, but from almost the moment he arrived, at 19 years old, he was the guy everyone focused on. He still is.

He sure was the focus Monday night at Nationals Park. This was his event, in his town, and he owned it from start to finish.

He saved the night. He could still save the Nationals in the second half of the season. And maybe they ought to save a spot in their lineup for him for years to come.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.