Three-homer game shows that young Nats star is just scratching surface with talent
By Richard Justice
There was the time in the 2011 Arizona Fall League when Bryce Harper's team trailed by two runs going into the bottom of the ninth inning.
Here's Mike Trout's recollection of what Harper said.
"Hey, if the first two people get on, I'm going to hit a walk-off home run here."
At least that's how Trout remembers it. Others who were in that Scottsdale Scorpions dugout have a more colorful version, but that's beside the point. Anyway, the first two guys got on base, and then Harper stepped to the plate and did just what he said he would do.
Harper launched a towering home run to win the game -- not just a home run, but one of those jaw-dropping moonshot things that seemed to vaporize. He then trotted off the field and into the clubhouse to celebrate.
To this day, Trout shakes his head when he remembers it.
"Pretty amazing," he said.
To some of Harper's teammates, managers and coaches, that story speaks volumes about the kid. He'd just turned 19. It's not that he did what he said he was going to do. It was the way he did it, how he stepped to home plate seemingly knowing he was going to do it.
That's a story plenty of teammates, coaches and buddies will recall when Harper has a day like he did on Wednesday, when he homered three times in his first three at-bats in a game against the Marlins. Not one of them will say they're surprised. They see him as being capable of almost anything.
Maybe you're thinking that Harper has somehow failed to live up to all the hype that accompanied him long before the Nationals made him the first overall pick of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft.
Remember the stories? Fastest this. Strongest that. Harper wasn't going to be great. He was going to be scary great. Stuff like that had been said about him since around the time he turned 14 or 15.
To have those kinds of predictions thrust upon a kid at such a young age creates all kinds of challenges. Harper made his big league debut a few months after that home run in Arizona. He'd played just 126 Minor League games.
Four seasons later, Harper is still one of the youngest players in baseball. And through it all, he has never once seemed overwhelmed. In 386 games, Harper has a very respectable .271 career batting average. He has made two All-Star teams and won the 2012 National League Rookie of the Year Award. Those three home runs on Wednesday brought his career total to 63.
If those numbers sound pedestrian, they're still just a beginning. Harper remains bound for greatness, because in terms of physical gifts and work ethic and desire, he's everything the Nationals hoped he would be.
If there's a downside, it's that Harper has been hurt too often. He played 218 of a possible 324 games in 2013-14, and some of those injuries were from his aggressiveness catching up with him. The Nationals have cautioned Harper that every base doesn't have to be stolen, every wall doesn't have to be banged into. In the end, the Nats are better when he's in the lineup, even if it means slowing him down a bit.
On the other hand, how can they tell Harper to play less than 100 percent? How does he do that? The very thing that they love about him, the thing that brings fans to the park, is the one thing that may not be controllable. In a competitive spot, his fires may always rage.
When Harper made his big league debut three years ago, it was interesting to watch players on both teams stop and marvel at his rounds of batting practice. He swung the bat harder and hit the ball farther than almost any player, ever. When he hit the ball, it just made a different sound.
Was there a purpose in all those mega-swings? Were they a smart use of his energy? Again, that's part of the whole package. The Nationals have always seen Harper as a guy who would impact games in all sorts of ways -- with his bat, with his arm, his legs, you name it.
They also thought Harper would impact the franchise in a larger way. He had that certain something that goes beyond numbers.
Swagger? Maybe that's the best word for it.
Would Harper rub some people the wrong way? Yes, he absolutely would. Plenty of the greats do.
Would Harper test his teammates and manager a few times? Yes, he has done that, too.
Harper is also a truly amazing player, one of the most compelling people in a sport awash in dazzling young talent. Those three home runs were simply his way of reminding us what he's capable of. There'll be more days like it.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.