Nationals outfielder stays intent on improving, elevating his level of play
By Richard Justice
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Bryce Harper's second home run on Sunday afternoon was a breathtaking thing, towering far over the center-field wall, landing amid a construction zone. Surely most Major League players don't hit baseballs this far in their dreams.
Nationals manager Dusty Baker called it "as long of a home run as I've seen." As Harper rounded the bases, Baker's new pitching coach, Mike Maddux, asked, "We get to watch this every day?"
When Harper stepped outside the visiting clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium, former Tigers great Willie Horton yelled his own congratulations.
"That ball was HIT!," Horton called.
"Thank you, sir," Harper said. "Appreciate it. Thank you."
Listen, when Harper crushes two baseballs the way he did on this day, he ought to at least be able to stand there at home plate and admire 'em. Otherwise, he's the only guy in the house deprived of the best show in baseball, and how fair is that?
Maybe Harper had a point when he said baseball needed to relax some of its unwritten rules and allow players to show a tad more emotion on the field. If that means more of Harper, that's a good thing.
Harper is in that special place, one few athletes ever get to. Every game he plays is a big event, every at-bat potentially a moment to remember. To understand what he means to the game, start here.
Harper is the 2015 National League Most Valuable Player Award winner -- 42 home runs, .330 average, 118 runs. But he's only 23 years old, and when he's asked about having "arrived," he has a different take.
"When you think about arriving or I've done this or done that, that's when you start going downhill," Harper said. "Rent's paid every day. You have to go about it the right way. Last year's behind us. I can learn something new every single day. I want to get better."
Harper got Tigers ace Justin Verlander twice on Sunday afternoon in a Nats-Tigers split-squad game Detroit won, 7-6. Both were moon-shot, call-your-best-friend home runs.
Let's be clear about the pitcher. Verlander is back. Since about the middle of last season, he's throwing pretty close to as well as he has at any point in his career. For the first time in three seasons, Verlander is completely healthy, and the results reflect a career renaissance.
Verlander hadn't allowed a run in his first three spring starts. But on this day, he struggled with his location, and when he missed, Harper didn't.
"I was missing up with pitches all day," Verlander said. "That plays right into his swing."
In the first inning, Harper launched a full-count Verlander fastball and sent it towering over the right-field fence with a runner on base. His swing is so perfect, so smooth, that it generates massive power without effort.
And then Harper did one better. When Verlander missed with a slider in the fifth inning, he deposited it over the center-field wall. Harper seemed to be about the only guy in the park not impressed.
"Verlander's great," Harper said. "He's one of the best in the game. Going up a guy like that is always fun. Just trying to see pitches and have good at-bats."
Verlander shrugged it all off, saying, "Today, he hit mistakes. Like [Miguel Cabrera], they foul off good pitches when you really execute or take it somehow. And then you make a mistake, and they do damage."
Maybe the most amazing thing about Harper's career is that he has never once looked overwhelmed or over his skis. He debuted almost four years ago at age 19, and while he wasn't great those first three seasons, he was on the fast track there.
Whatever Harper lacked in experience, he made up for in talent, confidence, work ethic and a relentless drive to be great.
One other thing about that first season. Players on the other team paused to watch Harper take batting practice. They'd seen hundreds and hundreds of rounds of batting practice, but Harper was different.
Not just that the ball made a different sound coming off Harper's bat, although it did. It was also that he generated more bat speed and more power than almost anyone.
Harper is at the center of a deep, talented Nationals lineup this season. He'll have impact players in front of him and behind him. But how will teams approach Harper? Will they finally stop pitching to him all together and take their chances with the hitters who don't have an MVP Award?
"I think it'll be the same [approach]," Harper said. "It's just trying to have good at-bats and right approach. Get my pitch, not chasing anything. If I can walk 150 times a year, 200 times, I'll be OK."
Regardless, there'll still be moments when Harper separates himself. As someone special. As someone who is helping define an entire sport.
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.