MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Harper wants to be best, but also play for best

Harper wants to be best, but also play for best

DENVER -- Bryce Harper would like to be the best. And at the age of 23, the Washington Nationals outfielder definitely has been among the best players in the game. He is a four-time All-Star, the National League Rookie of the Year Award winner in 2012 and the NL MVP Award winner in '15.

Most of all, though, Harper wants to be a part of the best team. That's why Harper is enjoying himself this season, even though for the first time in five years in the big leagues, he has been offensively challenged.

The Nationals are sitting atop the NL East. They went into Tuesday night's game against the Rockies at Coors Field with an 8 1/2-game lead on the second-place Marlins.

This is a franchise that came into existence as the expansion Montreal Expos in 1969 and is still looking to appear in a World Series for the first time. Harper wants to be a part of making that happen.

"I don't know that it is easy to forget [the personal struggles]," he said. "I want to perform to the best of my ability. But I have always said the biggest thing to me is I want to win."

To be fair, the Nationals have advanced to the postseason twice since Harper got to the big leagues -- in 2012 and '14. Both times, however, they were eliminated in the NL Division Series. That only whetted the appetite of not only Harper, but the entire Nats organization.

Matt Williams managed the team for two seasons, winning a division title and 179 games, but he was let go at the end of last season. He was replaced by Dusty Baker, whose 1,741 wins going into Tuesday rank second among active managers to Bruce Bochy, who went into Tuesday with 1,768.

And Baker is definitely a believer in Harper.

"He's a lot older than his age, because he's been dealing with this fame and fortune for a long time," said Baker. "He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16. Sometimes I feel badly for him. These child prodigies, are they ever allowed to be a child?"

Baker paused.

"Sometimes it is lonely being famous," he said.

Harper is certainly famous. He got that national attention when at the age of 16 he tested out of high school and decided to enroll at College of Southern Nevada so he could be eligible for the Draft at the age of 17, which would have been his junior year in high school. Not only was Harper Draft eligible, but the Nationals used the No. 1 pick overall in the 2010 Draft to select him.

Less than two years later, Harper was in the big leagues, and he has never left. And he has proven on a day-to-day basis that he belongs with his production and his approach, which is something Baker noticed quickly after becoming the Nats' manager.

"What struck me is he wants to win," said Baker. "Very rarely have I heard any talk about any personal accomplishments or anything like that. I know in his heart and his mind it's hard to go from MVP to not having a good year."

What Baker sees is that things have gone well for the Nationals so far this year, even without him having a Harper-type season. There were signs of the Harper of old in a 5-4 victory against the Rockies on Monday night when he reached base in all five of his plate appearances, including 3-for-3 with two doubles, the second of which drove in the game-winning run in the seventh.

Harper was still hitting .240 at the end of the night, although his 20 home runs were a team high. He also had 59 RBIs and was leading the team with 85 walks, 31 more than Jayson Werth, who ranked second.

And going into Tuesday, the Nats still had 45 regular-season games to play, along with anticipation of a postseason appearance.

That's plenty of time for Harper to make a statement on the field.

"I think these last weeks, he'll rise to the top, because he has a lot of pride and a lot of game," said Baker. "After a game, you can't tell if he got five hits or zero hits. And that's what I admire about him. A lot of guys, you can tell if the team won and they got hits and if the team lost, they'd be kind of happy if they got their hits."

Harper agrees.

"I know I can help this team with my presence in the lineup whether I go 0-for-4 or 3-for-4," he said. "I try to do everything possible to be part of it. I am taking my reps in right field. I am trying to win a Gold Glove for the first time."

Most of all, though, Harper and the Nationals are looking for that World Series appearance for the first time.

Tracy Ringolsby is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.