Remember Bryce Harper? You know, the guy who set the world on fire last year when he became the youngest unanimous MVP in MLB history? A year later, as impossible as it seems, that guy has almost become an afterthought.
Even within his own clubhouse, Harper seems to have gotten a little lost in the mix. Daniel Murphy is an MVP candidate. Trea Turner is the next big thing. Stephen Strasburg, with an assist from his strained flexor mass, has dominated the news. Then there’s Harper, who is currently cemented in a five-month-long slump which has folks wondering: A) if last year was a fluke, B) if he’s totally healthy and C) when he’ll snap out of it.
At this point, A and B are anybody’s guess. As for C, that’s uncertain, too. But you can bet there will be plenty of people tuning in to find out on Thursday night, when the Nationals and Dodgers take center stage.
In case you didn’t know, the Nationals and Dodgers are baseball teams. And they’re facing each other in something called the National League Division Series. In fact, they’ve already played four really good games which you probably weren’t paying much attention to because said games were played at a time of day when most Americans are busy filling out TPS reports. And because Cubs, Cubs, Cubs, Cubs, Cubs, Cubs, Cubs, Cubs, Cubs, Cubs.
Well, we hereby interrupt your regularly scheduled prime-time broadcast (of the Cubs) to inform you that Game 5 of Nats-Dodgers is all queued up and ready to go. Better yet, thanks to the Blue Jays and Indians pummeling the ever-loving snot out of the Rangers and Red Sox, respectively, and thanks to the Cubs (they’re from Chicago, maybe you’ve heard of them) doing uniquely Cubs things against the Giants, suddenly Washington-L.A. is the only game in town. And by town, I mean country. In other words, at 8 p.m. ET on Oct. 13, all eyes will be on Bryce Harper.
For what it’s worth, Harper is a guy who likes having all eyes on him. It’s part of what fuels him. It’s why he says things like, “Where’s my ring?” which he quipped on the first day of spring training last year. It’s why, on Opening Day this year, when he knew everybody would be watching, he rocked a customized trucker cap in front of a bunch of cameras to kick off his “Let’s Make Baseball Fun Again” campaign. It’s why nobody has any trouble whatsoever envisioning him in a Yankees uniform at some point in the not-too-distant future. But at least for the time being, he’s in a Nats uniform, which raises the question: Which Bryce Harper will we see when the curtain goes up on Thursday night?
On the one hand, there’s a decent chance we see the same guy who has struggled for much of the season. The one who has often looked off-balance at the plate, and who has occasionally seemed distracted in the field. The one whose drop-off in production (from 9.9 WAR in 2015 to 1.6 WAR this year) was the greatest of any reigning MVP in the history of the sport.
On the other hand, Harper has been showing signs of turning things around. In the first inning of Tuesday’s Game 4 loss in L.A., he drew a nine-pitch walk against a pitcher who rarely issues walks (Clayton Kershaw). In the seventh inning, with the Nationals trailing by three and and mounting a rally, he drew another nine-pitch walk which chased Kershaw from the game and was so epic that teammate Daniel Murphy called it “the at-bat of the game.” (Technically, it was a plate appearance, not an at-bat, but you get the point.) Those kinds of battles, which were the rule last season but have become the exception this year, suggest that Harper might be poised to do big things in Game 5.
“I'm liking the fight we're seeing from him,” said manager Dusty Baker after the game. “During playoff time is when he's at his best.”
Specifically, Harper’s at his best when it’s win-or-go-home time. As a rookie in 2012, after going 1-for-18 in the first four games of the NLDS, he went 2-for-5 with a triple and a homer in the deciding game. In 2014, with his team trailing two games to none in the NLDS and on the verge of being bounced, he went 1-for-3 with a homer and a walk in Game 3 (the Nats won). Then in Game 4, he went 2-for-3 with a double and another homer, and drove in both of Washington's runs. On Thursday against the Dodgers, he’ll find himself in another elimination situation.
For the record, the first two times, despite Harper’s best efforts, the Nats lost the series and went home. Maybe the third time will be the charm, or maybe it won’t. Regardless of the outcome, one postseason game, one at-bat, won’t define -- or more accurately, redefine -- Harper’s hiccup of a season. But it does have the potential to propel his team forward into the National League Championship Series, and maybe even beyond. If that happens, and if Harper is right in the middle of it, then that -- and not the past five months -- might be what we remember most about his 2016 season.