May 8, 2015, 11:40 PM EDT
The quotes from teammates about him — “Don’t touch him, you might get third-degree burns” — are ludicrous. The records being dug up by Elias and on Baseball-Reference — “He’s the first player in D.C. baseball history to do this” — are telling. And the balls soaring off his bat are leaving everybody watching in person and on TV with jaws agape.
What Bryce Harper has done over the last 48 hours rivals anything seen in these parts in a really, really long time. With five home runs and 10 RBI in his last two games, the young slugger has elevated the Nationals back to the .500 mark while elevating himself to a designation that finally feels commensurate with the attention he has always received: One of the best players in baseball.
“He’s unbelievable, a showstopper,” left-hander Gio Gonzalez said. “When he goes up to bat, everybody stops what they’re doing, whether eating popcorn or hot dogs. He’s out there pausing time. It’s fun to watch.”
If you thought the 31,288 who witnessed Harper’s latest heroics during the Nationals’ 9-2 thumping of the Braves on Friday night were having fun, imagine how the 22-year-old outfielder has felt through this torrid stretch at the plate.
“Like I’ve been saying: That’s the way I need to be,” he said. “If I’m healthy, if I’m going the right way, that’s what you’re going to get out of me. That’s just how I am.”
If you’re disturbed by those words, if you don’t like the confident tone being espoused, you’ll probably never like Harper. He was named in one preseason poll the most overrated player in baseball, perhaps in part because of the way he has talked about himself and his team, and that rubs some people the wrong way.
But if you’ve followed him closely since he was drafted five years ago, since he made his major-league debut three years ago and since he began taking his game to new heights last fall, you know this is the genuine Harper. There’s no phoniness to him. He shows you exactly who he is. And who he is, is a supremely confident and talented ballplayer who is only now reaching his full potential.
“You gotta remember how young he is,” left fielder Jayson Werth cautioned. “I think he’s got a long way to go. He’s got big aspirations. I know us guys in here have big aspirations for him. He has a lot of pressure on him. It’s good to see him play the way he’s been playing lately, and just the way he’s been going about it, too. It’s a lot of fun to watch. It’s a lot of fun to be around.”
Indeed, part of what has made Harper’s start to this season so impressive is the fact he’s doing it as a 22-year-old. He’s now tied with Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier for the NL lead with 10 homers while still leading the majors with 26 walks.
Go ahead and do the extrapolation. Harper is on pace for 54 home runs and 140 walks. The only men in the century-and-a-half history of this great game to do that can be identified by last name alone: Bonds, Ruth, McGwire.
Of course there is a very long way to go, and of course it may be asking too much for Harper to continue at this pace. But the mere fact he is doing something that allows for a comparison like that speaks volumes.
“I’m just trying to go about my business the right way and keeping my same routine every single day,” he said. “That’s all I want to do. I want to come in, I want to play every single day, I want to work hard and help this team win every single night.”
That Harper’s recent performance has played a direct role in victories for the Nationals is most significant. Winners in eight of their last 10 games, they’re now back to the .500 mark and back within 3 1/2 games of first place in the NL East.
So when, for the second time in as many games, Harper hopped up the steps in the Nationals dugout and acknowledged a stadium that wouldn’t sit down and shut up until he emerged, he was accepting on behalf of his entire team.
“This whole team should be getting a curtain call the way we’re playing right now,” he said.
Yes, the Nationals as a whole deserved plenty of praise Friday night. Danny Espinosa homered twice himself, after all. Werth clubbed his first homer of the season. Gonzalez cruised through seven strong innings on the mound.
But none of those performances were history-making. Harper, on the other hand, became the first player in franchise history (dating back to the 1969 Expos) to hit five homers in two games. He’s also the first player in D.C. baseball history (1901-’71, 2005-present) to do it.
What does he think of that?
“Hopefully I can hit two more tomorrow,” Harper said.
That response drew laughs from those assembled around him at his locker, but not because it was a ludicrous idea. No, given the way things are going right now, nobody would be surprised if that actually happens Saturday afternoon.
Least of all, Bryce Harper himself.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
WED: 4:30 p.m.
THU: 2:30 p.m.
FRI: 5:30 p.m.
SAT: 10:30 a.m.
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