Sep 17, 2015, 12:06 AM EDT
PHILADELPHIA — Bryce Harper is as much a student of the game as anybody is these days, so he understands and appreciates what he accomplished here Wednesday night. Even if he didn’t much want to talk about personal accomplishments.
“We got  more games left,” he said. “So I’ll answer that at the end of the year.”
Leave it to everyone else with the Nationals to gush over Harper, the newest member of the 40-homer club after another moonshot during Wednesday’s 12-2 drubbing of the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.
“It’s been remarkable,” fellow outfielder Jayson Werth said. “It’s been fun to watch. I’m proud of him. He’s come a long way in a short period of time. I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s become a superstar player right in front of our eyes.”
“It’s unbelievable,” left-hander Gio Gonzalez said. “It’s just fun to watch. I don’t think in my career I’ve ever played with somebody that hit 40 home runs. That just says a lot about a guy that’s 22 years old.”
Yes, it’s not simply that Harper has hit 40 homers. It’s that he has done it at such a tender age, a particularly rare achievement.
Only five others have produced 40-homer seasons before celebrating their 23rd birthday. Four of them (Eddie Mathews, who did it twice, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Bench and Mel Ott) are in the Hall of Fame. The fifth (Juan Gonzalez) might have joined them in Cooperstown if not for suspicions of PED use.
Harper’s career home run total now stands at 95. If he can somehow hit five more in the season’s final 17 games — and he’s on a run right now of nine in his last 12 games — he’d become only the fourth player in baseball history to reach the 100-homer plateau before turning 23 (joining Mathews, Ott and Tony Conigliaro).
“He has the world in the palm of his hand,” Gonzalez said. “It’s just fun to see him play. And the sky’s the limit. I think he’s got more in him than that.”
Home run No. 40 came late in a blowout victory, with Harper lofting a high drive to right-center against Phillies reliever Justin DeFratus, one hit at a towering, 39-degree launch angle that barely cleared the fence. He returned to the dugout to an unusual sight: No teammates waiting to greet him. He got a couple of high-fives from coaches, but most gave him the silent treatment before emerging from the tunnel to offer hugs.
“He deserved the silent treatment like he got,” manager Matt Williams said with a laugh. “Pretty special. Again, that’s a special talent. He really didn’t click that ball. Got enough of it. He’s swinging good. He’s seeing the ball good. We just want him to continue doing that.”
When Harper returned to the field for the bottom of the seventh, another surprise awaited him: The fan who caught his homer on the fly, wearing a powder blue throwback Phillies jersey, offered to give him the ball in exchange for an autographed one. Harper complied, putting pen to ball right there on the field and then tossing it back into the stands. Afterward, the 40th homer ball sat in his locker, ready to be added to his growing collection of memorabilia.
“Being able to get that back from him, I was very thankful,” Harper said. “They’re great fans here. They understand the game. They get the game.”
And they’ll probably get a chance to see Harper hit plenty more homers in this ballpark over the years.
As impressive as this season has been, consensus opinion around the Nationals’ clubhouse is that Harper still has only scratched the surface of his full potential.
“I think he’s got a lot to learn and a long way to go, too,” Werth said. “I’ve said it before, but when he’s 30 years old, he’s going to be a hell of a player.”
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)...
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