Harper quietly joins an exclusive club

A number of Nationals players had kind words to say about Denard Span and his impressive last month after Span's 29-game hitting streak came to an end last night.

Ian Desmond was one of them, noting that it was nice to see Span play the way he knows he can play after a rough start to the season. But Desmond added another interesting angle on to his thoughts about Span's streak ending.

"Obviously you never want to see someone who goes to that extent of a hitting streak have it end but it was awesome that the fans recognized it," Desmond said, referring to the standing ovation Span received after striking out in the seventh inning to wrap up an 0-for-4 day. "Credit to them, because a couple years ago they probably wouldn't have been paying attention to something like that. That's no knock on them. They're really falling in love with this team and we feel it and we appreciate it."

You always get insightful stuff from Desmond.

While Span's streak ended last night, the Nats had a different player reach a statistical milestone when Bryce Harper hit his 20th home run of the season, a laser to center field that went for a three-run shot in the first inning.

Not only did the longball give the Nats a whopping five players with 20 homers this season (making them the third team in the majors to have five 20-homer guys this year), it also gave Harper back-to-back seasons with 20 home runs.

Still just 20 years old, Harper now joins Tony Conigliaro as the only two players in big league history to have two 20-homer seasons before their 21st birthday.

We might be a little spoiled these days by what Harper and Mike Trout and Manny Machado have done at such young ages. We've seen some young players do some really remarkable things in the last couple years, and as a result, Harper's numbers during an injury-riddled season (a .285/.383/.509 slash line with 20 homers in 110 games) might not register as too amazing. But after Harper hit the 20-homer mark last night, it allowed some guys within the Nats' clubhouse a chance to think big-picture when it comes to Harper's early-career accomplishments.

"It's unbelievable, and he's only getting better," Desmond said. "Twenty home runs now, we're going to look back and he's going to be like, 'Oh man, I only hit 20 home runs my first two years?' I mean those days are coming. It's inevitable that those days are coming. I just hope it's here and I hope I get to see it."

It sure seems like lately, over the last week or 10 days or so, Harper has started to have a bit more fun on the field. He was all laughs last night after hitting his 20th homer, largely because of a conversation he and Jayson Werth had literally just minutes earlier, when Harper noted that he was one longball away from 20.

Whether it's the team's recent strong play or being a bit healthier of late (although Harper politely declined to answer a question after last night's game about how he's feeling health-wise), it sure seems like Harper has been a bit looser when on the field recently.

"I think when you go through a period where you have all this attention and you try to live up to hype and you try to do things, you try to do too much," manager Davey Johnson said. "I think he's getting over that. I think he's back to enjoying the game, and that's great to see."

Desmond sees it a little differently.

"He's a 20-year-old growing up," Desmond said. "We all got to do it in the minor leagues in the friendly confines of a stadium that holds 10,000 and has probably about 2,000 in it, where there wasn't cameras in our faces and everything. He's growing up. He obviously knows how talented he is and he wants to be Mickey Mantle or whoever, like right now, today. But we've all got to kind of earn our stripes and everybody here, including myself, is getting to witness him maturing.

"It's fun. I think winning and playing well, he has one of the most competitive spirits of anybody in here, and I think since we've been playing well it's easier to smile when you're winning. I get people calling me all the time. 'Oh, you don't look like you're having fun, you're not smiling.' Well, we're getting boatraced every night. Making five errors. I'm not going to be out there smiling. That's just the way it goes. It's not fun unless you're winning, and if you're having fun losing, there's a problem. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and I think us winning more so than his performance is what is bringing out the smile."

The mounting losses frustrated Harper earlier in the season, and it got to the point that after a brutal two-game sweep in Detroit, he delivered an impassioned motivational speech of sorts through the media, imploring his teammates, manager and everyone within the organization to have some faith and come together as a "family".

Over the last month, the Nats have played better baseball than anyone in the majors and have worked their way back to the fringes of the wild card race. And if you ask Harper why he seems to be having more fun lately, that's what he'll point to.

"I like to be in these situations," Harper said. "I like playing in crucial situations where we need to play hard and play the game the right way and really be on point every night. I try to take baseball seriously of course, but you gotta have fun in those situations. I thrive off of playing in pressure situations."

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