The first half of the 2018 season for Bryce Harper was, to put it mildly, a grind. A batting average stuck in the .210s. Strikeouts on pitches he used to crush. A Nationals club that can’t seem to get on a consistent roll. And the underlying question of where he’s going to be playing in 2019 and beyond.
Harper’s mood has reflected all of that. The joy and charisma that so defined him when he burst onto the scene as a teenager had all but disappeared, replaced by a gruff, brooding and sometime defiant 25-year-old who quite simply didn’t seem to be enjoying himself very much.
And then came tonight’s Home Run Derby at Nationals Park. It’s a made-for-TV event, a kind of silly contest that doesn’t really prove anything and most star sluggers have decided to eschew out of fear of injury or negative impact on their swings.
But for Harper, it served as something of a reminder of what he used to be and what he still can be.
It was a show, and nobody loves to put on a show on a baseball diamond more than Bryce Harper.
“I’m very serious on the field, I am,” he said. “I’m a very serious player. I enjoy the game, and I want to win every single game I play, and I want to do everything I can to help this team win on a daily basis. And you guys see that.
“But off the field, that’s the kid you see out there tonight. And I was fortunate to share that with you guys and show that to the fans. This wasn’t only for me and my family and everything like that. But this is for, you know, the cook. The guy that works the front. And the people that work upstairs. I mean, this is the whole city of D.C. I was very fortunate to be able to bring this back to them and do it here.”
What Harper did was grab an already entertaining Home Run Derby and transform it into something truly special. With impressive performances in his first two rounds to eliminate Freddie Freeman and Max Muncy, he set the stage and left an overstuffed crowd of 43,698 at Nationals Park on the edge of their seats.
And then with one jaw-dropping comeback in the finals, he toppled Kyle Schwarber to win the Derby title and give Nationals fans - and Harper himself - a reason to turn giddy for the first time in a long time.
“That was electric,” said teammate Sean Doolittle, who watched it all from the field. “I really want to compare it to Game 5 last year. It may have even been more crazy. I really don’t know. There’s a lot about that game I really don’t remember. But that was so much fun.”
Fun. It’s an emotion Harper used to preach but one he rarely has put on public display the last few seasons, certainly the first half of this season.
Tonight, though, he had fun. Tons of it. He had a smile on his face from start to finish. He bounced up the tunnel to the dugout when it was his turn to hit. He played up to the hometown crowd. He joked around with fellow All-Stars. He soaked in the moment he shared with his father and Derby pitcher, Ron.
He had the time of his life.
“I mean, that’s what it’s all about,” Harper said. “I woke up this morning, and talking to my wife I was like: ‘I just want to enjoy it. Win, lose or draw.’ “
Harper’s victory was no walk in the park. It was filled with drama, none more so than in his final flurry of homers that was necessary to beat Schwarber, who put himself in good position with 18 homers in his final round.
The first 3 minutes, 13 seconds of Harper’s four-minute round offered little hope of a win. He was stuck on nine homers with the clock ticking down. And with his father’s arm looking tired and his command off, Harper seemed to be in trouble.
Those who know Harper best, though, still believed.
“You just know he can get hot at any moment,” said Max Scherzer, who gave his teammate a pep talk during a timeout in the final round. “And when he gets in a rhythm and stays within himself and he doesn’t try to do too much, every swing will be a home run. And that’s what happened. I kind of saw this coming. He’s trying to feel this out, feel this out. And when he needed it, he had it. We saw how special he is.”
How special? How about nine homers - including eight on eight swings - in 47 seconds special? That’s what Harper did to get to 18 homers and tie Schwarber.
“It was like: Here we go,” Harper said. “We’re rolling.”
“That’s pretty cool,” Ron Harper said. “I was thinking the same thing. We’ve seen it. We know you can get on that kind of a roll.”
Because at least two of his homers traveled 440-plus feet, Bryce Harper was granted 30 seconds of bonus time. He only needed a few of them. After popping up his first swing in the extra period, he launched his next one into the right field bleachers to set off a wild celebration on the field and in the stands.
“I was loving it,” Scherzer said. “Like I said, this All-Star week, it’s a party. This was a show, and he put on a show.”
Harper’s performance tonight doesn’t do anything for his .214 batting average. It doesn’t move the Nationals any closer to first place in the National League East. It doesn’t change the fact he’s still going to be a free agent come November.
But it certainly seemed to change his mood. For the first time in a long time, he was having fun on a baseball field. And maybe, just maybe, it will allow him to start having a lot more fun on a baseball field the rest of this season.
“I don’t think you can overstate that,” Doolittle said. “I don’t think you can overstate that feeling of ... I don’t know if there was a monkey on his back. I don’t know if maybe he felt like this was something that he had to ... this was definitely on his calendar. You could tell this was on his radar. He came here to win. He wasn’t just having fun with the hometown crowd.
“I don’t know, maybe the roll he got on tonight, that confidence you get from winning something like this in the way that he won it in front of the hometown fans ... I mean, yeah it’s a silly competition, but at the end of the day that could be something that really jumpstarts a guy.”