Rarely has there been a dull moment in Bryce Harper's 2014 season. Alas, the next 15 days — or more — are destined to be far less eventful, as the 21-year-old leftfielder was put on the disabled list prior to Sunday's Nationals-Padres game due to a sprained left thumb, as he became the latest player to injure himself via a headfirst slide.
In the third inning of Saturday's game, Harper slid headfirst into third base to complete a bases-loaded triple, breaking open a 2-0 game that eventually turned into an 11-1 rout. As soon as he got to his feet, however, he appeared to be in pain; he stayed in the game long enough to score two batters later, but after the end of the inning, he was replaced in leftfield by Nate McLouth. Here's the video from MLB.com:
[mlbvideo id="32372109" width="600" height="336" /]
Harper was diagnosed with a sprain after visiting a hand specialist and undergoing an MRI on Saturday. While he expressed optimism by noting that the team's schedule contains so many off days that a 15-day stay on the disabled list would cost him just 10 more games including Sunday, the Nationals appear braced for worse news. Said manager Matt Williams to reporters prior to Sunday's game, “We fear that he’s got a really bad problem with the thumb.”
Specifically, the Nationals are concerned that ligament damage to Harper's thumb could keep him out for longer, so they are sending him to another specialist for a second opinion on either Monday or Tuesday. Complicating the issue is that Harper may have already been playing with some amount of damage to the digit, as he suffered a similar injury during high school. If he's injured badly enough to require surgery, he could miss as many as 10 weeks. The Angels' Josh Hamilton, who earlier this month tore the ulnar collateral ligament of his left thumb sliding headfirst, underwent surgery that's expected to sideline him until for six to eight weeks.
While it's tempting to draw a link between Harper's all-out style of play and this injury, the reality is that he's hardly alone among players who have injured themselves sliding headfirst in recent years; Consider this incomplete list, which includes some repeat offenders including teammate Ryan Zimmerman, who fractured his thumb on April 12 and is expected to miss four to six weeks:
• Yunel Escobar: concussion, 2011
• Alex Gordon: broken thumb, 2010
• Rafael Furcal: broken thumb, 2011
• Josh Hamilton: broken humerus, 2011; torn ulnar colllateral (thumb) ligament, 2014
• Jason Heyward: bone bruise of thumb, 2010
• Ian Kinsler: stress fracture in rib cage, 2013
• Mike Napoli: dislocated ring finger, 2014
• Yasiel Puig: sprained thumb, 2014
• Andrelton Simmons: broken pinkie, 2012; sprained thumb, 2014
• Chase Utley: torn ligament in thumb, 2010
While not exactly the equivalent of the Tommy John surgery "epidemic," the spate of injuries is a reminder of how dangerous headfirst slides can be. As current Dodgers first base coach Davey Lopes — who swiped 557 bases feet-first during his 16-year major league career — told MLB.com amid a wave of slide-induced injuries in 2011:
"Nowadays, I would never try to change a kid. They are conditioned to go headfirst, and it would mean a real change… You'd have to work on it on a daily basis. A lot of it would be psychological. You're taught that when in doubt, slide. But you don't want somebody thinking in the middle of it, 'Do I go feet-first or headfirst?' You'd have to work with them, have their cleats off so they aren't worried about catching a spike and rolling over and breaking an ankle.
"But I always felt too many bad things can happen going headfirst. You see an infielder who knows you're coming in headfirst, he puts his knee down to block the bag. It's perfectly legal to do that. It's not dirty. The runner has to know he's vulnerable going headfirst. You go feet-first, not many infielders are going to drop a knee down, I guarantee you."
In other words, it's probably a longshot to expect Harper to find feet-first religion anytime soon. But whether he's out for two weeks or two months, his injury is a substantial blow for a player who heated up since starting the year with a 3-for-21 funk with 10 strikeouts, not to mention an Opening Day concussion scare. Since admitting to being "pretty lost" with regards to his swing and taking a day off, Harper had hit .339/.406/.516 across 69 plate appearances. Not that everything had gone smoothly during that stretch; after missing one game due to a tight quad, he was pulled mid-game due to a lack of hustle for peeling off halfway down the first base line instead of running out a grounder. To replace Harper on the roster, the Nationals recalled Steven Souza from Triple-A, though Williams is more likely to rely upon the lefty-swinging McLouth and righties Tyler Moore and Kevin Frandsen while Harper is out. McLouth hit .258/.329/.399 in 593 plate appearances for the Orioles last year but even after homering during Washington's 4-2 loss to San Diego on Sunday is just 4-for-34 this year. Frandsen hit .234/.296/.341 in 278 PA for the Phillies last year and is 8-for-31 through Sunday. Moore hit .222/.260/.347 in 178 PA for the Nats last year and is 4-for-19 this year. With Sunday's loss, the Nationals are 14-12, in third place in the NL East, four games behind the Braves and half a game behind the Mets.