Bryce Harper’s three home runs in his final minor league rehab game on Saturday showed that he was, after a two-month absence, ready to return to the Nationals. On Monday afternoon he indicated it in a different way. He publicly questioned manager Matt Williams’s lineup, the first in which he would appear since he tore a ligament in his thumb during a headfirst slide on April 25.
Williams had shifted Ryan Zimmerman— who had been playing left field almost exclusively since his own reinstatement from the disabled list on June 3— back to his traditional third base for Monday night’s series opener against the Rockies, and put Harper in left. Harper suggested to local reporters that he would prefer playing in center.
“I think [Zimmerman] is great and he should be playing left,” he said. “[Anthony] Rendon’s a great third baseman and he should be playing third. And we got one of the best second baseman in the league in Danny Espinosa. Of course you want the best hitting lineup in there, and I think Rendon playing third and Zim playing left is something that is good for this team, and I think that should be what’s happening.”
With mainstays at first base, shortstop and in right field— Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth— the losers in Harper’s scheme were clear. One was current center fielder Denard Span, for whom the Nationals traded top pitching prospect Alex Meyer two Novembers ago, and who is now batting .265 while playing, according to most advanced metrics, defense that ranks as slightly below average. After Monday’s game, Harper and Span uncomfortably exchanged what might be termed a ‘high zero.’
The other was Williams— Washington’s first year manager. You might recall that less than a week before his injury, Williams yanked Harper from a game due to “lack of hustle,” when the nearly always hard-charging 21-year-old failed to sprint down the first base line after a routine grounder to the pitcher, even though Harper was dealing with an injured quad and was also reportedly ill on the day in question.
Harper also only obliquely criticized Williams’ batting order on Monday, which had him hitting sixth.
“I’m in the lineup,” he said. “That’s all that matters. If I had the lineup, it would maybe not be the same. He’s got the lineup card. He’s got the pen. That’s what he’s doing. So there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m hitting sixth tonight. Hopefully I can be able to get some runners on base in front of me and some protection and hopefully get some knocks.”
It is hard not to construe Harper’s questioning of his skipper’s lineup, before he had even played a healthy game again, as a questioning of his skipper himself. Williams, the former slugger for the Giants and Diamondbacks, had after Monday night managed just 82 games. That represents 198 fewer than Harper, who reached drinking age only last October (although Harper, a Mormon, says he doesn’t indulge), has already played for the Nationals.
“I would say we’re happy to have him back,” the 48-year-old Williams said when apprised of Harper’s comments. “When he’s out there, regardless of where he’s at, we’d like him to catch it when it’s hit to him and hit it when it’s thrown to him, and play the way Bryce plays. I don’t have any comment other than that. We’re glad to have him in our lineup. And hopefully I can write his name in there every single day for the rest of the year. That would be very important to our club.”
Other than this minor contretemps, things were copacetic in our nation’s capital on Monday night. The Nationals had persevered through recent DL stints by not just Harper and Zimmerman, but also catcher Wilson Ramos and starter Gio Gonzalez, to keep pace with the Braves in the NL East. They were finally, for the first time all season, fully healthy. Outfielder Eury Perez, and pitchers Erik Davis and Ross Ohlendorf remained on the Nationals’ disabled list but doubly sadly for them, they don’t really count.
They also ran away from the long-reeling Rockies by the score of 7-3 with their first run coming on a fourth inning single by Harper, who managed the feat despite both playing left and batting sixth. Harper went 1-for-3, and is now batting .291, with one homer and 10 RBI’s while Span went 0-for-3. That kept them a half-game back of the Braves in the division, but now they have a full roster.
Even so, the Harper-Williams dynamic, which Harper went out of his way to publicly establish on Monday, bears watching. An autocratic, Bud Kilmer approach has been taken by many managers throughout baseball history, but it might not prove successful any more. It hasn’t worked for Williams’ former boss Kirk Gibson (under whom Williams served as a coach from 2010-2013) with the Diamondbacks, and it might not for Williams now that he is a manager— particular when applied to Harper, who remains very young but whose effort and focus seem, to most, to be incontestable.
The Nationals are a talented club that came close to a World Series two years ago and then, almost inexplicably, not very close at all last season, when they failed to make the playoffs. Much is expected of them now, and Matt Williams would do well to remember that though it is he who fills out the lineup cards, this is Bryce Harper’s team.