ST. LOUIS – What do you do when your kid center fielder, the new face of the franchise has smeared so much eye black on his cheeks that he looks like a zombie coal miner? What do you say when every swing in the most important games of his life is more violent than the one before? What do you think when none of those swings meet a baseball and the strikeouts pile up?
Do you bench Bryce Harper? Do you tell him to wipe his face? Do you make him stop acting his age, which is only 19?
Maybe you stand inside your office at Busch Stadium the way Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson did on Monday evening, shrug and say, "That's Bryce." And know this is exactly the right thing to do.
Bryce Harper is not happy these days. The player who does nothing with subtlety has imploded spectacularly in his first two playoff games. Monday alone he struck out four times and was thrown out at third the one time he got on base.
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Then when someone asked him later if he was anxious at the plate, he sneered from beneath his Mohawk and snapped: "You think so? Maybe you should be our hitting coach."
Another manager might be tempted to corral his young star. Another manager might bench Harper, falling to the fallacy that the best thing to do is to remove him from the pressure. But Johnson has managed a teenaged Doc Gooden and a 22-year-old Darryl Strawberry which is kind of like coming to a saloon poker game with Jessie James and Billy The Kid. Tables are going to hit the floor. Part of the reason Johnson is here with the Nationals is that he understands how to handle a young player whose baseball brilliance exceeds his temperament.
"You know his sister is a hairdresser and I guess she does his hair and all the eye black on his face – whatever it takes to get him ready," Johnson said waving his hands in front of his cheeks to emulate the application of gobs of eye black.
He turned back into his office and shook his head.
Whatever it takes.
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Harper is not the reason the Nationals lost to the St. Louis Cardinals 12-4 on Monday, a defeat that tied this NLDS 1-1. That had more to do with too many pitches that wound up floating over the middle of the plate or ground balls that were booted or decisions that turned out to be wrong. But the reason Harper's struggles and flamboyance are so important is he's the one player for whom October was made: someone unafraid to take risks, who doesn't worry about failing in the hope of being great.
In this postseason, where everything is magnified, the player who turns a single into a double the way Harper did the lone time he got on base, is the player whose team will usually win. And so an old baseball man might grit his teeth over the hairstyle, or grumble privately about how silly a Mohawk looks with a gray three-piece-suit and purple checkered shirt, which is what Harper wore back to Washington on Monday night. In the end it's better to endure the extravagant failures because they will most likely lead to something bigger.
On Monday, the man who is in fact the Nationals' hitting coach – Rick Eckstein – smiled as he walked out of the stadium talking about Harper. He was speaking specifically about the play when Harper tried to take third on a botched throw to the infield and was thrown out. A clear rookie mistake.
No, Eckstein said.
"We don't classify that as a mistake," he continued. "It was an aggressive move. Davey's style is to be aggressive. That aggressiveness that Bryce has is a great thing."
Then Eckstein paused for a moment.
"He definitely energizes you," he said of Harper. "He's not afraid to bring it and that's good."
This is an interesting time for the team that finished with baseball's best record. Because of last month's decision to sit Stephen Strasburg for the rest of the year, Washington is wading into this postseason without its best pitcher. Gio Gonzalez, the No. 2, was shaky in his Game 1 start and Jordan Zimmermann was pounded for five earned runs in three innings on Monday. Even though the Nats return home, dominance is far from assured. St. Louis is starting two of its top three pitchers – Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse – on Wednesday and Thursday. The Nationals could be in a difficult place.
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Nobody might matter more than Harper because nobody gets under the skin of opposing players more than a 19-year-old who doesn't play by their rules.
As he prepared to leave the clubhouse on Monday evening, Harper was told there had been a lot of talk about his eye black as it didn't hold to baseball convention.
"I don't care," he said curtly. "What do you think?"
It was obviously a question for which Harper didn't want to hear an answer because he was already headed to the door.
By now he is going to be who he is. And the Nationals won't dare to change that.
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