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Highlights from Bryce Harper’s tone-setting middle years in D.C.

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USA Today Sports

Highlights from Bryce Harper’s tone-setting middle years in D.C.

We’ve written plenty of times about the potential end of Bryce Harper’s Nationals career. We’ve examined what were maybe his final days at Nationals Park, started discussing where he might end up, and taken a look at the journey that brought us to this point.

Over the course of a few posts, we’re going to take a deeper look at some of the highlights of the last half-decade in Nats history through the lens of Harper. We’ll be breaking this up into a three-act series, but who knows? If he ends up re-signing in D.C., we may end up looking back on 2012-18 altogether as just the first act of a storied career in the nation’s capital.

Whether or not he comes back to Washington, it’s clear that we’re entering a new era in both D.C. baseball and Harper’s career, so it’s a natural point to take a step back and review where we’ve come from so far. We already highlighted his early years here.

Act II: The Rise and “Fall” (2015-2016)

Yes, the second act of Bryce Harper’s years in Washington encompasses two seasons, but let’s be honest: you’re here for 2015.

2015, of course, was his truest breakout. He’d been a household name for more than half a decade, but all that was just noise until 2015. It was hope, hype, and a story about just falling short of impossible expectations. Not in 2015 though. In 2015, Harper made the impossible look downright routine.

The Big Expectations

The Nationals won 96 games in 2014, and brought back much of the same core in 2015, including Harper himself. Actually, allow me to rephrase. They brought back much of the same core WHILE ADDING MAX FREAKING SCHERZER to the rotation.

It’s no surprise that after committing many, many millions of dollars to a guy with the talent to go down as a pitcher equal to Clayton Kershaw, folks in D.C. were excited.

That excitement extended to the clubhouse, and Harper wasn’t immune. In one notorious interview, when discussing the huge addition to the roster, he said, “"To be able to have a guy like Scherzer come in, I just started laughing," Harper said. "I was like, 'Where's my ring.'

“Where’s my ring?” became a common refrain locally when referring to the hype surrounding that 2015 season. While Harper certainly lived up to his end of the bargain with his stunning MVP season, the rest of the squad fell far short of earning anybody a ring.

The Big Day That Turned Into A Big Week

It’s almost impossible to list every single big moment of Harper’s incredible 2015 season, but it’s still possible to find standouts. The first of those came in early May. Harper had actually been struggling up until that point, but everything changed one Wednesday afternoon in Washington.

The Marlins were in town, wrapping up a three-game set. Miami sent Tom Koehler to the mound, and it, uh, backfired. That’s the kindest way I know how to put it.

In the second inning, Harper drove a pitch out to left-center, 393 feet from home plate to give him his first long ball of the game. In the third inning, he crushed one into the second deck, measured at 442 feet. Then, in the fifth, he managed to top himself, launching another one into the second deck, this time 445 feet.

That’s an extremely impressive 1,280 feet of home run in a single game, all off the same pitcher. Incredible for mere mortals, but another day at the office for Bryce Harper.

He was the youngest player to hit three home runs in a single game since 1969. It wouldn’t be the last time in 2015 he became the youngest player to do something great, and it wouldn’t be the last home runs he hit that week.

Following up his three home run outburst on May 6, the Nats hosted the Atlanta Braves. On May 8, Harper blasted two home runs, one to give the team a lead, and the other to extend it. Then on May 9 he hit another home run, his sixth in three games. Oh, and to make it the cherry on top, this one was a walk-off, one of five he’s hit in his career.

His wild week seemed to restart his season, and he never looked back.


The Big Blowup

By September of 2015, it was pretty clear that Harper was wrapping up an all-time legendary season. There were basically no challengers for the MVP race that year, and while the Nats disappointed as a team, Harper had clearly positioned himself to be the face of baseball going forward. He was everything you could possibly want in a young megastar. Unless your name was Jonathan Papelbon.

While 2015 was a season full of personal ups for Harper, it’s impossible to look back on his most memorable moments without thinking of the Papelbon incident. It was just after the team was eliminated from postseason contention and Harper, who again I’ll remind you was having the best offensive season since peak-Bonds, hit a pop up and jogged to first instead of running out the ball.

It was completely understandable, even more so when you consider how often Harper has dealt with injuries thanks to exerting too much effort. Papelbon, however, took exception to this lack of hustle and accosted Harper in the dugout. He ended up lunging at Harper and grabbing his neck.

It’s rare to see such a public altercation between two teammates, and Papelbon was rightfully roasted for instigating with the team’s best player. This moment also represents the tipping point for beleaguered manager Matt Williams, who somehow thought it was right to send Papelbon back out to pitch the ninth inning. It’s that sort of lack of locker room control that led to his eventual dismissal.

The Big Awards Season

Bryce Harper’s 2015 was, simply put, one of the greatest hitting seasons in baseball history. Let’s run through some of the numbers.

His OPS% of 198 (98% better than league average) was one of the five best of any player under the age of 23 since 1900, and was the best of any hitter since Barry freaking Bonds.

His Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball Reference was an even 10.0, which is as crazy as it sounds.

He hit 42 home runs and batted .330, a combo only reached in the previous decade by future first-ballot Hall of Famers Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols.

He became the youngest player ever (passing none other than Babe Ruth) with 40 home runs and 120 walks in a season.

He led the National League in runs, home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS (which is on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, so, duh).

He was Baseball America’s Player of the Year and ESPN’s MLB Person of the Year, he won the NL Hank Aaron Award, and he became the youngest unanimous MVP winner in Major League history.

His 2015 is already the stuff of legend, and it happened just three years ago. As our own Chase Hughes pointed out at the time, it was a higher single-season WAR than the career bests of such luminaries as Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey, Jr., Albert Pujols, George Brett, and Joe DiMaggio. And he did at as a 22-year old.

Harper could win every MVP for the next ten seasons and very likely will never top his 2015 season. That’s how impressive it was.


The Big Milestone and The Big Blast

The 2016 regular season was a return to form for the Nats as an organization, but it was the opposite for Bryce Harper. Coming off his unanimous MVP season, it was expected that Harper would take the next step towards becoming the best player in baseball. It ended up a forgettable one, where regression took over and he hit just .243 with 24 homers.

Two of those home runs were pretty memorable, though. In April, Bryce Harper hit the 100th home run of his career, becoming the 8th-youngest player to ever reach the mark. And in August, he hit the longest home run of his career, a 481-foot bomb in Colorado.

His 100th home run was representative of Harper’s flair for the dramatic. Not for the first or last time, it came off Julio Teheran of the Atlanta Braves. What made it extra special for Harper was that it came with the bases loaded and took place on his mom’s birthday. If there’s one thing Harper knows how to do, it’s make a statement, and he did just that with this grand slam.

The 481-foot home run wasn’t as much of a dramatic moment, but it still highlights the insane raw power Harper has always had. Home runs hit nearly 500 feet don’t grow on trees, and it helped snap a brutal slump Harper had been in all August. Home runs like this are why even in his down streaks, Harper remains one of the most feared batters in the sport.

The Not-So-Big Postseason Return

The 2016 postseason didn’t go much better for Harper than his regular season. The Nats won the NL East yet again, and this time were matched up with the Dodgers in the NLDS. The Nationals had a 2-1 lead in the best-of-5 series, but lost the last two games to find themselves once again eliminated prematurely.

This time around, Harper didn’t contribute much at the plate, recording just four hits all series, including a surprising zero home runs. He also struck out six times, though he did lead the team with six walks, so it’s pretty clear the Dodgers were doing their best to pitch around him. Unfortunately, Harper didn’t do much with it.

Even with a down 2016 regular season and playoffs, the second act of Harper’s career in Washington so far will always be remembered for his incredible 2015 season. And, as the Dodgers pitching around him in the postseason shows, that MVP year solidified his standing as one of baseball’s best sluggers even on his worst days.

 

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Andy Martino of SNY refutes the reports that the Nats are out on Harper

Andy Martino of SNY refutes the reports that the Nats are out on Harper

Despite Mark Lerner's comments to NBC Sports Washington that the team hasn't been in recent contact with Bryce Harper and has filled out the roster, SNY's Andy Martino says not to give up hope.


"Do not believe that the Nationals are out on Harper," Martino said. "People I talk to around the situation are saying don't rule the Nationals out until the moment that Harper signs elsewhere."


Martino believes that the clearest options may not be what they seem.


"The Phillies of course are pursuing him, but I continue to hear they have a tough road to get Harper to come to Philly," he said. "The Phillies are possible but I don’t know that I would call them frontrunners."

After the news of Manny Machado signing with the Padres, all eyes turn to Bryce Harper and how long this continues to drag out. 

The clock is ticking.

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How to watch NBC Sports Washington's full interview with Nationals owner Mark Lerner

How to watch NBC Sports Washington's full interview with Nationals owner Mark Lerner

When Nationals principal managing owner Mark Lerner  see his team lose, he has a postgame ritual that rivals one of the most ordinary passionate fan.

“ I go into a closet and scream a little after,” Lerner told NBC Sports Washington's Todd Dybas in an exclusive interview in West Palm Beach, Fla. on Friday. “No, no. That’s one thing that’s good about baseball. You’re going to play the next day. But I go home. I’m totally depressed. I won’t turn on the sports news or anything and get up the next morning, it’s a new day, get up and go after it again today. When I’m sitting down there, I’m very passionate as a fan. I’m yelling at the umpires like everybody else. I want to win. I hate losing exhibition games let alone regular-season games.”

Lerner also spoke about Bryce Harper's future - or lack thereof - with the team, Anthony Rendon and what he expects from the team this season.

The interview is now available in full on the MyTeams app, which can be downloaded here.

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