PHILADELPHIA — Bryce Harper offered full-throated support for Matt Williams on Tuesday night, crediting the Nationals manager for helping him through an MVP-worthy season and stumping for his return in 2016.
“Truly, I love him as a manager,” Harper said following the Nationals’ 4-0 victory over the Phillies. “Flat-out, I absolutely do. And if I didn’t, everybody would know. Absolutely everybody would know. Because I’m not shy to say things.”
Though club officials haven’t publicly discussed it, Williams’ fate hangs in the balance over the final 2 1/2 weeks of what has been a disappointing season for a Nationals team that was overwhelmingly favored to win the NL East but currently finds itself 8 1/2 games behind the Mets. The club’s struggles are a byproduct of numerous factors — an injury-depleted lineup, an underachieving rotation, a poorly constructed bullpen — but Williams also has come under scrutiny for his in-game decisions and lack of emotion on a public stage.
Harper’s endorsement doesn’t necessarily carry any weight — general manager Mike Rizzo has said in the past he doesn’t pick managers based on players’ opinions — but it did reveal the close relationship that has developed over the last two years between the young slugger and the former big-league third baseman.
Williams and Harper discuss hitting approaches on a regular basis, and the two convened just before Harper stepped to the plate for his eighth-inning at-bat Tuesday night against Adam Loewen. Harper asked Williams how he should approach the Phillies left-hander.
“Just sit back on it and try to roll,” Harper said Williams told him.
“Alright,” Harper replied. “Hopefully I’ll hit a homer.”
He did just that, taking Loewen’s 1-1 fastball the other way and over the left-field fence for his second homer of the game, his 39th of the season. As he returned to the dugout after circling the bases, Harper came up behind Williams and gave his manager a bear hug as the two exchanged smiles and a laugh.
“He does everything he can to help me,” Harper said. “He’s unbelievable with the mind game and being able to talk about hitting, being able to have a guy like that in my corner, to go up to him and really ask him what he thinks, how he’d approach the at-bat.”
The Harper-Williams relationship has developed considerably over the last two years. Much was made when Williams benched the young star for failing to run out a groundball early last season, but the bond between the two has been strong ever since.
Harper can’t necessarily relate to that many other current or former players, given how much he has accomplished at such a young age (his current 1.134 OPS would be best in the majors since Barry Bonds’ 1.422 mark in 2004). But in Williams he has a manager who both hit for power in his career — he was on pace to break Roger Maris’ 61-homer record before the strike prematurely ended the 1994 season — while also playing alongside one of the greatest hitters in baseball history in Bonds.
“Being able to play for a guy like that, that I can actually talk to about at-bats, approach at-bat to at-bat, and just being able to have the fire and the intensity that he has, the way he approaches every single day,” Harper said. “He wants us to be perfect, and I love that. I played for a guy like that in high school. And my dad’s exactly like that, also. Coming in every single day and having that push to win ballgames, playing for a guy like that is fun. I love Matt, being able to see what he thinks about hitting and things like that, it’s a lot of fun.”
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