Bryce Harper entered the major leagues in 2012 with a legend that preceded him, expectations of greatness and the potential to someday be one of the best hitters in baseball. The thought was that one day he would be capable of special things, special games that would earn him a place in baseball's long and decorated history.
Wednesday at Nationals Park was one of those days, as the 22-year-old outfielder became the 10th-youngest player ever to hit three home runs in one game. He accomplished that feat in a span of just three at-bats spread across five innings, giving him a shot at four homers, a milestone rarer than a perfect game.
Harper had never hit three homers in one game before in the majors, but he had at several levels on his way through the amateur and professional ranks. He hit for the cycle and blasted four home runs in a game at the College of Southern Nevada. Both of those feats he did twice. He also hit three home runs in the minors during a rehab assignment with Double-A Harrisburg last June.
Most predicted Harper would have games like this at some point in the majors, Harper himself included.
"That's how I should be, plain and simple. That's how I should be. That's how I expect myself to play," he said.
"If it's hitting homers or hitting doubles or anything, that's what I need to do. That's what I expect out of myself. Of course, you're not going to do that every single day. You're not going to hit three homers, or whatever, and drive in five. But that's the type of player I need to be."
All three of Harper's homers came off of Marlins starter Tom Koehler. The first was a solo shot to left field in the second inning, an opposite field flyball that bounced off the back wall of the visitors bullpen. The second landed in the second deck in right field, a two-run bomb in the third inning. The third homer also landed in the second deck, another solo smash in the bottom of the fifth.
The final home run earned Harper a standing ovation and curtain call from the 31,417 in attendance at Nationals Park. Harper obliged, though he later joked that he wished the crowd would have held off on the gesture.
"I didn't want to go up there because I wanted to get one more," he said. "I wish they would have waited because I think I got up too early. I went up there and said 'thank you' for that. I wish they would have waited unless I would have got four."
Starter Max Scherzer - who earned the win in the Nats' 7-5 victory - was fired up after the game about Harper's performance.
“I didn’t see any of his home runs. I was actually in the tunnel underneath trying to stay cool. But I definitely heard all three," he said. "Definitely on the second and third ones when I heard it I just looked at the security guard and said ‘see ya!’ It’s in the upper deck. I didn’t even have to watch it to know where they were hit.”
Harper had a chance for a fourth home run in the seventh inning against Marlins reliever Sam Dyson. There was one out and runners on the corners. Harper finished the at-bat with a groundout to second, one that was soft enough to score Ian Desmond from third. That gave Harper his fifth RBI of the afternoon.
Harper became the youngest player to have three home runs and five RBI in one game since Al Kaline of the Detroit Tigers did so on April 17, 1955. The last player younger than him to have three home runs was Joe Lahoud of the Red Sox on June 11, 1969.
Harper is now tied for second in the NL with eight homers, that to go along with his MLB-best 26 walks. At 22 years old, he is starting to round into form as one of the most complete offensive players in the game.
Manager Matt Williams has seen that transition and thinks Harper is developing into much more than just a good player.
"I think that the biggest way that you become a leader of your team is doing stuff like he did today," Williams explained. "So is the way he’s led thus far is he’s taking his walks. He’s providing opportunity for anybody else that hits behind him. He’s also doing what he did today. He’s playing exceptional defense. All of those things are qualities of a true leader without having opened his mouth. That’s the ultimate leader."
With plenty of help from Harper, the Nationals are now winners of three consecutive series and seven of their last nine games. Harper also expected the team to come around after a slow start to the year and believes they will continue to get even better.
"We've been playing well," he said. "People can talk about 'oh, they started slow, or they started this or they started that. They're not hitting, they're not doing this, they're not doing that.' It's all hearsay. We're a great team. We're going to come at you and play hard and play the game the right way. We got a great staff and a great lineup. We're missing a couple of guys, but once we get them back, it's going to be stupid."