MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

High emotions caused Harper-Papelbon tussle

High emotions caused Harper-Papelbon tussle

It's true that Bryce Harper does not always run full speed to first base. This is not a big deal. Trust me on this one. Context is critical.

Sure, this habit occasionally annoys Harper's teammates. But most of them understand what Jonathan Papelbon apparently doesn't. That is, Harper plays with a raging competitive fire, and he has an absolutely fanatical work ethic and a commitment to be great.

One of the first things some of Harper's teammates noticed when he made his Major League debut at 19 back in 2012 was his batting practices. They'd never seen a player swing the bat harder or hit the ball farther in batting practice.

Nationals suspend Papelbon 4 games for altercation

As word got around, players on opposing teams would stop and stare as Harper sprayed rockets to every corner of the park. They could not imagine anyone putting so much effort into something so routine, something most players use to prepare for that day's game.

Harper apparently, at least in those early days, saw it as a contest within a contest, and he was going to establish himself then and there as the best at that, too. Washington came to see those rounds of batting practice as simply the way Harper does things.

Harper's walk-off double in 12th

This is also the thing that has frustrated them at times. He occasionally plays TOO hard. That's the part of this story Papelbon seems to have missed. The Nationals have tried to counsel Harper that he does not have to play 100 mph every single second he's on the field.

He does not have to steal every base or bang into every outfield wall. Washington has tried to make him understand that they are a better team when he's in the lineup. That understanding seems to be one of the things Harper has accomplished in this remarkable season.

He has stayed on the field.

Period.

The Nationals believed that if Harper could just avoid the disabled list, he was headed for greatness. He missed 106 games during the 2013-14 seasons, sometimes because of injuries resulting from being too aggressive and too reckless.

This is a difficult thing to coach. The very thing Washington loves most about Harper is also the thing that scares them. The club hoped his ambition and judgement would even out at some point. And that has happened.

Harper has played in 148 of the Nationals' 154 games, and they probably can begin clearing trophy space for a National League Most Valuable Player Award. Harper is leading the NL in batting average (.336), runs (117) and OPS (1.125), and he shares the home run lead (41) with Nolan Arenado. He's the runaway leader in Wins Above Replacement (10.3).

When Harper hit a routine fly ball to left field in the bottom of the eighth inning on Sunday afternoon, he didn't seem to be running hard. At least Papelbon didn't think he was, so Papelbon let him know, resulting in a heated argument.

Papelbon, Harper on altercation

Harper has done this before, often when he's so angry about an at-bat that he seems to lose focus. Nationals manager Matt Williams pulled him from a game early last season because of it.

If you think the whole thing through, it might seem silly. After watching Harper for four years, does anyone think lack of effort is an issue?

This time, there surely was a perfect storm of emotions. The Nationals were eliminated from postseason contention on Saturday. For stretches this season, Harper carried their offense.

Harper had a frustrating at-bat, and he may have seen no point in busting his tail in case a routine fly ball was dropped.

That's life. Go ask any manager if they've had star players do the same thing.

"Of course," they will say.

It looks awkward when it happens, but human nature is what it is. Harper deserves the benefit of the doubt because no player in the game has been more productive in 2015.

Williams on Harper, Papelbon

Besides that, Papelbon is not the guy to tell Harper what he should or shouldn't do. Papelbon joined the squad in late July, and he has no standing in the clubhouse.

Beyond that, he'd already antagonized teammates with the senseless plunking of Manny Machado earlier in the week. Harper predicted he'd probably get hit with a pitch as retaliation for Papelbon's headhunting.

(Harper was not hit. Orioles manager Buck Showalter said winning another game was even better revenge.)

If Williams wants to say something to Harper, fine. If Ryan Zimmerman or Ian Desmond -- the two most respected veterans -- have thoughts, Harper will listen. Then again, if they say something, they will do it in the privacy of the clubhouse instead of showing him up in the middle of the ballpark.

The bottom line is that the Nationals could use more players as good as Harper. They could use more players who care as much as Harper.

Papelbon apologized for the incident, saying he was out of line. He's right that things sometimes happen in the heat of battle. This one caught fire because it was captured on video and went viral within seconds.

These things tend to be forgotten in a day or two, and that's likely to be the case here. But if there's lingering damage to anyone's reputation, it won't be Harper's.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.