Keeping Score

Bryce Harper, Baseball’s Teen Phenom, Delivers a Brash Message

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Richard Lipski / AP

Washington Nationals' baserunner Bryce Harper steals home as Philadelphia Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz applies a late tag during the first inning of their baseball game at Nationals Park, Sunday, May 6, 2012, in Washington.

I’ve never been a fan of beanball justice in baseball. It can be dangerous, and it’s absurd: pitchers “send a message” to the opposing team by plunking a batter with a rock-hard object that, even when he’s throwing it softly, travels around 70 miles per hour. Pitchers can aim for the back, but wind up hitting someone in the head, or striking a sensitive bone. I know this is “old-school” baseball, but the game doesn’t need beanballs. Call me a wimp. Guilty as charged.

But I’ll call myself a bit of a hypocrite, too: I loved the beanball incident in Sunday night’s game between the Washington Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies.

In the bottom of the first inning, Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels drilled Bryce Harper, the 19-year-old standout for the Nationals who has been called “the LeBron James of baseball,” in the backside with a 93 mile-per-hour fastball. Harper, the youngest player in the majors, has developed a reputation as the brash new kid — he most famously blew a kiss at an opposing pitcher after homering off him in the minors last year — and it sure looked like Hamels was trying to put the young whippersnapper in his place. After the game, Hamels copped to throwing at Harper. Via the Philadelphia Daily News:

“I was trying to hit him,” Hamels said. “I mean, I’m not going to deny it. It’s something that I grew up watching. I’m just trying to continue old baseball, because I think some people get away from it. I remember when I was a rookie, the strike zone was really, really small and you didn’t say anything, because that’s the way baseball is. But I think unfortunately sometimes the league is protecting certain players and making it not as that kind of old school, prestigious way of baseball.”

Give Hamels credit for the type of honesty that will likely earn him a suspension. But Hamels’ hit was not what got me pumped about this incident — again, I think the old-school stuff is silly. What I loved was Harper’s response. Harper exercised his revenge the right way: he stole home on Hamels. Having studied Hamels’ pickoff habits before the game, Harper spotted a weakness. And when Hamels made a pickoff throw to first, Harper dashed home from third base, and slid under Carlos Ruiz’ tag. The daring play gave the Nationals a brief 1-0 lead, though they’d eventually lose to Philadelphia 9-3. Check out the play here:

What’s really exciting here is the promise of Harper and the Nationals. Since moving to D.C. from Montreal after the 2004 season, the Nats have been perennial losers. But now, they are in first place in the highly competitive National League East: that division, which the Phillies have won for five straight years, could use some new blood. Although an injury to right fielder Jayson Werth, who broke his left wrist while trying to make a diving catch Sunday night, is a setback, the team’s starting pitching should keep Washington in the race. We’ve already seen one Nats phenom, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, meet expectations when he’s healthy. Now here comes Harper, who was called up from the minors on April 27 ago after third basemen Ryan Zimmerman was placed on the DL, and we’re seeing he’s the real deal. In 26 at-bats, he’s already slugged five doubles, is hitting .308, and owns a .924 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). And if Harper is a bit of cocky rabble-rouser, even better. Baseball can use a lighting-rod, a guy you absolutely must watch because his talent if off-the-charts, and maybe because you don’t like him all that much.

Though you’ve got to love a swipe of home plate that delivers a clear message to a beanballer: the unprintable version of “screw you.”

MORE: Bryce Harper: Baseball’s Next Big Star Or Future Flameout?

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