Nations: Harper needs to dial it down

I’m considering a care package for Bryce Harper.

Actually, it wouldn’t be so much about the package — just an empty box, figuring the young Washington Nationals outfielder can buy his own toys. It wouldn’t be quite empty, though — inside, Harper would find a note, which would read thus:

Dear Bryce,
Enclosed is nothing much at all. Please observe the ridiculous amount of bubble wrap covering this package. Remove and encase yourself in it before every game this season.

Best of luck,
Jeff Nations

Extreme? Yeah, sure. I can’t say I wasn’t thinking something along these lines while watching the Nationals’ season-opening game against the New York Mets on Monday. Harper, a supreme talent and the player expected to be the face of Washington Nationals baseball if he isn’t already, is perhaps the key factor in the Nats’ hopes for winning at National League pennant this season.

So what does Harper do? In the second inning, he barrels down toward second base in an attempt to break up a double-play ball off the bat of teammate Ian Desmond. Harper went in hard on a take-out slide, and his forehead connected with sickening impact against the shin of Mets second baseman Eric Young Jr. For about a minute, Harper lay in the dirt looking every bit like a player headed to the disabled list.

It was a scare, that’s all. Harper got up, passed a concussion test to stay in the game and another afterward, and came away with nothing worse than a bad headache.

This is not meant to be a criticism of Harper’s hard-nosed persona and determination to play the game “the right way.” But jeez, take it easy. Remember last season — another max-effort play in the outfield put Harper into the wall during a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He missed a month with the resulting knee injury, and played less than 100 percent the rest of the season.

This latest near-miss, even on a relatively routine play, had me comparing Harper to a couple other phenomenally talented outfielders who regularly seemed to get banged up to the detriment of their careers — Ken Griffey Jr. and Eric Davis.

Harper made a conscious effort to bulk up this off-season, and maybe that will help fend off the regular wear-and-tear of a 162-game regular season and hopefully a long postseason run after that. Los Angeles Angels superstar outfielder Mike Trout did the same heading into last season, and that seemed to work just fine considering his American League Most Valuable Player runner-up finish.

Trout is the player Harper has drawn comparisons with since both came into the league as highly-touted rookies — both won their respective league Rookie of the Year honors in 2012. Even more was expected from each last season, and Trout delivered in spectacular fashion for the second straight year.

Harper cracked his knee on the Dodgers’ scoreboard in right field, tried to play through it for awhile, then went on the disabled list before coming back to try and grind through the rest of the season. He put up good numbers (.274 batting average with 20 home runs, 58 runs batted in and 11 stolen bases), but not Trout numbers (.323, 27 HRs, 97 RBIs, 33 SBs in 2012.

The potential to do so is still very much there for the 21-year-old. The only thing holding him back is the specter of injury, which is real enough for any player. Just ask Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos, looking to rebound from last year’s injury-plagued season and promptly put out of commission Monday after getting hit in the hand with a pitch. Whether Ramos suffered a fracture or not is still uncertain, but he’s bound to miss more time in a career marked by bad luck.

Losing Ramos, a talented backstop when he can stay in the lineup, is bad news for the Nats. Losing Harper for an extended period of time during this prime window of opportunity for Washington would be catastrophic. Injuries happen every day in baseball, often through no fault of the affected player. It could certainly happen with Harper, too, but the trick is not to unnecessarily increase those odds by trying to make the highlight-reel play.

That’s a lesson Harper hopefully learned last year, Monday’s base-running collision notwithstanding. If not, there’s always bubble wrap.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>