by Chris Lingebach

WASHINGTON (CBSDC) — As the Washington Nationals attempt to extend their NL East divisional lead heading into the home stretch, manager Matt Williams has taken it upon himself to beat back the media wolves, with regard to a struggling Bryce Harper.

After going 1-for-3 with one strikeout in the Nationals 7-1 victory over the Mets last night, Harper now has 21 hits, 35 strikeouts and 2 home runs in 98 at-bats (30 games) since his June 30 return from an injured thumb. That equates to a .214/.319/.306/.625 slash line.

Hours before Wednesday’s game, Williams was asked about the possibility of sending his slumping slugger down to the minor leagues fora week to get his head on straight and find his swing again.

It was an honest question, wondering if a very common practice, often utilized to reinvigorate struggling young hitters, would be utilized in this instance.

“I’ve said he looks lost. I don’t know if that’s the word you would use,” Jason Bishop asked Williams in his weekly appearance with the Junkies. “I’m not a hitting coach, but I know that when you pull your head out, you open up your shoulder; you’ve got no shot at hitting the ball on the outside part of the plate. That’s where [Zack] Wheeler was going [Tuesday night]. He did hit a ball hard to the opposite field that went to the warning track. He was very upset that that didn’t get out.

“Is it a terrible – just a wacky idea – to send him down to [Triple-A] Syracuse for a week just to get right? Is that just a stupid idea on my part?”

Williams responded in kind, honestly.

“I don’t know. I don’t think it’s stupid,” Williams said. “Generally, if you have young players, that’s what you do. But this guy’s a special young player. We all know that. It’s different. I think he works hard every day. He’s the first one in the ballpark, generally, to get his day going. He’s grinding. We’re doing everything we can to help him get a good feel going in there and help him with his confidence and all that. It’s not easy, by any stretch. But I don’t know if it’s a good idea at this point to do that because it’s completely different pitching. We all know the big difference between Triple-A pitching and big-league pitching. It’s probably more of an option to have him feel good here, get it back. We’ve seen him, certainly, good and hitting well. And for me, it’s not necessarily that he can’t hit, of course. It is that he’s in some kind of a slump. What we have to do is try to work our way through it and get him out of it as quickly as possible. But he grinds every day, you guys. So he’s doing everything he can to get out of it, and so are we.”

What Williams didn’t give in his response was a flat-out ‘No, we’re not doing that.’ And in today’s media, in which non-definitive responses open the door for ‘that’s not a no’ speculation — however right or wrong that may be — his response validated the notion he may possibly have been thinking about sending Harper to the minors, if only for an instant.

Many hours later, after outlet upon media outlet had run wild speculating, even extrapolating their own speculation to the point that, by game time, all possible ‘Are the Nationals thinking of demoting Bryce Harper?’ inferences of Williams’ response had reversed course — folding back unto themselves to re-assume, ‘Should Bryce Harper be demoted?’ — the Nationals had a crisis on their hands.

In his pregame presser, when a similar question — something to the effect of ‘Is Bryce Harper being sent down a real possibility?’ — was asked again, Williams made loud and clear, he was tired of having his words manipulated to fill air time.

[Video provided by CSN Washington]

“I will caution everybody in this room: The minute you think you can read my freaking mind, you’re sorely mistaken, OK?” Williams said. “It pisses me off to even think about the fact that somebody would take a comment I make on the radio and infer that I’m thinking one way or the other. I’ve had it. Don’t do it anymore.

“Bryce Harper’s one of the guys on our team. He’s a very important part of our team. Just like everybody else is. Do we understand each other? It’s not fair to the kid, it’s not fair to the other guys in that clubhouse, to even think about sending Bryce Harper to the minor leagues, or to cause a stir. It’s unacceptable. It won’t happen.”

Adam Kilgore has a reasonably succinct summary of that angrily measured response:

“Translation: I got asked a question at 8:15 a.m. after a frustrating loss. I should have just said, ‘No offense, but yeah, that is kind of stupid.’ Instead I answered it in a manner that prompted a reaction I didn’t want or expect. Now I’m going to make sure that Bryce Harper knows I’ve got his back while killing this story line,” Kilgore wrote.

“A first-year manager handled a sensitive question awkwardly. That’s happened before. But consider where we’re at with Harper: A radio host for one of the city’s most popular shows raises the idea of sending him to the minors, and the manager, rather than dismissing it out of hand, considers it a reasonable recourse that won’t happen in Harper’s particular case. Maybe Williams only wished not to offend the questioner. But, again, we’re at a place where the Nationals’ manager, albeit in an understandably groggy state, chose to classify sending Harper to the minors as something other than categorically insane.”

Long story short: The Nationals will not be sending Bryce Harper down to the minors to straighten out his swing.

That it’s not even a consideration does nothing to extract the 21-year-old slugger from his confidence-crippling slump.

That, Harper will have work through at the Major League level.

Where the Nationals are currently leading the NL East by 4 games, in reality.


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