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DeSHAZO: Learning curve can fool Beltway stars

We’ve seen child actors in rehab and Justin Bieber’s mug shot on police reports. Sports also remind us that too much, too soon can be a problem.

This week alone, two brilliant young baseball players got their comeuppance.

Baltimore’s Manny Machado, who turns 22 Sunday, began a five-game suspension for throwing his bat against Oakland last month. And Washington’s Bryce Harper, still only 21, risked alienating his manager and a key teammate by recommending a lineup card after returning from two months on the disabled list.

It seems humble pie is a required course for all young D.C.-area superstars.

After a brilliant rookie season, Robert Griffin III took hits both to his body and reputation as a sophomore. Besides blowing out his knee, he was the subject of allegations leaked by former coach Mike Shanahan that he was too close with team owner Daniel Snyder and too sensitive to criticism.

Meanwhile, Alexander Ovechkin’s popularity has slipped even with the most ardent red-rockers after the Capitals missed the playoffs last season and his lack of defensive effort became obvious.

And do we even need to mention Freddy Adu?

Nah, let’s focus on the present. The frustration felt by Machado and Harper are understandable, but both need to learn how to channel it better.

Machado’s fabulous first full season ended with a gruesome knee injury that cost him the first 24 games of 2014 as well. Not surprisingly, his statistics have been more modest as he works his way back to full strength and sees fewer fastballs.

That doesn’t excuse his bat-throwing incident on June 8 after Fernando Abad threw two pitches at his surgically repaired knee. The Orioles didn’t miss him in winning the first two games of his suspension, but they’ll need him to make the playoffs.

There are enough level-headed veterans (Chris Davis, Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, Nick Markakis) in the Baltimore clubhouse to point Machado in the right direction. For his sake, he should listen to them.

The same goes for Harper in D.C. Like Machado, he’s recovering from an injury—the latest a torn thumb ligament that cost him 57 games.

Apparently, he spent his time off both rehabbing and reading up on Manager Theory 101. Before he even took the field Monday night, Harper responded to a question with his opinion on the configuration of the Nationals’ optimal lineup.

He would start in his preferred center field (not left, where Matt Williams placed him) and bat higher than sixth in the lineup. Ryan Zimmerman would play left field, putting Anthony Rendon at third and Danny Espinosa at second. Denard Span, who started 74 of Washington’s first 82 games in center field, would be out of luck.

Now, Harper might not be wrong. Zimmerman, whose every throw from third is a breath-holding adventure, has proven that he can play an adequate left field. And while Espinosa is the Nationals’ best defensive second baseman, he’s batting .217 and strikes out at an alarming 38 percent rate.

Still, the phrase “Shut up and play” seems to apply to Harper, whose frequent trips to the disabled list suggest a career arc more like Fred Lynn’s than Mickey Mantle’s.

Former manager Davey Johnson treated Harper like a pampered grandson. He has been handled quite differently by the no-nonsense Williams, who benched Harper for his half-hearted effort in running out a ground ball in April.

Maybe it’s a coincidence that the Nationals compiled a combined 14 runs and 19 hits in Harper’s first two games back—using Williams’ lineup, not Harper’s. (The Rockies’ major league-worst pitching staff probably had something to do with that, too.) And given the Nationals’ propensity for injury (especially to Harper), the surplus of talent may become a moot point.

Still, it’s Harper’s job to play to the best of his immense ability and let Williams make the decisions. For a young star who experienced early entitlement, that’s a lesson that’s every bit as important as learning to hit a 1–2 slider.

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

 

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