Mar 26, 2014, 2:31 PM EDT
Updated at 5:20 p.m.
JUPITER, Fla. — Bryce Harper plays baseball with emotion, and Matt Williams has made it clear he doesn’t want his young star to lose that competitive fire.
But the Nationals’ rookie manager also knows Harper’s emotion won’t do him any good if he’s watching games from the clubhouse instead of participating in them on the field. Which is why Williams wishes Harper had chosen his words more carefully Wednesday after an argument about a close play at first base led to his ejection from a Grapefruit League game against the Cardinals.
“I just think there’s a way to do it,” Williams said. “You can express displeasure with a call and not push it over that edge. But again, we love the way he plays the game, because he’s all-out. He desperately wants to win, so we love that about him. But in a situation like that, he just has to not take it too far. That’s all. It happens.”
Harper displayed plenty of emotion after umpire Jeff Gosney called him out on a bang-bang play in the top of the fourth inning, with Harper busting down the line trying to beat out a slow grounder to second. The 21-year-old outfielder yelled out in frustration over the call, then said something toward Gosney, who immediately gave him the heave-ho.
“He said the magic word,” Williams said. “I don’t know what he said, but the umpire told me he said something to him.”
The Nationals did not make Harper available to media members following the ejection. He was gone from the clubhouse by the time reporters entered following the 3-2 loss to St. Louis.
Upon his ejection, Harper retreated to the Nationals’ dugout, where he collected his belongings. Third base umpire C.B. Bucknor kept the game from resuming until Harper had reached the visitors’ clubhouse, which at Roger Dean Stadium is beyond the left field wall, prompting Williams to get into a heated argument with Bucknor.
“Usually if you get thrown out of a game, you go right down the (dugout) tunnel to the clubhouse,” Williams said. “But here, most spring training places, you don’t go from the dugout to the clubhouse. You have to walk down the line. I just didn’t want him to be embarrassed about it, that’s all. I asked [Bucknor] to get the game going, and [Harper] would go between innings.”
Bucknor wouldn’t consent to that request, so Harper was left to make the long walk to the left field corner with a stadium-full of fans and players waiting and several fans reaching over the railing trying to get his autograph.
Among the points Williams wants all of his players to understand is that MLB’s new replay system will potentially overturn many disputed calls this season. A player who is ejected arguing a call that eventually is changed, however, will not be allowed to remain in the game.
“We’ve had that discussion already with everybody,” Williams said. “You must play the game with emotion. Bryce wants to be safe there. My thought is: He could express it in a better way and not necessarily get thrown out of the game. But he must play with emotion. We’ll certainly have many talks about situations like that and go forward.”
Fondly remembered for his intense playing style, Williams understands how easy it is to get caught up in the moment in a situation like that. He recalled the time he was ejected from a minor-league rehab game in Lancaster, Calif., unable to take the four at-bats necessary to help get him return from the disabled list.
Williams, though, wants his players — especially a star like Harper — to think before they say something they shouldn’t, potentially costing not only themselves but the entire club.
“It’s important for him to stay in games for us,” the manager said. “Especially that early. As it turned out, he would have gotten a couple more at-bats, and it could’ve made the difference (in the outcome of the game).”
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