With 80 seconds left on the clock in Monday night's Home Run Derby and a seemingly insurmountable gulf separating him from Kyle Schwarber's gaudy final round tally of 18 homers, Bryce Harper - physically spent and presumably frustrated with his old man's erratic arm - needed a breather.
Moments earlier, "Don't Stop Believin'" had blared over the PA system at Nationals Park. As Harper took his second timeout, however, needing nine homers to force overtime in a derby the script had him winning, it was hard to believe he was doing anything but delaying the inevitable.
Later, he'd offer a prosaic explanation of what went through his mind during that recess: "I better figure it out or I'm going to lose."
He figured it out.
Following a series of unhittable offerings from his dad, Ron, coming out of the break, father and son locked in with less than a minute left. Harper, resplendent in his America-themed accoutrement, went full Manifest Home Run Derby, unleashing a torrent of missiles into the right-field seats, blasting nine homers in his final 47 seconds and tying Schwarber on his final swing in regulation. And, having crushed multiple homers that exceeded 440 feet, Harper had earned an additional 30 seconds of swinging.
He only needed seven.
For Harper, who nearly hit the White House with his bat after demolishing the game-winner to straightaway center field, the catharsis was obvious as he rejoiced with his dad and teammates, basking in the adoration of a crowd that came out expressly to see this. It's been a disappointing season for him, after all, at least by his standards; he ranks second in the National League in homers with 23 but has accrued just 1.3 WAR through 94 games and owns a lower wRC+ (119) than Gregory Polanco.
"I mean, this is (for) the whole city of D.C. I was very fortunate to be able to bring this back to them and do it here," Harper told reporters afterward.
Yet, as the joy and relief washed over him following that virtuoso performance in front of his hometown fans - who have watched him blossom from a 19-year-old phenom into a bona fide superstar - a sobering realization surely followed: Harper's showing at the 2018 Home Run Derby might well be his most memorable performance in D.C. as a member of the Nationals.
Harper, now in his seventh and likely final season with Washington, has never played in a World Series game. He hasn't played in a National League Championship Series game, either, even though the Nationals have waltzed to division titles - and early-October home-field advantage - in four of the previous six seasons; twice, the Nationals entered the postseason with the best record in the National League.
The franchise's failures, both institutional and incidental, to turn Harper's insanely productive, undeniably volatile career to date into postseason triumphs need not be belabored in this space, but as his free agency looms, it remains remarkably difficult to conjure up any signature moments authored by the six-time All-Star. Unless you're Jose Bautista, after all, it's hard to forge indelible memories in the division series.
Harper's big-league debut, back in 2012, wasn't especially memorable; he went 1-for-3 with a double at Dodger Stadium in a 4-3 loss. (Stephen Strasburg's debut, it was not.) In his first game at Nationals Park, three days later, he went hitless and struck out once in three trips to the plate. All told, of course, his rookie season was superb - Harper managed an .817 OPS with 22 homers and 18 stolen bases en route to the NL Rookie of the Year award - but it wasn't fertile ground, somehow, for great, big moments. That would endure.
Sure, his two-homer effort on Opening Day in 2013 was exciting. His performance in the 2014 NLDS was impressive, too, though he apportioned his three home runs equally over three games. There was that three-homer game in 2015, his MVP season, when he tormented the Miami Marlins' pitching staff. The following year, he slugged a grand slam for his 100th career home run on his mom's birthday. Still, while those individual performances may still resonate locally, none of them hold any historical value beyond the boundaries of the Beltway.
(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
Moreover, it's entirely possible Harper won't even get another chance to create a lasting, eminently re-watchable, David Freese-esque playoff memory. As the season's unofficial second half looms, the Nationals - the putative NL East favorite - sit five games back of the second wild-card spot and trail the division-leading Phillies by 5 1/2 games. According to FanGraphs, their playoff odds sit at 59 percent; Baseball Prospectus is more pessimistic, pegging Washington's chances at just 24.5 percent.
The Nationals' offense, intermittently zapped by injuries to Anthony Rendon and Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy, has been mediocre; Harper bears some responsibility for that. Their pitching staff has been good, thanks to an outsized contribution from Max Scherzer, but not as dominant as it has been in years past. Once a foregone conclusion, the playoffs remain a dubious proposition in Washington.
It's possible, of course, that Harper re-signs with the Nationals this offseason, propping open that window to do something truly iconic through at least his early thirties. Even likelier, the Nationals right the ship following the All-Star break, with a rejuvenated Harper quarterbacking a postseason run that affords him a highlight commensurate to both his abilities and persona.
As a potential $400-million payday nears, though, and with the Nationals looking the most vulnerable they ever have in Harper's career, it's now possible that his crowning achievement in D.C. came during a round of glorified batting practice.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.