Is Bryce Harper having a hustle problem in a pivotal year?

The two 2012 Rookies of the Year -- the Angels\' Mike Trout, left, and the Nationals\' Bryce Harper, shown before Wednesday\'s game -- faced off for the first time in the series early this week, and it didn\'t go so well for Harper. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON — It wasn’t all that long ago that Bryce Harper was the toast of the town. He was the charismatic teenager carrying the hype and expectations of being baseball’s version of LeBron James. Rookie of the Year honors came in 2012, along with a prominent role on a division-winning team.

Now, his life with the Washington Nationals is far less charmed.

Harper was benched Saturday for not hustling (ironically, on the same day he graced the cover of the program under the heading “Nothing But Hustle”). He returned to the lineup Sunday, but by Tuesday he was at it again, with a repeat performance on Wednesday.

It’s bad enough Harper has batted .263 with just five RBI in his first 20 games. Couple that slow start with questions surrounding his effort, and it’s a capital concern.

While I think this is much more an overreaction than an actual issue, I can see how his perceived nonchalance can be somewhat unnerving. He’s playing for a new manager, and this, his third season in the majors, is a pivotal one. This is the year we’re supposed to start seeing him make good on all the pomp and circumstance that made him the first overall pick in the 2012 draft.

Furthermore, the Angels series provided a rather damning contrast between Harper and fellow 2012 Rookie of the Year Mike Trout. In their first career series against each other, Trout hit .357, scoring three runs and batting in one more. Harper? Just 1-for-11 at the plate. No runs. No RBI.

In a sense, Harper’s season to date is a microcosm of the Nats’ season thus far. Both carry high expectations based on performance in 2012, and neither has done much to build on, or even live up to, those expectations.

But the season has just started. There’s plenty of time for both Harper and the Nationals to turn things around and change the narrative.

Sound familiar? It should; it’s what we were saying about Robert Griffin III and the Redskins last year.

If RGIII had played well last year, and the ‘Skins had won the NFC East again, would we really have had a problem with his “All In For Week 1″ campaign, or debate how selfish he is or isn’t?

Winning is the ultimate deodorant. And right now, the Nats aren’t winning enough – – nor is Harper playing well enough — to keep us from overanalyzing his every movement (or lack of it). Once the team gets healthy and starts getting more offensive production, this storyline should die.

After all, Harper’s lack of hustle to first base isn’t keeping the Nationals from being better than a .500 team. At worst, it’s indicative that he’s a young player who needs to further mature if the Nats are going to contend sooner rather than later.

Let’s hope they do. Washington doesn’t want to spend another season questioning whether another of its young superstars is who we thought he was.

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