HARRISBURG, Pa. — Bryan Harper had entered a tie game to start the ninth inning for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators, and he was now in a bind—bases loaded, two outs. 

The next Portland Sea Dogs batter slammed a hard grounder up the middle for a short-to-second, inning-ending force out. A walk in the bottom half plated the run that made Harper a 2–1 winner.

“I just let the defense work. That was a good way to get out of it: Pound the zone,” Harper said of his final offering that May 25 night.

Making quality pitches in tight situations could earn Harper, who’s now with the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs, a call-up to the Washington Nationals. His standing 6’5″ and throwing left-handed would be key factors, too.

One thing is for sure: Harper, 26, will have reached the majors on his own merit. Being the older brother of the Nationals’ star outfielder is proving quite irrelevant.

According to Nationals vice president and senior advisor to the general manager Bob Boone, “He was signed with [the perception of] ‘This is Bryce’s brother, coming in on his coattails.’ He’s getting on the radar right now. I’m excited for him.

“He’s pushing his way through the door. All of a sudden, people are taking notice.” 

Boone, a longtime catcher in the bigs, would know something about brothers striving for the majors. His sons Aaron and Bret enjoyed fine MLB careers and Bob’s own brother Rod reached Triple-A. His father Ray was also major league infielder.

So far in 2016, Bryan has pitched to a 2.18 ERA, saved six games (all with Harrisburg), held opponents to a .174 batting average and struck out nearly a batter an inning.

Bryce, of course, has a bit more to show for himself, as the No. 1 overall draft selection in 2010, a four-time All-Star and the reigning National League MVP and Silver Slugger Award winner.

Since beginning his professional career in 2011, Bryan has pitched for six different clubs within the Nationals system—all in relief.

Throughout, Bryce has been his biggest supporter.

“[He made] sure I kept my nose to the grindstone,” Bryan said.

“He doesn’t need to tell me that. He says, ‘Keep working. You know you’ll make it.’ It’s a motivational thing for the both of us. I tell him the same thing.”

Should the Harpers share the Nationals locker room, it’d be their fourth experience as teammates since high school back in Nevada. The most recent time occurred with Harrisburg in 2014, when Bryce rehabbed for three games and played center field for two-thirds of an inning that Bryan pitched.

“It’s always been a dream of both of ours, once we got into pro ball, where we wanted to play with each other,” Bryan, a polite sort, said in the Harrisburg dugout hours before that ninth-inning victory. “Being able to play professionally, at the pinnacle of our sport, would probably be the coolest thing, by far, not just for me and him but for the whole family—being able to have the family there and watch me do my thing on the mound and Bryce doing what he does on a regular basis.

“He’s just always told me to keep grinding. He knows that I always have been a grinder. I’m always working hard to make my own name for myself and, hopefully, one day, be able to play with each other.”

The grinder has toiled at his craft. His 2016 pitching coaches, Harrisburg’s Chris Michalak and Syracuse’s Bob Milacki, said in separate interviews that they detected improvements early in spring training that indicated he had done some serious offseason work. They noticed that entering last season, too. And in 2014.

For Michalak this year, that meant Harper’s more consistent delivery, an improved curveball and increased confidence. Milacki cited the same, along with greater life to his fastball. Harper’s height, paired with the tweaks, have made him “able to create good angles” and significantly improve his breaking pitches, Milacki explained.

“With Bryan, from last year to spring training to now, he’s such a different pitcher,” said Milacki, who also had him for a short stint at Syracuse in 2015.

The best indicator of Harper’s makeup, Milacki said, occurred in Rochester this June 30.

Extra innings, tie score, first game of a doubleheader, bases loaded. Pressure, anyone? Adam Walker shot the pitch to deep center. It barely carried over the wall. Game over.

The next afternoon, Milacki took a pregame stroll to the outfield to take Harper’s emotional temperature. Harper calmly explained that he’d left a fastball over the plate. Perfectly sensible, and no use making an excuse.

“The good thing is, he’s accountable,” Milacki said he came away thinking.

Those who know the brothers well say that along with pride and a strong work ethic, Bryan has his head screwed on straight—with the extended Harper family having much to do with that.

Bryan’s best friend for more than a decade, Colin Shumate, recalled a decision the two made in high school to refrain from the drinking and partying scenes of their Las Vegas friends. Besides, they preferred Nintendo and Wii and Sunday family nights at the Harper’s house, where mom Sheri prepared burritos and enchiladas, sister Brittany baked dessert, and the males—Shumate included—handled the cleanup.

Other times, they all, Shumate included, hung out at the pool of Sheri’s parents, the Brookses, down the street.

The simple gestures of Sheri and her husband Ron are what impressed Shumate, such as always asking him sincerely how things were. When Shumate’s father Bill suffered a stroke in 2012, the Harpers were there.

Bryan and Bryce wore “Press On Warrior” wristbands the Shumates produced. All five Harpers checked in regularly with Shumate.

When Bill died in 2014, Ron called immediately. Shumate said Ron told him “how much he loved me and cared for me and was proud of me.”

“They were an active part of my maturing. That family was definitely a big part of who I am and who I became,” said Shumate, who works as a personal trainer in Southern California.

“You definitely know they love, care for and protect those they’re close to, who’re family to them. That reflects in the way Bryce and Bryan act and handle themselves.”

When the Harpers were teammates for one season at Las Vegas High School, spectators seemed to empathize with Bryan because of the stardom many predicted for Bryce.

But Bryan “never took it like that” and remained his own person, confident in his ability and not begrudging Bryce’s success, their coach Sam Thomas said.

Sibling rivalry is a tricky—and loaded—thing, especially among high achievers in any endeavor.

A psychologist in Baltimore who specializes in relationships between siblings, Avidan Milevsky, explained that rivalry and even aggression are inevitable, unless “de-identification” occurs. That happens when one of them selects a different professional path to minimize comparisons with a more heralded, usually older, sibling and to carve out a unique identity.

When they embrace the same profession, parental influence is often the factor in determining whether siblings can maintain a healthy, rather than a conflict-laden, relationship, he said.

Milevsky offered another pair of sports brothers as an ideal. In fact, he often begins lectures on sibling dynamics by screening a slide showing Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh embracing his brother and then-San Francisco 49ers coach Jim after the former’s victory over the latter in Super Bowl XLVII. Milevsky follows that up with a slide of the Harbaughs posed with their sister and parents.

“The saving grace was the parents raised them well,” Milevsky said of the Harbaughs. “They worked very, very hard to create a sense of harmony in the family. If you don’t see that tension between [siblings], that means their parents were very, very special people and did something unique.”

That’s apparently what’s at play, too, with the Harpers. The brothers maintain regular contact, sometimes after every game, more to encourage one another than to offer tips on approaching a particular pitcher or hitter. Shumate often texts with Bryce and speaks by telephone with Bryan.

Harrisburg manager Matt LeCroy, who coached with the Nationals in 2014 and 2015, has seen the brothers up close, too.

“You can tell they have that bond. I hope my kids have that with each other,” said LeCroy, the father of five. “Once the competition’s over, what else do you have?”

The unfortunate thing is that it’ll likely take being teammates for Bryan and Bryce to appreciate each other’s play in person. Except for that sole Harrisburg game when they wore the same uniform, the Harper brothers have rarely been able to attend the other’s games.

When Bryan pitched in 2013 and 2014 for the Nationals’ Washington-area Single-A teams, Hagerstown and Potomac, he popped over to Nationals Park a few times to watch Bryce in action. The two even lived together in 2014, the year Bryce once drove over to Potomac’s stadium in Virginia to watch the other Nationals play.

“It was awesome,” Bryan said. “I threw well that night, and it was cool to have him there to see.”

It’ll be far cooler whenever—if ever—Bryan is promoted to The Show. Boone considers that a real possibility.

“He’s in the mix,” Boone, in Harrisburg for two of the Portland games, said of the Nationals’ plans. “This year is the best he’s pitched. He’s getting big-league ready… Everyone’s always looking for left-handed pitching, including us.”

Unfortunately for Bryan, he will now have to wait until 2017 to get his chance. All the hard work that got him so close to his dream has been negated by an arm injury. He has been on the disabled list since August 10 and will be unable to return in 2016.

When that time finally comes, however, his support group will be ready.

In the Harpers’ circles, some of the most important people will drop everything to fly…wherever.

“It’ll be the fulfillment of everything he’s worked for his whole life,” Shumate said. “I’ll be really excited when he fulfills it.”

No less pumped up at the thought is Thomas.

“I would love to see Bryan have that opportunity, and it would be that much more special with his brother on the same club,” he said.

“I’d have to dig up $500, $600 to be there, because that’s something I’d never miss. The penalty with my wife would be terrible. I’d probably have to do dishes for a year.”


Hillel Kuttler covers baseball for Bleacher Report. His work has previously appeared at The New York Times and The Washington Post. Follow Hillel on Twitter @HilleltheScribe

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