The Washington Nationals missed Bryce Harper's bat when he was out for 31 games earlier this season after injuring his left knee running into walls and sliding around the field with abandon. The Nats were 15-16 over that stretch, 26-24 when the 20-year-old outfielder went on the DL, 41-40 when he returned. In 14 games since he came back, the Nationals are 7-7, leaving them 48-47 at the break. Harper went on the DL with a .287/.386/.587 line, but he's gone through a stretch offensively since returning similar to the one he experienced in the middle of the year last season.
Since July 1st, Harper has a .196/.328/.333 line with two doubles, a triple and a home run in his last 64 plate appearances, leaving him at .264/.371/.522 on the year. Davey Johnson just moved him to the leadoff spot in front of Anthony Rendon in another shake-up of the lineup. Tonight in Citi Field in New York, Harper will be batting ninth and playing center field for the NL All-Star team in his second All-Star appearance.
In an MLB Network interview on Monday afternoon in NY, Nats' skipper Davey Johnson told hosts Jim Bowden, Jim Duquette and Casey Stern it was more than Harper's bat missing from his team when Harper was on the DL for over a month this season. "The thing about Bryce," Johnson said, "... some of my key players are a little more passive -- not as aggressive on the field as I'd like -- and I think he gives them that energy, because, if anything, he goes overboard with energy. And so, he was missed. Not just what he does with the bat, but just his way and approach to [playing] the game of baseball."
Johnson said he knew the Nats' 2010 no.1 overall pick would enjoy the experience of participating in last night's HR Derby, especially with his father pitching to him. "He's going to enjoy it. His first pennant race he hit the cover off the ball, last year at 19. He loves the big moment. He's been in big moments his whole life. He was competing against guys three, four years older than him his whole life. So this kind of stage -- he's probably more relaxed on this kind of stage than anybody."
Harper looked plenty relaxed sending 24 home runs out toward Shea Bridge, into the second deck or the Pepsi Porch as they call it and off the batter's eye in the Mets' home on Monday night, finishing second after 27-year-old Oakland A's slugger Yoenis Cespedes crushed the competition and peppered the left field seats in Citi Field with a total of 32 home runs to claim the HR Derby title for 2013. Harper took the loss in stride and talked afterwards about the joy of getting to share the experience with his father.
"'It was a great atmosphere and I got to share it with my family,'" Harper told reporters including MLB.com's Mark Bowman, "'It's a lot of fun and I was so thankful for it.'"
Once the All-Star Game and break are over, Davey Johnson is hoping that he'll get the same sort of stretch run from Harper that he got late last season. Over 45 games following the 2012 edition of the Midsummer Classic, Harper had a .214/.281/.376 line with three doubles, two triples and seven home runs in in 194 plate appearances. In September, however, Harper caught fire and finished his NL ROY-worthy first season in the majors with a stretch of 31 games over which he had a .330/.400/.643 line with eight doubles, three triples and seven home runs in 126 PAs. The Nationals' manager has talked before and did again on Monday about the adjustments his young outfielder was able to make in his first major league campaign.
"Sometimes he can be his own worst enemy because he's so driven," Johnson explained. "I mean, if he's hitting .300 he thinks he should be hitting .400. And last year at times, he expanded the zone because they weren't giving him a lot of good pitches to hit. But he learned from that. He's still very driven. He's got tremendous talent. Sometimes I think when our offense has been struggling, I think he tries to hit the ball too hard."
The 70-year-old skipper expects big things from his team going forward in what could conceivably be Johnson's last month on the bench in the major leagues and he said it's important that he has his players back and healthy going into the second half of the season.
"Losing [Harper] for over a month, and Jayson Werth and also Ryan Zimmerman and [Stephen Strasburg] and a couple of our pitchers weren't up to snuff the whole season," Johnson said, "I think we're healthy and having [Wilson] Ramos back in the lineup, he's a big factor. I think we're ready to go on a roll." And he sounds like he intends to go on that roll with the order he tried out in the final game before the break.
"I think I've been putting the wrong batting lineup up there," the Nats' manager joked, "The last time I put Harper in the leadoff spot after talking to [Ian Desmond] and Werth and a whole bunch of the guys. They felt that it was a better approach. And shoot, we got 14 hits. We got five runs, but it took us, I think, ten innings to do that, but it had a good feel and we hit a whole bunch of balls hard that day and with that mix-up, the lineup is harder to pitch to out of the bullpen."
The Nationals start a three-game series with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday night in the nation's capital. It's the start of an 11-game homestand that takes them up to the Non-Waiver Trade Deadline. It's a stretch that could determine what the team does come July 31st.