Bryce Harper's three-run home run to center field in Nationals Park on Thursday night was just the second home run hit off Miami Marlins' starter Henderson Alvarez in 83 1/3 IP in 2013. It was also Harper's 20th HR of the year. It was his first home run in 53 plate appearances in September. The 20-year-old slugger had, however, managed to put up a .310/.412/.357 line in 12 games this month prior to his 3 for 4, 3 RBI night against the Fish in the nation's capital. On the year, the 2010 no.1 overall pick now has a .280/.380/.499 line, 22 doubles and 20 HRs in 110 games and 465 plate appearances.
The last two of Harper's 22 doubles came in a 3 for 5 game in a win over the Phillies last Sunday. Nationals manager Davey Johnson was asked after the win what he thought of the Nats' outfielder who'd been dealing with a hip issue that had him in and out of the lineup in recent weeks. "He looks good," the 70-year-old skipper said. "I had a little chat with him before the game, told him to just not try to do too much. Don't need to hit the ball over the light tower that kind of thing. And he kept looking at me after he hit a line drive, hit a double, 'Is this what you want?' So it was fun, just a fun all around day."
Asked if he'd just told the energetic Nats' slugger to relax, Johnson said he'd actually shared an anecdote with his young star. "Oh, I told him a Ted Williams story," the manager said, "that was all." But he didn't share any details about what he'd said. "That's private," Johnson joked.
But like everyone who watches Harper, the former major leaguer-turned-manager who said last winter that the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year was the best first-year player he's ever managed, told reporters tonight that he's been impressed with Harper from the start. "He was impressive when he first stepped on the field two years ago," Johnson said. "He's only going to get better. He's starting to learn more about what he can do. He sometimes expands the zone. Sometimes he over-swings. He's just learning."
And learning in the spotlight, with the entire baseball world watching. Harper's injured himself running into walls. He's played injured until he couldn't keep going and suffered knee and hip injuries that have limited him to 110 of the Nationals' 153 games.
Johnson said tonight that Harper has handled it well.
"When you go through a period where you have all this attention," he said, "that's new and you try to live up to hype and you try to do things, you try to do too much, and I think he's getting over that. I think he's back to enjoying and that's great to see."
It was also great to see Harper collect one of his three hits tonight off a left-handed reliever, Dan Jennings. The Fish lefty threw Harper a 2-0 fastball in the eighth that the Nats' outfielder took the other way for an opposite field single. After Harper put up a .240/.300/.415 line with six doubles, four triples and six home runs in 202 plate appearances against left-handers last year, he'd put up a .213/.333/.320 line with seven doubles and two home runs in in 149 PAs this season before Thursday's game. Johnson said he gave Harper some advice on hitting lefties recently.
"I was telling him, 'You're going to really hit left-handers good,'" Johnson said, "'when you realize any left-hander, all left-handed pitchers are just dumb. You'll hit them real good when you realize that."
It's just one part of his game that Harper continues to refine. He'll turn twenty-one in October with at least 42 home runs in his major league career. His arm is really starting to become a weapon in left field and he seems to get more comfortable as an outfielder all the time.
"He's getting better defensively," Johnson said, "He still occasionally airs it out too much. But he's playing smarter, running the bases better. He's having more quality at bats. He went through that period where everybody was getting on him for running into the wall and he had to deal with that and a lot of tension on him. He's learning how to get past that and not let it overwhelm him, not let him -- kind of not enjoy the game because of it."
Johnson's had two seasons now to impart all he can to the Nationals' franchise player. Here's hoping Harper has been listening.
• AUDIO: Nats Nightly w/ The District Sports Page's Dave Nichols and FBB's Doghouse:
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