Bryce Harper was in the midst of an 0 for 13 stretch going into Tuesday’s series opener with the Baltimore Orioles in Nationals Park, and just 1 for his last 26 overall. Harper got up to 0 for 15 (and 1 for 28) before he hit a 2-2 fastball to left field off O’s right-hander David Hess for a soft, line drive, RBI double, driving in one of four runs the Nats scored in the fifth.
Harper looked to the sky after the hit, thankful that something finally fell in for him.
It was just the third extra base hit in the last 16 games for Harper, who was just 8 for 59 over that stretch, for a .136/.239/.203 line, with a double and a home run, six walks, and 24 Ks in 67 plate appearances.
Going into the game, GM Mike Rizzo told reporters that as rough as it has gotten for Harper over the last two-plus months, the 25-year-old, seven-year veteran has done a good job of dealing with the adversity.
“He’s handled it with class and dignity,” Rizzo said.
“I think he’s been a great teammate through it all. It’s easy to be a good teammate when you’re 4 for 4 and when you’re hitting .330. It’s tough when you’re 1 for 20 and 1 for 25 and struggling and I think that he’s shown the maturity and the class to be a good teammate and [is] more worried about the wins than the hits, and I think that’s an important aspect that he has learned throughout his career. He’s become a team leader for us, and when you’re going your worst you have to be at your best and I think that’s what Harp’s showed so far this season in the way he’s grinded through these struggles.”
Harper’s 1 for 4 game against the Orioles left him with a .213/.352/.470 line, seven doubles, an NL-leading 19 home runs, 53 walks (also an NL-best) and 72 Ks after 310 PAs.
His skipper, Davey Martinez, was happy as Harper to see one fall in for the right fielder.
“And to get an RBI, good for Bryce,” Martinez said.
“He’s making a conscious effort on staying on the baseball, and trying to stay towards left- center, and I’m very proud that he’s working on stuff and for me he’s a constant professional and he wants to win. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it, when I talk to him daily, all he ever tells me is he just wants to help the team win.”
Is he helping though? Have the Nationals considered sitting Harper to give him a break to get things straightened out and take some of the pressure off as he’s working to figure it out?
“Sure, sure, we’ve thought about it,” Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies in his weekly interview on Wednesday morning.
“I’m sure Davey will give him a day or two sometime in the near future, but we think that we’re a better team with Bryce in the lineup each and every day, although a reset and a break never hurts anybody. Everybody needs a day off, especially in our modern times of baseball where there’s no greenies and there’s no stimulation help to get you going every day.
“Everybody could use a day, so I’m sure Bryce will get a day, but it won’t be incorporated with him not performing on the field or slumping or anything like that. We’re a better team with Bryce in there. His presence in the lineup is [palpable]. You can feel it. The other team recognizes it.”
Opposing teams still circle Harper’s name in pregame meetings, Rizzo suggested, and try to make sure he’s not the one who beats them, hoping that the Nationals’ slugger figures it out after they play him.
Rizzo also acknowledged that the increase in the defensive shifts against Harper has played a role in his struggles, as CBSSports.com’s Dayn Perry, among others, have noted as people try to figure out why Harper’s numbers are what they are at this point.
“I think the shift — you can see throughout baseball, the shift has had an effect on hitters, specifically left-handed hitters,” Rizzo said. “I think the shift at large has been fairly effective against left-handed hitting. It’s no different with Harp. He hits the ball really hard, he hits balls on the line and on the ground, and ground balls these days are outs with the shift as it is.”
Rizzo, however, said he has declined to offer Harper any advice on how to get things going, though Harper has been hard at work with his hitting coach, Kevin Long, trying to figure it out.
“I don’t give Bryce hitting advice, obviously, but he just has to do his thing,” Rizzo said.
“Be Bryce Harper and that’s good enough. That’s MVP level. And I don’t think he has to worry about shifts and hitting around them or through them or over them. Just get back to your balance point, your good mechanics at the plate, and swing at strikes and don’t miss your pitch. To me, when we have our discussions offensively with our coaching staff, they ask me what do I see from the booth and I watch a lot of video and that type of thing; it’s like he gets in the position to get his pitch, and when he’s going good, those 3-1 pitches, the few pitches that he gets to hit that are in a good place in the strike zone, he’s fouling them off, and when he’s going good those balls are doubles and singles and homers, and now it’s [3-2] instead of a man on second, so I think he’s just missing some pitches, and he’s fouling a lot of his good strikes back and a lot of times all it takes is a broken bat or one good game to get you out of your funk, and when Bryce gets out of his funk, there’s teams that are going to pay. I’m looking forward to it when he gets it rolling.”