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August 31, 2012

What You Need to Know

Friday, August 31

by Daniel Rathman

The Thursday Takeaway
Teenagers are not supposed to hit 15 home runs in the majors. Until yesterday, only three—Tony Conigliaro, Mel Ott, and Ken Griffey, Jr.—had ever done it. But Bryce Harper is no ordinary teenager, and now, 23 years after Griffey joined the club, he has become member number four.

Harper arrived with a splash on April 28, going 1-for-3 with a double in his big-league debut. Four games in, his OPS stood at 1.015. By June 12, it had receded, but only modestly, to 943. Drafted first overall in 2010 and nicknamed “The Natural,” Harper was destined for the spotlight. And with the spotlight came great expectations.

The Las Vegas native enjoyed the attention. When Cole Hamels welcomed him to The Show with a beaning, Harper got revenge by stealing home. When a reporter razzed him about his age, asking for his favorite beer, he told him, “That’s a clown question, bro.” When Giancarlo Stanton’s knee injury enabled Harper to become the youngest position player ever to appear in an All-Star Game, he decided to do so wearing gold cleats. But for all of Harper’s baseball talent, his willingness to embrace being “The Natural,” and his deft handling of the media stir that came with it, at some point, he would have to endure a slump.

That 943 OPS Harper carried two-and-a-half months ago marked a peak in his rookie campaign. By the end of June, it was down to 822. From June 29 until July 23, he did not hit a single home run. And after an 0-for-5 outing in San Francisco on Aug. 15, Harper’s OPS dropped to 718, its lowest point in three months.

There was no shame in Harper’s lull. All first-years, especially those as young as Harper, take their lumps at some point. Even Mike Trout, now in the midst of one of the greatest rookie seasons ever, hit just .220/.281/.390 during his 40-game cup of coffee last year. And, fortunately for Harper, the Nationals were still winning and still in first place, a spot they have not shared since June 3.

But the attention was still there, and Harper felt it: After striking out on Aug. 5, he shattered his bat on the plate, drawing a “When I was his age…” from Marlins catcher John Buck. Fortunately, he continued to accept it: After an 0-fer in Houston on Aug. 8, the midpoint of a five-game hitless streak, Harper willingly admitted, “I’m all over the place right now.”

Three weeks later, he’s back in the zone. Harper went deep twice in Miami on Wednesday, sparking a four-run Nationals rally that got them on the board in the fourth inning, then adding an insurance run in the fifth to become the first teenager to deliver a multi-homer game since Andruw Jones did it in 1996. But the frustration was still there, evidenced by Harper’s first major-league ejection—punishment for slamming his helmet after a ninth-inning double play.

Harper served as Washington’s catalyst again in yesterday’s series opener versus the Cardinals, smacking a two-run shot in the bottom of the first. It marked the first time Harper has gone deep in consecutive games since May 26-27, when the baseball world was still his oyster, and when his bat seemed uniquely slump-proof.

Washington Post beat writer Adam Kilgore observed during Thursday’s 8-1 victory that the long-lost balance is back in Harper’s swing. Perhaps as importantly, the swagger Harper left behind in Kansas City last month has returned to his game, too. When Harper’s homer cleared the right-field fence yesterday, he sprinted around the bases in a season-low 16.2 seconds, just as our resident Tater Trot Tracker, Larry Granillo, requested. In doing so, he beat his own 2012 record, set way back in those glory days of late May.

Harper’s revival on Wednesday helped Washington to snap its five-game skid, and the Nats have now won two straight with three games left in this weekend’s series against St. Louis. With the Reds—who sit a game ahead of Washington on the National League totem pole—still surging despite Joey Votto’s absence, the Nationals will need Harper to stay hot in order to keep up.

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • When Roy Halladay is going right, few others can rival his dominance, but Mike Minor—who will lock horns with Doc on Friday—is doing his best to mimic the two-time Cy Young award winner’s control. Minor has not walked a batter in any of his last three starts, and he hasn’t issued more than two free passes in an outing since June 30. He’ll need to be careful with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, though, as the Phillies sluggers are a combined 6-for-17 with two home runs in their past meetings (Friday, 7:35 p.m. ET).
  • It seems every time Felix Hernandez takes the mound, a 1-0 shutout victory is in store for Seattle. The 26-year-old righty has won in that fashion thrice in his last five starts, and the Mariners have come out on top in eight of his last nine. The lone blemish came against the Angels on Aug. 10, when Hernandez was charged with five runs (four earned) in seven innings in a 6-5 Anaheim win. He’ll look to avenge that defeat against Ervin Santana, who has gotten shelled in all three of his outings against the Mariners this year. With a 10-to-14 K:BB and four home runs allowed in 16 total innings (7.83 FIP) versus Seattle, Santana has earned almost every bit of his 8.44 ERA (Saturday, 4:05 p.m. ET).
  • August is almost over, and the Indians can only thank the heavens for that. After plunging into a 5-23 abyss this month—their lowest low since August, 1938—they will be thrilled to see the calendar flip to September on Saturday, though things won’t get any easier with the Rangers in town this weekend. Roberto Hernandez, who has lost in each of his three trips since returning to the majors, will look to provide a fresh start in the middle match, where he will take on Scott Feldman, who has dropped each of his last four (Saturday, 7:05 p.m. ET).
  • The Brewers lead the league in strikeouts, and Yovani Gallardo—who is riding a six-game winning streak and has fanned exactly nine batters in each of his last three starts—is a big reason why. He’ll try to continue his whiffing ways in the series finale versus the Pirates, just a month and a half after collecting a career-high 14 punchouts over seven innings against them. Pedro Alvarez picked up a hat trick in that Pittsburgh loss on July 15, but he enters this series on a tear, having gone 6-for-9 with two doubles and three home runs in the last two games of the Pirates’ set against the Cardinals (Sunday, 2:10 p.m. ET).
  • Got plans for Sunday night? Break ‘em. It’s the White Sox and the Tigers on Sunday Night Baseball with first place in the American League Central—which Robin Ventura’s team leads by three games entering the weekend showdown—potentially at stake. Chris Sale and Justin Verlander are set to duke it out at Comerica Park, where the home team is 39-26 this season and 9-3 with its ace on the mound. Both Sale and Verlander will be looking to bounce back from their worst starts of the year: a four-inning, four-run loss in Baltimore for the Chicago lefty; a 5 2/3-inning, eight-run debacle in Kansas City for the Detroit righty. You do not want to miss this one (Sunday, 8:06 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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