August 31, 2012
What You Need to Know
Friday, August 31
The Thursday Takeaway
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.
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