Bryce Harper went hitless in the April 5 loss to Atlanta, sending his season-opening slump to its nadir at .143 through five games. The slugging outfielder declared he was “lost” at the plate. He slammed his helmet down after a strikeout. He threw his bat in the dugout tunnel. He turned for guidance to his father Ron, his unofficial hitting coach growing up. The words his father offered stuck.
“He was just like, ‘Man, you need to stop thinking so much. Just go out and hit the baseball. Plain and simple,’” Harper recalled this week. “It’s sometimes where you start slow and that’s just part of the game and there’s nothing you can do about it. Just have fun, smile, laugh. Just be as happy as you can all the time and good things will happen.”
Harper rested on April 6 — a mental day off issued by Manager Matt Williams — and since then the outfielder has taken off. Before that 6-2 loss to the Braves, Harper was 3 for 21 with one walk, no extra-base hits and 10 strikeouts. Since, he is 14 for 29 with four walks, five extra-base hits and six strikeouts. After resting a day with a tight left quadriceps muscle, he came into Thursday’s game with an eight-game hitting streak. His batting average rose from .143 to .340 in the span of a week.
At the plate, he looks different. He’s calmer and holds his hands up higher, like he has his entire life. He looks like himself again.
“You want to do so much and you’re just six games in and it’s like, ‘Why?’” Harper said. “Just try to relax. You have a 150 more games left. So just trying to relax as much as you can. If you’re 0 for 4 or 4 for 4, you gotta come back the next day and play. You’re only as good as your last AB. I’ve always said that. You’re only as good as your last game and how you played. Sometimes you gotta flush it and come back the next day and be ready to go.”
Harper also made an adjustment to his swing. Late in spring training and early this season, Harper rested the bat on his shoulder before he swung. As he started to improve, he went back to holding the bat high over his back shoulder before swings, his traditional stance. Harper said the lower bat positioning was part of his search for his swing and balance point.
“I really needed to find my balance point of where I wanted to be. I get to here,” Harper said, mimicking his high swing, “and that’s where I start now. I’ve started there my whole life. It was just a thing in spring and I was trying to feel it and I felt pretty good doing it. So just try to stick with it for a little bit and get right back to where I need to be.”
Under Williams, Harper has hit in five different spots in the lineup — second, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh — in only 15 games. Harper has occupied two spots the most: second, which he will have done six times including Thursday, and sixth. When the season began, Harper was hitting lower in the lineup. But as he improved, he has moved up in the lineup, too.
Injuries to regulars also played a large part in Williams’ lineup changes. But Williams is also willing to adjust the lineup on a daily basis depending on matchups.
Harper said he is “not bothered at all” by his various spots in the lineup. In fact, he understands Williams’s challenge in making a lineup with the Nationals hitters.
“We have eight three-hole hitters in our lineup, Span and the pitcher,” Harper said. “It’s pretty incredible having guys who can hit in the three-hole. Every single guy can. It’s tough to make the lineups sometimes.”
Harper said he is happy as long as he is in the lineup.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m a three-hole hitter, a four-hole hitter or a two-hole hitter or leadoff,” he said. “You’re going to hit where you are in the first inning, you might hit third that next inning. That’s how the game is. The lineup, one through nine, is perfect for the first three innings and then you never know what’s going to happen. You may lead off an inning.”
Harper returns to the lineup on Thursday and is hitting second. He didn’t play Wednesday because his left quadriceps muscle tightened up during batting practice. He had been playing with a tight quad since Friday. He considers the tightness minor and the Nationals agree. But Harper has been using his legs a lot; he has been playing center field, in Denard Span’s absence, and running the bases a lot.
“We just have to monitor it,” Williams said. “It’s not serious. It’s not that he can’t. Two nights ago, he’s guarding it just a little bit on plays that he doesn’t have to go full out. But he also scored from third on a ball that got away from an infielder. He’s fine. But it is tight on him. We just have to make sure we’re taking the right precautions there so he can continue to play.”