Bryce Harper still shaking off rust

(Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

brushback_harperAfter Bryce Harper made his infamous comments about the construction of the Nationals’ lineup, a strain of thought emerged in parts of the Nationals’ clubhouse. In the eyes of several teammates, Harper had placed an onus on himself. If he was going to take the rare, almost unforeseen step of making that kind opinion known, then he had better produce. If he was going to talk, teammates thought, he better hit.

The first six games after a player misses 57 on the disabled list should not be judged with significant gravity. Manager Matt Williams warned multiple times that Harper would likely require time to regain his timing and his swing. But the fact is, one week into his return, Harper has yet to reinforce his words with deeds. It is not reason to doubt him or question his ability, but in six games Harper is 4 for 21 with nine strikeouts and two walks.

Frustration showed Sunday afternoon, when he went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts. In his final at-bat, hitting with two outs and Jayson Werth on second, Harper spun out of the batter’s box as he flailed at Jake Arrieta’s two-strike slider, which broke inside off the plate. Harper crouched near the box and pressed his bat against his knees, as if trying to snap it in half. The bat held firm.

On Friday, Manager Matt Williams described Harper as “a little jumpy” at the plate. He has had trouble getting into advantageous counts and laying off two-strike breaking pitches out of the zone. Again, that’s to be expected of any player who misses two months on the disabled list. Harper knew facing minor league pitching on a rehab assignment would not prepare him for pitchers like Arrieta and Jason Hammel.

Still, Harper seems to have the right perspective on his initial scuffle. Before Sunday’s 2-1 victory over the Cubs, Harper told MLB.com that he did not expect to come firing out of the gate, and that as long as the Nationals kept winning, he could handle a personal slump. His presence alone makes the Nationals’ lineup better, more threatening, and they are 5-1 since he came back. He’s been hustling when on the bases and playing solid left field.

While the dynamic between Harper and Manager Matt Williams is far less problematic than publicly perceived, he may have work to do to mend his relationship with teammates who didn’t appreciate his lineup comments. Winning will smooth any wrinkles, and strong performance would help Harper, too. Eventually, the Nationals will rely more on Harper’s production. When he’s right, he’s still their most fearsome offensive force. He should be fine. For one week, though, it’s been a rough start.

FROM THE POST

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Nationals find a way to top the Cubs, 2-1, writes James Wagner.

Nationals deserve more than one all-star, writes Thomas Boswell.

FROM THE WEEKEND’S JOURNAL

Jordan Zimmermann makes his second All-Star Game; Anthony Rendon must wait

Matt Williams doesn’t make a defensive substitution for Ryan Zimmerman with a narrow lead

Anthony Rendon could be snubbed from the All-Star Game

Nationals continue to excel at throwing out baserunners

Nationals announce four more international signings

Bryce Harper hitting sixth because timing is ‘a little tick off’

Drew Storen, Rafael Soriano have strong all-star cases

Matt Williams swaps Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon in the lineup

Matt Williams content with Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 6, Gwinnett 1: Aaron Laffey allowed one run on three hits, walked three and struck out six over seven innings. Laffey improved to 11-3 and lowered his ERA to 2.82. Warner Madrigal fired a scoreless inning to lower his ERA to 2.16. Steven Souza Jr. went 2 for 2 with two walks and three RBI.

Altoona 6, Harrisburg 5: Brian Dupra allowed four runs, three earned, over 5 2/3 innings. Robert Benincasa allowed two unearned runs in the eighth. Jason Martinson hit his fifth home run. Michael A. Taylor went 2 for 4. Cole Leonida had three hits.

Myrtle Beach 2, Potomac 0: Matthew Spann allowed one run on seven hits over six innings. Sam Runion gave up one run over three innings of relief. On rehab, Eury Perez went 0 for 2. Tony Renda and Stephen Perez each had two hits.

Kannapolis 12, Hagerstown 7: Nick Pivetta allowed eight runs on nine hits and two walks over 3 1/3 innings. Ryan Ullman gave up three more. Drew Ward went 4 for 5. Carlos Lopez hit a three-run home run.

Williamsport 4, Auburn 1: Austen Williams gave up three runs over 3 2/3 innings. Austen Davidson, Jose Marmolejos-Diaz and Raudy Read a hit.

Also on Nationals Journal

Jordan Zimmermann makes his second All-Star Game; Anthony Rendon must wait