But the slump remains. Despite his outward confidence, teammates and coaches have sensed him feeling the pressure.
“He gets frustrated, just like everybody else,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said last week. “For a while there, you could tell he was trying to do a little too much, swinging at a lot of first pitches. Swinging at the first pitch is fine, but it’s pretty much for if you can find a pitch you can do some damage with. I think one of the best things about him when he first came is, he could work a walk, see some pitches.
“He’s so good with two strikes that he shouldn’t be worried about it. When he gets two strikes, he buckles down. For a 19-year-old, he has a really good judgment of the strike zone. Nobody wants to struggle. Nobody wants to do bad. When you do, it’s just natural to try and do something to get back to where you were. He’ll learn. He’ll get back to where he was.”
‘Focus on the right things’
Before a game last weekend, hitting coach Rick Eckstein chatted with Harper in the batting cage. His message was not about mechanics. He told him, “Focus on the right things.”
“That’s what he has to do,” Eckstein said. “There’s a lot of distractions out there. You have to focus on the right things. He expects so much out of himself that sometimes, with guys that are as talented as he is, you have to try less, and not overthink the process and try to do too much. Let your talent speak. I’ve been very proud of everything he has done on the field and the way he’s gone about it.”
One National League scout — who requested anonymity because his team does permit him to speak publicly about opposing players — watches the Nationals frequently and agreed with Harper about the changes he should make: none. He said Harper’s struggles have sprung from typical challenges for rookies, including something such as facing left-handed relief specialists for the first time.
“The bottom line is, he’s 19 years old and he’s going to have to make adjustments as he goes forward,” the scout said. “It’s part of the game. He’s been a violent hitter. He gets to his front side really quick. Teams are probably just changing speeds on him and keeping him off-balance. It’s time for Harper to adjust. You know he will at some point.
“It’s unfair to expect him to do what he first did coming out [at his age]. Nobody in the history of the game has done that. It’s just a learning curve. I don’t think he needs any major adjustments in his swing.”
As he handles his slump, Harper has not changed, in either his swing or his routine. He arrives at the park early and sits in a cold tub. He smashes balls off a tee, then ones thrown by a coach from a short distance, and then on the field during batting practice. It is the same swing that made him a phenom early in the season, and the same swing, he believes, that will soon break his drought.
“It’s just a matter of time until you get going,” Harper said. “That’s baseball. It’s humbling. Sometimes you hit .180 and other times you hit .350. That’s just the game of baseball.”