In the Nationals’ 9-4 beatdown of the Giants Wednesday, Harper went 2 for 4 with a walk, all five of his plate appearances coming against left-handed pitchers. Last week in Colorado, Manager Davey Johnson said Harper was struggling more than he had at any point in his short major league tenure. Now Harper has multiple hits in four of his last seven games.
Harper is not yet raking like he was at his most scalding stretch. But he has showed more patience and adjusted to opposing pitchers feeding him constant breaking balls and pitches out of the zone.
“You just got to calm yourself down as much as you can and not try to hit their pitch instead of hitting your pitch,” Harper said. “Don’t chase early. Just try to be as calm and cool as you can. I’m just really trying to be as calm as I can.”
After the Nationals finished the trip in Toronto on June 13, Harper went 8 for his next 43 while striking out 14 times. The skid culminated with two ugly games in Colorado, when soft-tossing lefties slung offspeed pitches outside that Harper couldn’t resist. (He insisted at the time that umpires with generous strike zones didn’t help.)
“The past two weeks I didn’t feel comfortable in the box at all,” Harper said. “There’s spurts where you go like that. Sometimes you look stupid, and sometimes you look great. … That’s just the game. I think once I got out of Toronto and got into that Yankees series, that really got me off what I was going to do.”
Harper had begun swinging at balls. When he has been at his best, Harper’s discipline has been among his most impressive tools. Against the Rockies, especially, Harper hacked at curves and sliders that curled off the plate.
“I think they had a book on him in Colorado: Slow hooks to slower hooks,” Johnson said. “He was a little overaggressive. But he’s a smart hitter. He makes adjustments. He knows what he’s about. He works on things in BP. He’s being a little more patient. That comes with his experience up here and how they’re pitching him. He has a pretty good idea of what they’re trying to do to him.”
Wednesday, Harper saw only two fastballs out of 10 pitches from Giants starter Madison Bumgarner over three at-bats. He struck out in his first at-bat after taking the count to 3-2, missing a slider off the outside edge of the plate. In his next two at-bats, he whacked a change-up and a curveball for singles. On the first-pitch curveball from Bumgarner, Harper stayed back just long enough to waffle it into right field.
“It’s been going on for a while,” Harper said of rarely seeing fastballs. “It’s been going on since high school and college and minors and now. I still got to learn how to hit it. Once I grow and get a little bit older, I’m sure in that aspect I’ll get a little bit better.”
In his last at-bat Harper faced Javier Lopez, the kind of pitcher who dines out on overanxious left-handed hitters. Harper missed one fastball, but he spit on four other pitches out of the zone, including a 3-1 fastball just off the inside corner.
That was only Harper’s second walk in his past 49 plate appearances. He does not apologize for his aggressiveness. But given the way he has been pitched he also needs to mix in selectivity.