Grand conclusions can’t be drawn from a small sample of only four games, but Bryce Harper was 3 for 17 in the season’s first week entering Saturday night’s game against Atlanta. Manager Matt Williams said Harper is fouling back balls that he would normally drill because his timing is off by a tad. After a strikeout in Friday’s game, Harper slammed his helmet down. Everything with the 21-year-old outfielder gets magnified, but it’s clear Harper isn’t happy with his performance at the plate so far.
“Everybody gets frustrated,” Williams said. “There is also the ability within Bryce to go a month where they can’t get him out. He knows that. I think everybody that watches the game knows that. We certainly do. That frustration creeps in. He plays with a lot of emotion. That’s a good thing. When it’s not going as planned for him, you see that emotion. You also see it when it’s going good, too. Right now, he’s a tick off with his timing. He’s missing some balls that he ordinarily hits. That happens. It often takes one swing to get it all back.”
Williams isn’t too concerned about Harper because he sees signs of a breakout. Harper isn’t missing the ball completely or flailing at bad breaking balls in the dirt.
“It’s just a question of him being a little off timing and hitting the pitch that he ordinarily hits,” Williams said. “Because he’s got a lot of those and he’s fouling them back. What do you do in that regard? You keep putting him in there because eventually it’s going to turn. And when it does, it’s special. Just keep trying to get him opportunities.”
Harper has bounced around the lineup through the first five games. He has hit fifth once and sixth in two games, which prompted questions about lineup construction. Harper has hit second once and was penciled in that spot again on Saturday. Williams hopes that putting Harper near the top of the order on Saturday against Braves starter Julio Teheran will help jump-start him. Harper is 5 for 10 with two home runs with a 1.883 OPS against Teheran in his career.
“Trying to find him a good comfort spot until he feels it and until he gets out and starts to get back to feeling good about his swing,” Williams said. “He’s close there. I think he’s close.”
Ideally, Williams wants to come up with a set lineup for the season. But he understands that he will make changes based on matchups, health and managing playing time for bench players. But Williams also wants to put Harper in positions to make an impact. While it drew criticism, Williams batting Harper fifth and sixth has actually led to plenty of opportunities with runners on.
Harper has seven plate appearances with runners in scoring position through four games, one fewer plate appearance than Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman, who have mostly hit fourth and fifth in the lineup. Jayson Werth, the team’s three-hole hitter, has only five plate appearances with runners in scoring position.
“I look at it that we put him in those positions where we think that he’s going to have an opportunity to do damage with guys in scoring position,” Williams said. “It hasn’t happened yet. You look at it and he’s 1 for 7. In June, if he’s 1 for 7, it’s not a big deal. Everybody talks about it now because it’s the beginning of the season. Those opportunities are going to continue to be there for him. That’s been our plan all along in putting him in that spot. Depending on the day or the matchups, whether it’s five, six, two, those opportunities will be there.”
>>> Right-handed starter Doug Fister (right lat strain) underwent heavy exercise on Saturday and could play catch on Sunday, Williams said. Fister has yet to throw since he exited a minor league spring training game on March 27 with discomfort in his side. But Fister throwing on Sunday depends on how he feels.
“Through exercise, he feels pretty good,” Williams said. “The test is going to be throwing and extending. In a controlled environment, you can do a lot. But when he gets out there and throws a ball and wants to let it go a little bit, that’s the determining factor probably.”
>>> Left-handed starter Gio Gonzalez is the latest Nationals player to fall victim to flu-like symptoms. Gonzalez was in the clubhouse on Saturday afternoon but was slated to be evaluated by the doctor and then sent home to rest. Gonzalez is scheduled to make his second start of the season on Tuesday.