“I mean, I’ve done it before,” Harper said, with his typical earnestness, about scoring and not swinging. “I’ve done it in high school. I’ve done it in college. I did it when I was like 10 years old. It’s part of the game. Like I’ve said numerous times, I’ve got the confidence of everybody on the team to get the job done behind me. And you saw that tonight. That was good.”
And that was the case. The Nationals took advantage of the Braves’ woeful pitching but also made them pay for mistakes. “Patience and power,” Manager Matt Williams said. Harper was patient, while most of the Nationals lineup provided the power, in particular hot-hitting Ryan Zimmerman.
Opponents have become stingier with Harper as the season has progressed, the sign of a feared, MVP-caliber hitter. Only 40.8 percent of the pitches Harper has seen this season are in the strike zone, lowest in the majors since Josh Hamilton (38.3 percent) in 2012. But Harper has thrived this season because he has accepted what he is given, sharply narrowed his focus only on hittable strikes and not fallen for the bait on close pitches.
“It’s his maturity level coming through,” Williams said.
In his three games in September, Harper has seen 32 pitches out of the strike zone and chased only one, according to stat company Inside Edge. The results: six walks and four runs scored in 11 plate appearances. Two weeks ago, he had his first four-walk, four-run game, too.
“I’ve got confidence in everybody on our team to get the job done behind me,” Harper said. “I’ll take my walks when I can. And when they throw the ball over the plate, I’ll take my hits, too.”
That’s why Harper didn’t even swing on Thursday. He did see four strikes but didn’t swing because he was far enough ahead in the count he didn’t need to or risk making an out in front of Zimmerman, who has driven in 22 runs in the past 10 games alone.
“Seeing him doing what he’s doing right now is very impressive,” Harper said. “Of course, I love scoring for him and getting him those RBIs. I think you guys saw that in the fifth inning when I scored from first. I’m always excited for everybody on my team to get better and do the things I can to help win ballgames. That’s all that matters at the end of the day.”
Each time Harper reached base, he scored. He even drove in a run when he walked with the bases loaded. Clint Robinson, the five-hole hitter, drove him in twice. Zimmerman, the clean-up hitter, drove him in once, as did Yunel Escobar, who hit sixth.
Harper’s 104 walks are second in the majors and his .464 on-base percentage is tops, on pace to be the best since Chipper Jones’s .470 mark in 2008. And Harper has crossed home often: His 96 runs are second in the majors.
“Kudos to him,” Robinson said. “It’s pretty impressive to see the patience and not getting out of his approach.”
Once the Nationals took a large lead, Harper got a chance to rest. He left Wednesday’s game in the fourth inning with glute tightness. He did all he could to be in the lineup on Thursday. He was waved home from first base on a Zimmerman double in the fifth inning, probably too aggressive a call for a player dealing with something and up by nine runs already. Williams took Harper and other starters out in the sixth.
“You could tell by the way he was moving around,” Williams said. “He was measured in everything that he did. He had to go on one ball down the line which he was able to just fine. But he was measured in every other way. He was ready, of course, and went through all the pre-game activity. We made him go out and run and made hit in the cage and made him do all the things to pronounce himself ready to play.”
Harper said he was happy to get a few innings off to rest.
“I definitely needed that breather,” he said. “I tried as hard as I could to get into the lineup today and got in there. Still pretty sore, but like I said, our [physical therapist] is one of the best in the business and she got me ready to go. I’m very thankful for that.”
IN THE POST
IN THE JOURNAL
NATIONALS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 2, Lehigh Valley 1: Richard Bleier allowed one run over 7 1/3 innings and lowered his ERA to 2.75. Sam Runion blew the save and Juan Gutierrez notched the save. Emmanuel Burriss went 2 for 5.
Richmond 4, Harrisburg 2: John Simms gave up three runs and struck out seven over seven innings. Matt Purke, in relief, gave up a run in an inning of work. Wilmer Difo hit his second home run. Christopher Bostick, Adrian Sanchez and Derrick Robinson each smacked two hits.
Potomac 4, Myrtle Beach 2: Matthew Spann allowed two runs over six innings and struck out five. Justin Thomas and Phillips Valdez combined for three scoreless innings. Grant DeBruin smashed a three-run home run.
Hagerstown 5, Lexington 2: Jefry Rodriguez struck out four over four scoreless innings. Jeff Gardner and Wilman Rodriguez each had two hits.
Auburn 5, Mahoning Valley 4: Kevin Mooney, Adam Boghosian and Mariano Rivera combined for five scoreless innings. Kelvin Gutierrez smacked three hits and drove in three.