WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It’s not even mid-March and the opposing pitchers haven’t all been exactly major league caliber so it’s too early to deduce much of anything. But Bryce Harper looks closer to his 2015 MVP self than the 2016 version this spring. And the Nationals’ right fielder continued mashing Grapefruit League pitching Sunday, smacking a two-run shot off Astros left-hander Reymin Gaudin in the 5th inning.
Harper turned on a 94-mph fastball out over the plate and launched it beyond the wall in right-center field. The home run was his second in as many days and fifth of the spring, the most in the majors, in 24 at-bats. Harper had never hit more than three home runs in spring training.
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“He just seems more focused, more determined,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “And he’s not missing pitches, where last year was fouling off a lot those pitches that he’s now not missing. So that’s what it looks like. It looks like the old, young Bryce, so to speak.”
Harper, 24, has maintained he didn’t make tweaks to his swing after last season’s disappointment. Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu, though, recently said Harper’s swing is quieter than it was most of 2016 after he was walked 13 times in a four-game series against the Cubs in early May, including six times in one game.
“I think last year, after the Cubs series, I think he was trying to get it back the rest of the year,” Schu said. “And it’s kind of in between, if he was getting pitched to, if he wasn’t getting pitched to. Just trying a little too hard out there, raging out there. I’ve known Bryce for a long time. I think when he stays within himself and he has that controlled rage, he’s good. When he’s raging right from the get-go and gets a lot of head travel, that’s when his pitch selection gets a little disconnected. I think right now he’s really calm like he was his MVP year. You can see that head staying still and he’ll do damage.”
Of course, it’s just spring training and the numbers don’t carry much weight when names such as Peter O’Brien, Jabari Blash, and Jose Osuna are among the top home run leaders. But the Nationals can take the early returns — a home run every fifth at-bat — as a sign that the 2015 Bryce Harper, or something close, may be back.
>>> Catcher Matt Wieters made his Nationals debut Sunday, playing four innings behind the plate and batting eighth. The former Oriole, who signed with the Nationals on Feb. 24, went 0 for 2. He fisted a one-hopper to the third baseman in his first plate appearance in the second inning against left-hander Dallas Keuchel. An inning later he stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and he popped out to shallow right field to end the frame.
Wieters caught the duration of Joe Ross’s scoreless four-inning outing. The right-hander yielded two hits and one walk while striking out four. He threw 60 pitches, 36 for strikes.
“My mechanics were a lot better this outing than the last one,” Ross said. “My command was a lot better, too. I got a little tired at the end, but other than that I was pretty happy with how it went.”
Baker said Wieters will play again Monday — and catch Stephen Strasburg — against the Tigers and again Wednesday after Washington’s off day on Tuesday. He’ll then go into the Nationals’ rotation of catchers, which could lose Derek Norris soon. Norris, who was the projected starter before Wieters’s arrival, was placed on waivers and could be released in the coming days if the Nationals don’t find a trade partner.
“Fortunately we have a couple weeks,” Baker said. “I can’t shelf everybody else either and so I’ll get him up to, hopefully, nine innings a game or two before we leave [Florida].”