ST. LOUIS — In the late stages of the regular season, particularly in its final week and a half, Bryce Harper smashed the baseball all over the field. Half of his 22 home runs came after July 19. He was reaching base and slugging the ball at absurd rates.
Through the first two games of his first postseason, however, Harper hasn’t had as much success. He went 1 for 5 with four strikeouts in Monday’s Game 2 of the National League Division Series, a 12-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
In seven regular season games against the Cardinals, he hit .429 (12 for 28) with five extra-base hits. In the postseason, he is 1 for 10 with six strikeouts. He also made a base-running gaffe during a late-inning rally on Monday.
In addition, Harper has been battling strep throat and a fever that bugged him, though he said it wasn’t affecting his performance and that he was improving with medicine. He was, in the eyes of his manager, simply adjusting to the conditions at Busch Stadium and getting few pitches to hit.
“Everybody was complaining it was very hard to pick up the ball,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said of the shadows in the stadium that split the batter’s box and pitcher’s mound by mid-afternoon. “It’s hard to pick up the spin on the breaking ball. Obviously early on, young hitters were swinging out of the zone. I don’t think [Cardinals starter] Jaime Garcia threw but just a few strikes, and he got outs on balls way out of the zone.”
On the eve of his first postseason game, Harper maintained he wasn’t nervous and that this was, in his mind, just like any other game. By some accounts, he wasn’t jittery in Sunday’s Game 1, though he did pounce on the first pitch he saw in his first at-bat against starter Adam Wainwright.
After that, Harper settled in and worked pitchers for longer at-bats. In five at-bats in Game 1, he saw 21 total pitches, a good rate. On Monday, Harper saw 28 pitches over five at-bats. He had some tough battles — six of his 10 at-bats lasted at least six pitches. In his second at-bat of Game 2, against Garcia with two runners on and two outs in the second inning, Harper fought back from an 0-2 count by taking two pitches and fouling off three, but he bit on a curveball out of the strike zone for strike three.
Asked by a reporter following the game if he felt like he was being overly aggressive, Harper retorted: “Do you think so? Maybe you should be the hitting coach?”
He made another out on the base paths, where his run-until-they-tag-me-out style has put pressure on opponents all season and often netted positive results. In the seventh inning, Harper smacked his first base hit of the series, a double to right-center field that moved Jayson Werth to third base. Ryan Zimmerman then drilled a liner to left fielder Matt Holliday, who caught the ball for an out and unloaded an odd throw that took at least nine bounces into the infield.
Werth scored on the play and Harper instantly took off from second base. But, in this case, second baseman Daniel Descalso gunned down Harper at third base.
“I just thought [Descalso] had to make the perfect throw,” he said. “It was just something that happened. A big inning and maybe I shouldn’t have done it but sometimes you gotta roll the dice.”
Added Johnson: “That’s inexperience, too. Had a little rally going there and he was in scoring position and he tried to get to third, and that kind of killed the rally we had going. Again, that’s just a little inexperience. He’s overly aggressive there. He didn’t tag up. He had to go back and tag up, and that was right. But it was wrong to try to go to third.”
More on the Nats-Cardinals NLDS:
Box score: Cardinals 12, Nationals 4
Boswell: They put a spell on Zimmermann
D.C. Sports Bog: Harper’s war paint in St. Louis
Photos: Scenes from Busch Stadium