Harper heating up, benefiting from Werth leading off
By Mike Fiammetta / MLB.com
WASHINGTON — All of a sudden, Bryce Harper is heating up.
After seeing his batting average dip to .250 during the Nationals’ five-game road trip last week, the young center fielder is 5-for-14 (.357) with three home runs and six RBI over his last three games. Harper’s struggles had magnified his recent displays of emotion on the field, most recently his 9th-inning ejection on Wednesday after slamming his helmet into the ground following a double play.
Thursday night in the series-opening 8-1 win over the Cardinals, Harper hit his 15th home run of the season in the first inning of a 2-for-3 day at the plate. He nearly added another dinger in the third, sending Jon Jay leaping into the center-field wall before hauling in a deep fly ball.
“I’m just trying to stay within myself,” Harper said. “I’m just trying to use my hands and work up there, see some pitches and get the pitch I can drive.”
After batting .282 in the first half of the season, Harper has seen an increasing amount of outside and off-speed pitches aimed at forcing the rookie out of his comfort zone. Given his outbursts on the field, common thought suggested that Harper’s struggles at the plate were indeed making him over-extend himself at the plate.
“He’s all in all the time,” manager Davey Johnson said. “But he’s gotten a little calmer with his lower half. He can get real aggressive with his lower half, and he’s calmed down quite a bit. That’s when you get antsy, and that doesn’t help your swing.”
Harper has also benefited from the return of Jayson Werth, who has looked very comfortable batting in the leadoff spot. When batting first in the lineup this season, Werth is batting .350 with a .797 OPS (.350 on-base percentage, .447 slugging.) For the season, Werth is boasting a .825 OPS (.384 on-base percentage, .441 slugging).
“I really like guys that can get on base and also produce runs,” Johnson said of Werth and Harper atop his lineup. “Both can run, both basically make [opposing pitchers] throw it over. It’s great.”
While Harper denied seeing a change in how opposing pitchers have attacked him — both during his recent hot streak and with Werth batting in front of him — he did admit to benefiting from Werth’s patient, productive presence.
“I think having Werth hit in front of me just gets me going and he sets the tone,” Harper said. “It just calms down and just lets me go up and there just swing it.”