Jul 12, 2014, 11:48 AM EDT
PHILADELPHIA — As the ball rocketed off his bat and soared to right field, well into the bleachers at Citizens Bank Park, Bryce Harper remembered for a moment what it’s like to hit a home run.
“It felt really good,” he said.
Harper hadn’t had that sensation since returning from the disabled list nearly two weeks ago. And he hadn’t felt that in a big-league game since April, when he hit his only other home run for the Nationals this season.
Yes, he did belt those three homers one night with Harrisburg during his game rehabbing from left thumb surgery. But as Harper has known all along, and as other have come to realize, there’s just a slight difference between Class AA pitching and major-league pitching.
“It’s a little bit different seeing 95-plus [mph] every day,” he said. “It’s two months off and coming back into it trying to get everything going. It’s going to be tough. I’m just trying to get into my routine every day, see how I feel.”
Harper had only 4 hits in 33 at-bats prior to his seventh-inning homer last night off the Phillies’ A.J. Burnett. Add his pop-out later in the Nationals’ 6-2 loss, and he’s still only 5-for-35 with 13 strikeouts since coming off the DL.
Manager Matt Williams spoke earlier in the day about the better approach swings he had been seeing from Harper in recent days, even though the results didn’t necessarily show it.
“He’s calming down a little bit,” Williams said before the game. “Early, when he first came back, he was really aggressive toward the pitcher. And he’s starting to tick it back a little bit, where he’s seeing the ball better, waiting for the baseball to get to him as opposed to going to get it.”
Harper actually was incredibly aggressive Friday night. In four plate appearances, he saw a total of only five pitches, making three outs on the first pitch of an at-bat and then hitting his homer on a 1-0 pitch.
Harper attributed that more to the strikes Burnett threw him than a calculated gameplan to go after the veteran right-hander early in the count.
“I was just trying to get some good pitches to drive,” he said. “I think he hung me the curveball in the first at-bat (a groundout). Second AB, I’m not sure what I hit, it might’ve been a front-door sinker (leading to another groundout). Third at-bat, I can’t remember. Oh, that was the homer. And then the fourth AB, he threw me a … heater right down the middle and I missed it (popping it up).”
What did Williams think about Harper’s lack of patience at the plate last night?
“It’s a double-edged sword sometimes,” the manager said. “He wants to be aggressive, we certainly want him to be aggressive in the strike zone. And if he’s swinging at strikes, then it’s OK. If he’s swinging early and swinging at bad balls, then it’s a level of concern.”
This much remains certain: The Nationals recognize the only way to get Harper’s swing back to its full potential is to keep giving him opportunities to see big-league pitches.
“You hope that a guy comes off an injury and he comes out swinging and it’s all peaches. But that’s not reality,” Williams said. “The reality is, it takes a while to get timing and focus and feeling good. You also have to look at their legs and the rigors of playing every day, how that affects the whole body. But it’s coming. He’s going to be just fine.”
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