Aug 6, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT
Bryce Harper is searching at the plate, this much is obvious. Every time it appears the young slugger is headed on the right track, he falls back into a mini-slump and starts flailing at pitches he has little chance of hitting with authority.
Harper now has stepped to the plate 205 times this season, a reasonable sample, and has hit .249 with only 12 extra-base hits, 14 RBI and a .692 OPS that ranks 181st out of 286 major-league hitters with at least that many plate appearances.
He’s 3 for his last 24 — all three hits were singles — and he has stranded 10 men on base in that time, including three during last night’s 6-1 loss to the Mets. After sending a flyball to the warning track in the sixth inning, he slammed his helmet to the ground. After striking out in the ninth, a smattering of boos could be heard around Nationals Park.
Matt Williams understands Harper’s frustration.
“I’m OK with it,” the manager said. “We’ve all been there. We’ve all been in that position where it looks like somebody’s throwing an aspirin up there. But it can turn quickly, too. And some days, it just looks like a beach ball as well. I’m fine with him. He’s working hard. He works hard every day … one of the first guys here to work. And he’s working through it. He’s grinding up there.”
What, though, beyond nonstop work can get Harper going again? Here’s a crazy thought: Move him up in the lineup.
Harper has hit sixth most of this season. Williams took heat early on for not giving his talent-laden, 21-year-old more chances to bat per game, but right now Harper hasn’t particularly shown he deserves more at-bats.
But here’s the problem: It’s not working right now, and Harper seems to realize it. He’s frustrated. He’s dejected. He’s playing and acting the exact opposite of the 19-year-old who captivated us all in 2012 and went on to win NL Rookie of the Year.
Video work and long sessions in the batting cage with Rick Schu may help, but perhaps what Harper needs right now more than advice on swing mechanics is a confidence boost.
So many things have happened this season — really, going back to last season — to threaten Harper’s confidence. He has been hurt. He was benched by his new manager for not running out a grounder. He was dropped in the lineup. He not-so-subtly suggested he would prefer to play center field but has been kept in left field throughout.
This used to be the most-confident ballplayer in the world, one who took D.C. and the major leagues by storm as a teenager with the swagger of a guy who knew he was better than anybody else on the field and played like it.
That Harper hasn’t existed for awhile. We certainly haven’t seen him this season. Perhaps it’s all a reflection of his injuries, the fact he probably hasn’t been 100 percent healthy since April 2013.
But short of physical healing, perhaps there is some mental healing for Harper that can help him rediscover himself. And perhaps a show of faith in him from his manager is a path to get him there.
It’s not like the middle of the Nationals’ lineup as currently constructed is getting the job done. Jayson Werth won NL Player of the Month honors for July, but Adam LaRoche has hit .190 since July 1, Ian Desmond is 7 for his last 47 with one extra-base hit and Ryan Zimmerman isn’t coming back anytime soon.
Has Harper done anything to deserve getting bumped up in the lineup? No. But he remains the most-gifted hitter on the roster, the one with potential to be the most-productive hitter in the league.
What does Williams have to lose by showing a little faith in a struggling young star?
ON THE RADIO
As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2014 schedule (subject to change)...
MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
WED: 4:30 p.m.
THU: 2:30 p.m.
FRI: 1:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m.
SAT: 10:30 a.m.
*All times Eastern. You can also listen to the station on 94.3 FM, 92.7 FM and online at ESPN980.com. Click here for past audio clips.
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