There are the nights when Bryce Harper gets nothing to hit, takes his walks and leaves everything up to his teammates. And then there are the nights when Harper takes matters into his own hands and with several mighty swings of the bat authors yet another chapter to this remarkable season.
With a 3-for-4 evening that included a pair of doubles, a couple of runs scored and one epic at-bat resulting in a key home run, Harper did more than his share to lead the Nationals to an 8-2 thumping of the Braves on Saturday night, the club’s fourth straight win.
“It’s incredible to see him go out there and play the game he plays,” left-hander Gio Gonzalez said. “It’s almost like he’s got the cheat codes to a baseball game.”
Harper, as far as anybody knows, hasn’t put this MVP-caliber season together simply by pressing Up-Up-Down-Down-Left-Right-Left-Right-B-A-Start before taking the field each night. He has done it via the more difficult combination of preparation, patience, aggressiveness, maturity and ultimately execution once he steps into the box.
And all of those traits were on full display during the bottom of the third Saturday night, during one of the 22-year-old’s best at-bats of the year.
Harper came to the plate with two out and a man on first, the Nationals having just taken a 2-0 lead on Shelby Miller, the Braves’ hard-luck right-hander who has pitched exceptionally well yet hasn’t earned a single win in his last 20 starts. Miller already struck out Harper in the bottom of the first, needing only three pitches to get him.
And Miller once again put himself in position to put away Harper, with a called strike and then a foul ball that had him down 0-2 in the count. Then the battle began. Harper took ball one way outside, then fouled off a high fastball followed by a low cutter followed by another high fastball. Miller’s next two pitches were well outside the zone, leaving the count full, before Harper fouled off another cutter on the outside corner, the ninth pitch of the at-bat.
“He kept fouling off pitches and gave himself a chance,” said Jayson Werth, who knows a thing or two about prolonging a plate appearance. “Sometimes in those at-bats there might be a pitch or a swing that wasn’t a good swing, but it was a good pitch so you fouled it off just to give yourself some life. Sometimes that can go a long way.”
Literally. Because on the 10th pitch of the at-bat, another cutter down but over the plate, Harper made contact and watched as the ball kept going and going to left-center field, ultimately landing in the Red Porch seats beyond the fence.
“What can you do?” Miller told reporters later. “He got under it. He has a lot of power.”
Even if his swings don’t always look like they’re designed for power.
“It’s difficult to say what’s going through his mind at that point, but it looks like he’s just trying to hit a single,” manager Matt Williams said. “That’s what it looked like. It didn’t look like he was trying to over-swing. It didn’t look like he was trying to pull the ball. He stayed on a 3-2 breaking ball and hit it to left-center. So for me, that’s what it looks like. And I think that’s the evolution. It’s continuing.”
Harper hadn’t enjoyed much success against Miller prior to that point; he had only 3 hits in 15 head-to-head at-bats, one walk and four strikeouts.
“I mean, he kind of owns me,” Harper said. “Or, he has in the past. I’ve seen him pretty well more and more, I guess, but he’s dang good out there. … I was trying to get a pitch in the zone to where I could do something with it. Got a pitch that I could hit and put it in the seats.”
That 2-run blast put the Nationals up 4-0 and set the tone for the rest of the game, but Harper wasn’t done. He doubled and scored off Miller in the fifth, then doubled again off ex-teammate Ross Detwiler in the seventh after a pair of borderline pitches called balls that left Harper fuming at plate umpire Jerry Meals.
Add this performance to his previous five, and Harper is now hitting .538 this week with a .720 on-base percentage, 1.951 OPS, two homers, five RBI and 11 walks.
Maybe he really does know the secret codes for dominance.
“Even a fire extinguisher can’t take him out,” Gonzalez said. “I think he’s scorching.”