ATLANTA — What looked like close to a sure thing only a few days ago — a batting title for Bryce Harper — is now completely up for grabs over the season's final four days.
Harper has seen his lead over the Marlins' Dee Gordon shrink to a mere two-thousandths of a point during his first legitimate slump of the year. With only three hits in his last 26 at-bats, Harper's batting average has dropped from .343 to .3313. He still clings to the slimmest of leads over Gordon (.3311), but the race is now on through the final days of the season.
Harper had been cruising along, enjoying a dominant 16-game stretch in which he hit .431 with 10 homers and a 1.532 OPS to lock up the NL MVP vote. But beginning with last week's series against the Orioles (the only 3-game set he has failed to record at least one hit in this year) he has taken a big step back.
Harper's only three hits during this stretch all came during Saturday's 12-inning victory over the Phillies, leaving him hitless in seven of his last eight games. He has drawn only two walks in his last five games, lowering his league-leading on-base percentage from .471 to .463.
"Just missing some balls," manager Matt Williams said of Harper's slump. "I think he's fine. Over the course of a season, you're going to have these little peaks and valleys. One swing of the bat tomorrow and he can be right back out of it again. He's had a great season."
Gordon has kept the pressure on this week, going 11 for his last 31, though he went 1-for-5 on Wednesday to lower his average from .332 to .331. The Miami second baseman has played in nine fewer games (141) than Harper (150) but has compiled 88 more at-bats (598 to 510) because of a huge disparity in walks (25 to 124).
Harper is attempting to win only the third batting title in Expos/Nationals franchise history, joining Tim Raines (1986) and Al Oliver (1982). He's trying to become only the fifth batting champion in Washington baseball history, joining two-time winner Mickey Vernon (1946, 1953), Buddy Myer (1935) and Goose Goslin (1928).
"That's definitely something I want to get," Harper said after Tuesday's game. "I think walks will help that. If I can keep drawing walks, doing what I can, if I just keep — not doing what I'm doing right now, because that ain't working — hopefully doing what I've been doing the last couple months and try to get locked back into that."
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