The chant began after Bryce Harper had rounded the bases in he bottom of the seventh, his 41st homer of the season having already landed in the second deck down the right-field to give the Nationals a 5-2 lead over the Marlins they would not relinquish.
“M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!”
With two weeks remaining in the regular season, Harper can’t do much more to make his case for the first Most Valuable Player award in club history, the first official MVP award in Washington baseball history. The numbers, at this point, are historic, certainly impressive enough to overshadow the fact they were produced by somebody who most likely won’t have played for a playoff participant this season.
But afternoons like the one Harper put together Saturday sure don’t hurt his cause, either.
The home run — a 2-run shot off Marlins reliever Kyle Barraclough — was the highlight-reel moment, yet another towering blast from a slugger who has hit more than his share of those this year. But the at-bat that most impressed others within the clubhouse came two innings earlier, when Harper battled through a 10-pitch showdown with left-hander Brad Hand before lining a sacrifice fly to right that brought home the game-tying run.
“That’s an important moment,” manager Matt Williams said. “It’s one thing to try to hit a homer there. It’s another thing to grind an at-bat and simply get one [run]. That will allow him to have success throughout his career, if he can have at-bats like that.”
The at-bat included, in no particular order: 10 pitches, five foul balls (all with two strikes), a new set of batting gloves (that he wound up not using), two uses of the rosin bag and a new bat after the first broke on one of the foul balls.
“I was trying to put the bat on the ball,” Harper said. “Trying to definitely make something happen. Didn’t care what he was going to throw up there. I was just trying to battle and do the best I could to get something in the air, or get something through a hole.”
The end result was a sacrifice fly, accounting for Harper’s 93rd RBI of the season. The home run later raised that total to 95 and put him on the cusp of a truly phenomenal offensive performance in 2015.
If Harper can maintain his current batting average, hit four more homers and drive in five more runs, he’ll become only the ninth player in MLB history to finish a season at .340 with 45 homers and 100 RBI.
Add one more element to the equation — on-base percentage — and Harper joins an even more-exclusive club. If he can maintain his current OBP of .467, while also hitting .340 with 45 homers and 100 RBI, he’d stand alongside only five others who have accomplished that: Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Jimmy Foxx.
“The biggest thing I see is he’s not chasing any pitches,” right-hander Jordan Zimmermann said. “Last year and the year before that, he was chasing stuff out of the zone. Now he’s a lot more patient and knows that they’re not gonna give him strikes and he’s gonna take his walks when he can. He’s been awesome all year.”
Zimmermann was asked if he ever considers how he’d try to pitch to Harper.
“I think there’s not too many ways of getting him out the way he’s swinging,” the two-time All-Star said. “I’d definitely attack him. I’m not gonna pitch around him. I’d go after him and give him my best bolt.”
Trouble is, Harper continues to make anyone who attempts to attack him regret that decision, thanks to at-bats like the one he put together in the fifth inning Saturday. Hand used everything he had trying to retire Harper. In the end, he could only hold the likely 2015 NL MVP to a game-tying sacrifice fly.
“That’s the evolution of his game,” Williams said. “Grind at-bats. Bases loaded. The lefty-on-lefty matchup. Staying on balls. Doing what he can to put that ball in play. Those are the steps he’s made this year and will continue to make that will allow him to do the things he wants to do on the field.”