Baseball Daily Dose: Dose: Harper Heating Up
When Bryce Harper turned MLB into his own personal amusement park last year (which is actually the plot of a South Park episode), I think we all let out a collective sigh of relief. It was confirmation that we were right, or at least those in the know were right.
After years of hyping Harper as the next Mickey Mantle, he finally delivered. There were no more comments like “he’ll get there someday” or “if only he could stay healthy.” Harper didn’t need those excuses anymore. In 2015, he made the leap from phenom to generational talent while putting his career on the fast track to Cooperstown.
But all that momentum has come to a screeching halt in 2016. It’s ironic because the Nationals were a disappointment when Harper went nuts last year and have had a resurgent season during Harper’s struggles. Baseball is a cruel game and Harper has felt its wrath. Still hot from the year before, Harper opened 2016 on a tear, hitting balls into bullpen bathrooms and crushing scoreboards with his mighty hacks. Instead of letting some punk 23-year-old rule the world, the other 29 teams in baseball conspired against the game’s brightest young star. In early May, Cubs manager/mad scientist Joe Maddon laid out the blueprint for conquering Harper. It’s simple, really: just don’t pitch to him.
Harper drew an astounding 13 walks during the Cubs’ four-game sweep including six in a single game. The series seemed to have a profound effect on Harper. After teams realized they could bypass Harper by simply pitching around him (a strategy made popular during Barry Bonds’ heyday in the early 2000s), Harper started to press. He hit .200 for the month of May with 26 strikeouts in 80 at-bats. The Bonds treatment began a vicious cycle that Harper couldn’t escape. When opponents did pitch to Harper, he’d only see breaking balls. And when pitchers started throwing fastballs again, he couldn’t catch up to them. Harper’s slump intensified after the All-Star break and soon his average dipped into the low .230s. For a hitter of Harper’s pedigree, that’s about as close to rock bottom as it gets.
Maybe it wasn’t just mental. Harper missed five games with neck spasms earlier this month while Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci recently revealed that Harper has been dealing with shoulder issues since June. On some level, Harper should be commended for playing through the pain, even if it hasn’t helped fantasy owners much. The good news—well it’s only good news if you root for the Nationals or have Harper on your fantasy squad—is that Harper is starting to find his groove again. Harper extended his hitting streak to five games with a two-hit effort Sunday in a loss to Atlanta. He also swatted his 22nd home run while adding three RBI to his season total.
Tormenting the Braves is nothing new for Harper. He’s pounded 16 career homers against them with a slugging percentage north of .500. But even against a lesser opponent, it’s good to see Harper gaining back his confidence. He’s hit safely in seven of eight games since his five-day layoff, batting .400 during that span with two homers and 12 RBI. Overall, he’s hit .333 in 45 August at-bats, which is easily his highest average for any month this season.
Harper has also added a new wrinkle to his game. He’s become a legitimate threat on the base paths with 17 steals on a career-high 24 attempts. He’s closing in on his first 20/20 season, a feat accomplished by only four big leaguers last year: Ryan Braun, Paul Goldschmidt, Manny Machado and A.J. Pollock. The last National to pull it off was Ian Desmond in 2014.
Maybe all Harper needed was a little R&R. Even with Harper’s bat dormant for much of the season, the Nats have built a commanding lead in the NL East, where the second-place Marlins sit eight and a half games back with less than a quarter of the season to go. Unless the Nats collapse in spectacular fashion (it’s been known to happen), it looks like they’ll be heading back to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. A healthy and productive Harper will only increase the Nats’ chances of making a deep postseason run.
The Nationals have soared to the top of the standings thanks to a balanced roster featuring a collection of both proven and emerging talent. Wilson Ramos has become a surprise weapon offensively, batting .322 with 19 round-trippers. Offseason signing Daniel Murphy has also exceeded expectations by leading the National League with a superb .345 average. He’s also produced a career-high 23 homers. 23-year-old Trea Turner is the up-and-comer of the group with four homers, 13 steals and a respectable .310 average over 145 at-bats.
And that’s just their lineup. Excellent starting pitching usually goes hand in hand with winning the World Series. Last year was an exception as Kansas City relied on its dominant bullpen to win games instead. Washington’s staff offers the best of both worlds.
The Nats have four players who could easily slot in as postseason starters including NL wins leader Stephen Strasburg, former Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and Tanner Roark, who is having a breakout season. Gio Gonzalez is the wild card of the bunch but he’s pitched in big games before and has looked much sharper since the All-Star break with a 3.23 ERA over seven second-half starts.
Washington recognized that its bullpen was a liability and did something about it by acquiring last year’s major league saves leader, Mark Melancon, in a trade with Pittsburgh. So far he’s been as good as advertised with six saves and a 0.96 ERA across 10 appearances.
Washington finally looks like the team it should have been last year. The NL is full of powerhouses with the Cubs, Dodgers, Giants and Cardinals all poised for postseason runs but in a seven-game series, the Nats stack up as well as any of them. October should be fun this year. Is it ever not?
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AL Quick Hits: For those of you hoping for a Jonathan Papelbon reunion in Boston (guilty as charged), it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald says it’s become “less and less likely” that Papelbon will re-sign with the team he won his only World Series with in 2007. The Red Sox’s all-time saves leader hasn’t pitched since August 6 … The Red Sox called up Henry Owens Sunday to fill in for Eduardo Rodriguez, who is dealing with a tight hamstring. The Tigers blasted him for eight runs in only five innings of work. Justin Upton did most of the damage with a pair of three-run homers … Andrew Benintendi smashed his first big league homer Sunday against the Tigers. It came off right-hander Shane Greene in the seventh inning … Clay Buchholz will make another start Tuesday against the Rays. It will likely be his last start with Steven Wright (shoulder) slated to return next weekend … Cameron Maybin returned to the Tigers’ lineup Sunday after missing a couple weeks with a thumb injury. He went 1-for-4 with a two-run single in the sixth inning … Jordan Zimmermann (lat) will begin a rehab assignment with Triple-A Toledo on Friday. He’s expected to make three starts in the minors before joining the Tigers’ rotation early next month … Yulieski Gurriel went 1-for-2 with a walk in his big league debut Sunday against the Orioles. He served as the DH but will also see time at third base and left field … Brett Lawrie has been pulled off his rehab assignment for Double-A Birmingham. This might be related to a groin injury he suffered last week. Lawrie is headed back to Chicago, where he’ll be looked at by team doctors … The Blue Jays optioned Aaron Sanchez to High-A Dunedin on Sunday. It was a strategic move by the Blue Jays to limit his innings. The All-Star right-hander is expected to return against the Orioles on August 31 … James Paxton (elbow) felt good after tossing three scoreless innings in a rehab start for Triple-A Tacoma on Saturday. He’s expected to return Thursday against the White Sox … Huston Street will receive a second opinion on his injured knee. The veteran closer could opt for season-ending surgery … Jose Ramirez is something else, isn’t he? His eighth-inning homer off Brett Cecil propelled Cleveland to a 3-2 win over Toronto in Sunday’s series finale. This tweet sums up Ramirez’s season.
NL Quick Hits: Remember that whole controversy about Yoenis Cespedes golfing and then hurting his quad? Me neither. In three games since coming off the disabled list, Cespedes has gone 5-for-13 with three homers and five RBI. His two-run blast against Jeff Samardzija Sunday accounted for the game’s only runs … Giancarlo Stanton was expected to miss the rest of 2016 with a strained groin but now he’s hoping to be back before the end of the regular season. Stanton is the type of player who can swing a pennant race and the Marlins are only a game and a half behind St. Louis for the NL’s second Wild Card spot … A.J. Ramos returned from the disabled on Sunday after missing the minimum 15 days with a fractured right middle finger. Ramos worked a perfect eighth inning with Fernando Rodney picking up the save … Freddie Freeman sat out Sunday’s series finale against the Nationals after receiving a shot in his right middle finger. Freeman has already slugged a career-high 24 homers this season … Charlie Blackmon missed his second game in a row Sunday against the Cubs. He’s dealing with a bruised toe on his right foot … Nolan Arenado brought the thunder Sunday in a win against the Cubs. He contributed two homers and six RBI as part of a four-hit afternoon. Arenado leads the majors with 104 RBI and is second in the National League with 31 homers … Julio Urias impressed in his return to the starting rotation, hurling six scoreless innings Sunday in the Dodgers’ 4-0 win over Cincinnati. The 20-year-old rookie holds a 3.95 ERA over 13 big league outings (11 starts) this year.