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Harper showing he can excel at ‘the little things’

May 25, 2015, 6:00 AM EDT

May 24, 2015; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper (34) hits a single against the Philadelphia Phillies during the first inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

In the midst of Bryce Harper’s torrid May that has taken the baseball world by storm, it’s been easy to forget that the skill set of the Nationals’ phenom goes well beyond hitting the long ball.

Just ask the Philadelphia Phillies, who saw Harper hurt them in more ways than one in the Nats’ 4-1 victory Sunday afternoon. The 22-year-old right fielder didn’t homer, but still went 2-for-3 with a walk, a run and two RBI, including driving in the go-ahead run on a groundout in the fifth inning and a two-out opposite-field bloop hit to bring in an insurance run in the seventh.

“Those will add up,” he said later. “Definitely. Just trying to get those RBI.”

Sure, Harper’s home run totals have drawn and will continue to draw most of the headlines as his breakout season rolls on. But what has impressed his skipper the most is that, even while red hot, he’s shown a consistent, disciplined approach at the plate. Rather than trying to swing for the fences in every at-bat, he’s shown more of a willingness to work deep into the count and excel in key situations.

“The secret of success for him or any other player is two-out basehits with guys in scoring position, getting that guy in from third base with less than two outs,” said manager Matt Williams. “That’s what will make a fantastic season. He accomplished both of those today.”

What’ll also make Harper’s season a success is if he continues to develop as an outfielder, something that showed up once again on Sunday. With the score still 2-1 in the seventh and a man on first base, Harper fielded a single to right and gunned it to second in time for a force out for his club-leading fourth outfield assist of the season.

“I take a lot of pride in my defense,” Harper said. “Being able to get out there every single day and shag and do the thing I need to do, taking those reps, getting some pointers from Denard [Span] and [Jayson Werth] and [outfield coach] Tarasco of course. Just trying to be the best right fielder I can. If I’m not hitting, then I don’t want them to hit either.”

It seems as if even without hitting the ball out of the park, Harper still finds new ways to wow not only the D.C. fanbase, but the other members of the Nats clubhouse. His statistics in Sunday’s boxscore may not look eye-popping on paper, but Sunday’s win was a prime example of how he can help the ball club win in a multitude of ways.

“He’s just becoming the all-around ballplayer,” starter Gio Gonzalez said. “You can see it. He’s a superstar, and he’s been a superstar since he was in high school. It’s basically what we’ve been waiting to see, and he’s bringing it.”

“He’ll hit balls over the fence, but that won’t be the measure of his success,” added Williams. “It will be those little things that he does over the course of a game that allow us to get an extra run, or cut a run down, things of that nature.

“That kind of talent makes him a special player.”

  1. #4 - May 25, 2015 at 7:59 AM

    RBI ground out in 4th.

    • Eric - May 25, 2015 at 8:13 AM

      It was the 5th. The 4th was Robinson double > Lobi RBI to tie it up.

      • #4 - May 25, 2015 at 8:22 AM

        Right, sorry.

  2. #4 - May 25, 2015 at 8:21 AM

    I went to the game yesterday with my good friend of 35 years. He and I tend to veer often toward the negative as we analyze the game, so much so that I joke with him about imagining what we would be saying if they were in last place rather than first. Sometimes we resemble the two old guys sitting in the balcony on the Muppets.

    Having said that…. there is still something that bothers me about this team most times I watch them. They have so much talent that over the course of 162 games it will be hard for them not to win the NL East. It’s not a great division, and they are head and shoulders above all the other teams in terms of depth. However when the weather turns cold and the ball park gets larger, the ability to limit the runs you give away on defense and increase the runs you manufacture on offense in magnified. Once again yesterday, their situational hitting (separate of BH) was below average. They squandered a lead-off double in the first inning. They had a chance to put away Harang away in the 5th (I think) when they had runners on 2nd and 3rd and one out. Span and Desi proceeded to consecutively check swing ground out. On defense Gio despite all the plaudits being thrown his way, fell behind and/or walked bad hitters to start innings. The Phils scored their only run when Desi was unable to make an above average play that allowed the lead off hitter to reach. Perhaps I’m being too hard on Desi, but I feel like that teams who go deep in the play-offs have a SS who makes that play. It’s only the Phils overall ineptitude that allowed the Nats to win that game.

    Baseball is a hard game. You cannot be successful 100% of the time. If the plays I am circling from yesterday were an aberration I would feel differently. It’s just that I see them four or five times a week. It’s just that generally BH or others just overpower the opponent. In the fall though when good teams pitch around Harper, the fly balls that carry into the seats when it’s warm are caught on the track, and our opponents execute opportunities that have been given to them by our average defense and tentative pitching, it may be a different story.

    Happy Memorial Day.

    • Eric - May 25, 2015 at 8:54 AM

      Who drove in Clint Robinson after his double? Who drove in Harper?

      Desi has made plays like that — and perhaps even more difficult ones — a number of times this season.

    • ccallahan15 - May 25, 2015 at 9:15 AM

      I tend to focus on team dynamics and identity. Talent alone won’t do it. The team has to play together. Last year the Nats took a while to establish their team identity and esprit de corps. and then the went on a tear. In 2013 it showed up too late.
      This year it showed up on Atlanta. I believe that was when the Hershey’s syrup first appeared too.

      I’m impressed at the resilience that these guys show across the board without all their talent in place or showing up some days. The team core continues to strengthen. The key is to get everyone to hit stride as the weather turns cold. But each win (and set back) now builds resilience. Having the team identity and dynamics clicking now allows them to perfect the skills and habits and experiences the will allow them to adapt to October baseball.

      Consider the number of stories we’ve had about different players working with other players to improve. That’s a team that’s honing itself. If they were instead trying to figure out who they were as a team I’d be a muppet in the balcony too (like last year). This team is learning and growing every game.

    • Eugene in Oregon - May 25, 2015 at 9:31 AM

      No offense #4, but you and your friend are suffering from selection bias (either that or you really are those two Muppets you mentioned). You say that the Nats’ “situational hitting (separate of BH) is below average”. While you don’t define situational hitting, let’s assume you mean hitting with runners in scoring position. The NL slash line with RISP is .261/.338/.401. The Nats are slashing .275/.346/.441 in that situation — better than average.
      Then you complain about about a runner left on 2nd after a lead-off double and runners left on 2nd and 3rd with one out. In both of those situations, the Nats hit above the league average, but that’s still below .300 (although the Nats come close with runners on 2nd and 3rd, hitting .294). Did they get those runs in yesterday in those two situations? No. But your framing is off a bit. You write that teams “cannot be successful 100% of the time”. The reality is that teams — even good teams — aren’t successful MOST of the time.

      • Joe Seamhead - May 25, 2015 at 9:38 AM

        Thanks, Eugene. You articulated my thoughts better than I could.

      • Steady Eddie - May 25, 2015 at 9:51 AM

        Exactly right, and to pound the point home even more emphatically — you say you’re worried about postseason performance against really good teams rather than ones like the Phillies?

        Well, we can all I’m sure remember our frustration at the (seemingly) many times Zim GIDPs, Ks, or pops out with RISP to end an inning during the regular season. In his one real chance in the playoffs in 2012 he hit a great .381. That means he was great but he still failed more than 61% of the time, more than 3 out of every five ABs. You do that over a career and you’re at the front of the line for a place in Cooperstown .

        It’s called baseball.

      • virginiascopist - May 25, 2015 at 10:23 AM

        Statler & Waldorf. My favorites. Hope the link works:

  3. rlndtln - May 25, 2015 at 9:50 AM

    Only a successful run threw the playoffs will silence the critics.We must admit we have not done it yet.

  4. #4 - May 25, 2015 at 9:56 AM

    No offense taken. Your stats are compelling, and I hope in the long run you are right. I want this team to win. I do hope that as oppossed to the 2014 play-offs, the additions of Escobar and Zimmerman, two guys who tend to have very good approaches with men on base, changes the dynamic in the way you are suggesting has already occurred.

    I don’t think situational hitting is restricted to RISP. It includes successful bunting, moving runners over, etc. I also though still am not completely sold on the defnse and pitching. I also wonder about yor RISP stats if you remove Harper from the equation.

    • Bruxtun - May 25, 2015 at 10:14 AM

      Gio laid down a perfect bunt yesterday.

      • Bruxtun - May 25, 2015 at 10:15 AM

        As did Desmond.

      • Eric - May 25, 2015 at 10:23 AM

        Espi singled on a bunt yesterday, too, no?

  5. Ghost of Steve M. - May 25, 2015 at 10:39 AM

    Bryce has become a true game changer in every aspect. Batting average and OBP rose along with RBI and RS. SLG fell and the only people disappointed are the fans that dig the longball.

    He put his speed and defense on display and contact. They play him so deep that he can now get those poor contact hits.

    How refreshing to see.

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