DENVER — In Bryce Harper’s 53-game major league career, he’s gone through one brief slump. Even calling it a slump might be a little harsh. From May 4 to May 11, a seven-game span about a week after Harper was called up, he hit .148. What followed was a 29-game tear where he hit .330 with a .405 on-base percentage, clubbed seven homers, four triples and three doubles.
Then he faced Andy Pettitte.
On the worst day of his professional career, Harper was 0-for-7 with five strikeouts against the veteran lefty. And after a 2-for-5 night that included his second extra-base hit in the last nine games, he admitted it screwed him up for a good bit.
“After I faced Pettitte, he kind of messed me up,” Harper said Wednesday night. “I just wasn’t really feeling my hands, my swing, my legs this two-week spurt. I’m just trying to get back into it, trying to feel what I can do. And we’re winning. We’re still in first, so I don’t care.”
Since that day, seeing a continuous stream of breaking stuff from left-handers, Harper was hitting .219 entering Wednesday night’s game. He upped the numbers in that stretch to .243 with his performance Wednesday night.
“It’s all a learning experience for him,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “He’s a gifted athlete. He’s gone through period of being a little anxious. He expects a lot out of himself, he’s very demanding of himself and sometimes you’ve got to just back up a little bit. He’s learning on how he needs to react to adversity and I think he’s doing a good job.”
Considering that even with his latest struggles, Harper still entered Thursday’s series finale with the Rockies hitting .281, it’s difficult to rail on him too much for simply not doing the astounding things everyones expects him to do on a daily basis.
On Tuesday, Johnson said Harper was “struggling as bad as I’ve ever seen him struggle.” So Harper worked on a few things, mainly keeping himself relaxed in the box, and was happy with the results on Wednesday.
A steady diet of left-handed pitching probably hasn’t helped much, but Harper insists he focuses more in the box against left-handers, his excitable nature geeking him up a little too much against the right-handers he knows he should mash.
“He’s probably been started off with more breaking balls and he’s a pretty good breaking ball hitter,” Johnson said. “Then they try to throw their fastballs in, breaking balls away — like what you do with a hitter you don’t know, really, how to get out.
“He’s been pitched pretty tough and the one thing that drives him and this also can be a weakness is that when you get overly aggressive they’re not throwing you good strikes over. They’re trying to speed you up with fastballs in and then when you’re overanxious they’ll throw you breaking balls out of the zone.”
The last time Harper struggled this way, though, he made most of the National League East and American League East pay for it with a wrecking ball tour. It will be interesting to see how he handles the final 11 games before the All-Star break.
“Last two weeks I’ve just been kind of scuffling a little bit,” Harper said. “But I’m just trying to get up there and get going a little bit, try to see some pitches and just trying to get going again. I did feel better (Wednesday).
“I just tried to feel as comfortable as I could. I just tried to take a deep breath and relax and see some pitches up there. Just trying to spit on the ones I liked.”