Bryce Harper gets day off, reflects on strike-zone scuffles

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HOUSTON — Bryce Harper dressed quickly Wednesday night. His argument with home plate umpire Angel Hernandez was sure to get top billing on SportsCenter and MLBNetwork. Harper had broken down, shocked at the strike calls going against him in two different at-bats. He argued one call vehemently and made his way halfway to first on another.

Harper didn’t feel like talking about it anymore.

He seethed over the opportunities he felt cheated out of. Bases loaded, two outs and a 3-1 pitch he was certain was a ball. Bases loaded, two outs and a 3-2 pitch that looked more egregiously outside and low than the previous one. A close game that could’ve been blown open with the heart of the Nationals’ order due up stayed close until the final out.

“I’ve been there,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who discussed the situation with Hernandez as well. “I’ve been in that position. I’ve talked to Bryce a lot about it. I said, ‘You’ve got to keep your mouth shut. But at some point, if it gets really bad you’ve got to stand up for yourself and not sit there and take it.’”

Thursday, in a mostly empty visitors’ clubhouse at Minute Maid Park and with some time to digest the night, Harper discussed his explosion and his uncharacteristically low second-half numbers.

He denied being frustrated or the assertion that he was no longer having good at-bats. He acknowledged the mental mistake he’d made in the ninth inning Wednesday when he airmailed a throw to third base that allowed the winning run to move to second. He displayed as much candor and confidence as he has all season, despite hitting .176 with four extra-base hits and 14 walks since the All-Star break.

“The only thing I think I’m frustrated about is (letting down) the 24 guys in my clubhouse,” he said. “Going into those at-bats, being in crucial situations and having 3-0, 3-1 counts and trying to battle as best I can, and then things happen.

“I could care less about my numbers, I could care less about anything like that as long as we’re in first place.”

Harper was not in the Nationals’ starting lineup on Thursday, a mental break for the 19-year-old after manager Davey Johnson said he felt he was pressing and that he took his frustrations at the plate into the field, which led to his ill-advised throw in the ninth. Johnson did not address the day off with Harper and reiterated his stance on Harper’s mistake Thursday.

“I have tolerance for physical errors,” Johnson said. “But not mental errors.”

Nationals officials have held Harper’s strike zone judgment in high regard from the moment they drafted him in 2010. In the minor leagues, there were times they felt Harper had a better eye than the umpires calling his games did. In the major leagues, Harper has swung at pitches located where the three questionable calls were on Wednesday night only 31.3 percent of the time. On pitches in the low outside corner that are inside the zone, Harper is hitting .367.

But part of the adjustment process to life as a major leaguer is learning umpires zones, as well as how pitchers are going to attack him. Johnson has said repeatedly this season he thinks Harper gets pitched tougher than almost anyone else in the Nationals’ lineup, but whether he gets called tougher or not is difficult to discern.

“All umpires have all kind of different zones,” Johnson said. “One of the things where experience helps you up here, is you know which umpires do, and you expand your zone.”

For his part, Harper understood why pitchers would continue to throw to where they were getting calls, but declined to say whether he felt umpires were treating him differently because of his age and status.

“When they know they’re going to get 2-3 inches off the plate it’s good to pitch like that,” Harper said. “And if I’m the catcher I’m calling that … I just try to adjust to that as much as I can. I’m not going to change my zone or anything.

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