Already, pitchers dreading Nationals’ Harper

Phenom earns Phillies’ respect

Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Kyle Kendrick faced Bryce Harper three times Friday night. Harper saw a total of 17 pitches. Five were in the strike zone, three were fouled off and one, the only one remotely close to the middle of the plate, Harper popped out to foul territory.

Twice Kendrick walked the Washington Nationals’ No. 3-hitting, 19-year-old phenom.

After the game, Kendrick was blunt about his approach. Jayson Werth was batting behind Harper, and Kendrick all but said that was a more pleasing matchup than one with the kid who had five major league games of experience.

“I wasn’t going to let him beat me,” Kendrick said. “He’s swinging it well now, that was the scouting report.”

If there has been anything truly surprising about Harper’s first week in the major leagues, it’s the way he’s been pitched. How exactly is that? “Like he’s Babe Ruth,” one scout said. As the Nationals went for the sweep against the Phillies on Sunday night, Harper entered the game with 11 plate appearances in the series — and four walks.

“He’s getting a lot of respect for not being here more than a couple days,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who watched Werth end the inning after three of those four walks. “They’re kind of pitching him tough. In, out, lot of offspeed stuff, behind in the count. They’re not giving in to him. That’s a sign of respect.”

The book on Harper before he arrived in the majors was that he needed to work on hitting offspeed pitches and left-handers. No shock, then, that 21.7 percent of pitches Harper has seen have been changeups, more than only fastballs (48.1 percent, according to Fangraphs.com) and more than 10 percent of those have been cut fastballs.

Injuries forced the Nationals to bring Harper up quicker than they may have liked, but his play forced Johnson’s hand in putting him in the No. 3 spot in the batting order. The only problem is, with the Nationals‘ biggest hitters — Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche — out for the series against Philadelphia, it seems Harper has been identified as the biggest threat in their lineup.

Werth was hitless in the series until launching a three-run home run into the visitor’s bullpen in the sixth inning Saturday.

But Harper, who also was 3 for 8 against left-handed pitching entering Sunday night’s matchup with Cole Hamels, has shown impressive restraint. In 29 plate appearances, Harper has walked five times. For perspective, fellow outfielder Rick Ankiel, who has 57 plate appearances, has walked just twice.

“[The walks are surprising] only because he’s so aggressive,” Werth said. “He’s up there hacking. For him to get in good counts, seeing pitches like that, it’s good. It shows his patience at the plate.”

As his major league career progresses, several players said the toughest thing for Harper will be to resist the urge to expand the zone. It’s natural to want to help the team with hits, and the tendency when you begin walking often, most said, is to swing at more.

“That’s the biggest thing,” Harper agreed. “That’s the hardest thing for me to do. Because I want to hit. I want to perform like that. But if I’m getting on base and making things happen on the base paths, I think that’s huge also. Having Werth hit behind me, having guys who can really swing it, getting on base for them and them driving me in is huge. I don’t care, as long as I’m scoring.”

Notes: Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman took full batting practice on the field with the team Sunday and felt no pain in his inflamed right AC joint. Zimmerman plans to hit again Monday, a team off day, and should be ready to come off the disabled list Tuesday when the team travels to Pittsburgh. … First baseman Adam LaRoche had an MRI on his sore right oblique Sunday, and it revealed just some bruising. LaRoche hit off a tee and balls flipped to him by a coach Sunday at about 60 percent effort and felt better. He plans to hit Monday as well and hopes to play Tuesday…. The Nationals sold 30,000 advance tickets to Sunday night’s game, assuring them an attendance of more than 100,000 for the series. It’s the second time in Nationals Park history that had happened for an April or May series.

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