- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2014

It’s a familiar feeling for Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, the moment when bat hits ball and the destination — the seats beyond the outfield fence — is clear.

Before Thursday afternoon, he hadn’t experienced that feeling in a while. He was overdue.

So when the feeling finally returned, in the 13th inning of a tie game against the Mets at Nationals Park, he recognized it immediately. With one runner on and no outs, Harper ended his long-standing slump in style, crushing a two-run home run to left field and giving the Nationals a 5-3 win.

Harper touched the plate and was mobbed by teammates. Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond and Denard Span gave him hugs. Then the 21-year-old, who lists Gatorade among his many sponsors, had a cooler of the sports drink dumped on his head.

“I think Gatorade’s going to be pretty happy about that,” he said, cracking a smile.

The second walk-off homer of Harper’s career couldn’t have come at a better time for him, his teammates and manager Matt Williams.

The left fielder struggled at the beginning of the season, then injured his thumb in April and spent a good chunk of the season on the disabled list. When he returned, the struggles continued. Entering Thursday’s game, he carried a .250 batting average and .337 on-base percentage. In 209 plate appearances, he had hit three home runs.

“I don’t think I’m struggling, struggling — that bad where it’s to the point where it looks terrible,” Harper said. “I think of course I’ve been struggling a little bit, but I’ve hit some balls that have just been right at people sometimes. You’ve just got to tip your cap and play this game.”

Wednesday morning, Williams was asked on a local radio show if he would consider demoting Harper to Triple-A. Perhaps in an effort to be polite, he did not completely shut down the possibility. Then on Wednesday afternoon, he criticized members of the media for asking the same question at his daily press conference.

On Thursday, Williams apologized to the press, then walked back down the hall to a celebratory clubhouse.

Harper’s home run helped nix the idea that one of the franchise’s most popular and dynamic players would be sent down. He hopes it will also help him get out of his recent funk.

“I’m hoping [it will]. Definitely,” Harper said. “But of course, you know this game. You go into every single day and it’s nice to be able to start over every day. You go 0-for-4 one day and 4-for-4 the next day. You go on a streak where you’re hitting .320, and then you have a week where you’re hitting .120. That’s just part of the game.”

Harper has toyed with his stance over the course of this season, but recently he said he has been most focused on maintaining a positive attitude.

“This game’s pretty humbling sometimes,” he said. “But like I said, I just want to have fun, try to come in here and laugh and smile. Hopefully at the end of the day, we can win ballgames.”

Should Harper rediscover his power, it will be a welcome addition to a Nationals team that enters this weekend’s series in Atlanta with a four-and-a-half-game lead over the Braves in the National League East.

Harper said he’s been feeling good at the plate and is eager to contribute to a lineup where “everybody’s been picking up my slack, pretty much.” But his teammates feel that such repayment is unnecessary.

“He brings so much to the table,” Desmond said. “It’s not like we need him to go out and hit .400 and hit 20 homers. Just need him to play solid baseball, run the bases hard, make plays in the outfield. Whatever offense he brings is just a bonus.”

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