For three innings Tuesday afternoon, Bryce Harper’s June wasn’t picking up where his red-hot May left off.
In his first at-bat in the Washington Nationals’ 2-0 win over the Toronto Blue Jays, a hunched-up Harper fell into a two-strike count with a couple early swings, then got caught looking for his first out of the day against R.A. Dickey. In his second, he grounded out to second base, looking thoroughly uncomfortable.
“I don’t like [facing a knuckleballer]. I hate it. Maybe some other guys do, but I hate it,” Harper said. “My numbers against Dickey are probably awful. I was trying to go in there and battle as best I can.”
Harper entered the game with a 3-for-14 career mark against Dickey, but improved those numbers slightly in the fifth inning when he knocked a single up the middle to score Jordan Zimmermann and give the Nationals a 1-0 lead. He relaxed, spreading out for the hit in his last at-bat of the day against Dickey.
“Just trying to get that run in, any way, any how,” Harper said. “If that was a long fly ball or a ground ball to second base or shortstop, I was trying to get that run in as best I can. Was lucky enough to put that ball up the middle and get that run in.”
The hit moved Harper, who batted .360 with 13 home runs, 28 RBI, 22 walks, and 24 runs in the month of May, into a tie for the major-league lead with 44 RBI. In his final at-bat of the day, against reliever Bo Schultz, he strengthened his major-league lead in walks with his 45th of the year.
Harper’s aggressive approach when he first stepped up to the plate was in line with manager Matt Williams’ plan for going at Dickey: Look for pitches up in the zone and anticipate a lot of first-pitch strikes.
“If he’s going to throw a knuckleball in there that’s belt high or up, we want to swing at that one because that’s the one you generally put in play better,” Williams said. “The one that goes down is difficult. The fact that he can change speeds with it. He throws harder ones and softer ones but the first one, he’s generally trying to throw a strike with and then he goes to work.”
In the fifth, with no one on first but Zimmermann and Yunel Escobar in scoring position, Dickey could have walked Harper. Instead, he chose to pitch to the league’s home run leader instead of Ryan Zimmerman, who owns a 9-for-32 career mark against him and had flirted with a homer in his first at-bat, a deep fly ball to right. Zimmerman hit a sacrifice fly to score Escobar for the Nationals’ final run of the day.
Harper said he didn’t know if his earlier at-bats factored into Dickey’s decision to pitch to him, but pointed to Zimmerman’s career numbers as a possible cause. Williams said that the Blue Jays may not have been fearing the big hit after the Nationals went small, sending Escobar to second and Zimmermann to third with a sacrifice bunt by Ian Desmond.
“We hadn’t really put together any offense up to that point as far as scoring runs goes,” Williams said. “[Harper] did a nice job of just staying on one and hitting it back through the middle.”
The first towering home run of June is yet to come, and it may have taken two at-bats for Harper to get on the board, but one game into the month after a prolific May — and against hated pitching — Harper is maintaining his pace.