- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Bryce Harper flipped his bat toward the dugout as the ball carried toward right field, going and going and going until it finally found concrete. The ball skipped up an aisle of stairs in the second deck at Nationals Park, hopping to the last row of seats, just shy of the concourse.

Harper sped around the bases as Miami Marlins pitcher Tom Koehler lowered his head. The 22-year-old’s third home run of the afternoon was by far his most impressive, an exclamation point on what might have been the best offensive game of his young major-league career.

Harper homered in each of his first three at-bats Wednesday and finished with five RBI, dragging the Washington Nationals to a 7-5 victory in their series finale against the Marlins. He hit one home run to left and two to right, becoming the fourth player in Nationals history to record three home runs in a single game.

“That’s how I expect myself to play,” Harper said. “If it’s hitting homers or hitting doubles or anything, that’s what I need to do. That’s what I expect out of myself. Of course, you’re not going to do that every single day. You’re not going to hit three homers, or whatever, and drive in five. But that’s the type of player I need to be.”

Harper is the youngest player to hit three home runs in a game since Boston Red Sox outfielder Joe Lahoud achieved the feat in 1969. Wednesday marked the sixth multi-homer game of his career, and his first since Aug. 31.

“Pretty impressive,” Tanner Roark said. “Three home runs, that’s extremely hard to do. I mean two home runs is extremely hard to do. He’s putting great swings on good pitches.”

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When Harper’s last home run cleared the fence and he touched the plate, he walked calmly back to the dugout, where a collection of high-fives and hugs were waiting for him. The crowd roared, trying to draw Harper back out for a curtain call, but he resisted.

“I didn’t want to go up there because I wanted to get one more,” said Harper, who eventually relented and pumped his fist for the fans. “I wish they would have waited unless I would have got four.”

Harper’s first home run in the second inning appeared to be a routine fly ball to left field but carried into the visitor’s bullpen. His second, in the third inning, zipped to the second deck in right field. And his last, in the fifth, largely followed the same trajectory as its predecessor.

Altogether, Harper’s home runs traveled an estimated 1,276 feet, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

“Good day for Harp,” manager Matt Williams said dryly. “He stayed on the first one to the opposite field and hit it well. Of course, you get a little better carry during the day and it’s warmer weather, of course. Certainly no doubt about the other two.”

Harper admitted that Wednesday was one of the best games of his baseball career. However, it was far from the best.

Just five years ago, Harper was a 17-year-old catcher at the College of Southern Nevada. In the small, dusty town of Lamar, Colorado, on an otherwise forgotten Friday night, he hit for the cycle against Lamar Community College in a 22-8 victory. The next day, he played a doubleheader, going 2-for-5 in the first game before having what might go down as the game of his life.

Harper went 6-for-6 in the second game with four home runs and 10 RBI, leading Southern Nevada to a 25-11 victory. An estimated 110 people witnessed that game. Wednesday’s performance came in front of an announced 31,417.

“This is really cool because it’s at the major league level, of course,” Harper said. “I had two four-homer games and two cycles in college. In the minors I hit three in one game. But of course you’re at the big league level and doing that is pretty special.”

With his performance Wednesday, Harper has eight home runs this season and is quickly climbing the National League leader board. Entering Wednesday night, Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier and Los Angeles’ Adrian Gonzalez had nine apiece.

Perhaps what’s more impressive, however, is that Harper’s power has gone hand-in-hand with his discipline. He leads the majors with 26 walks through the season’s first 29 games and has a .416 on-base percentage.

“I think when you’re walking, you’re a better hitter,” Harper explained. “When you’re taking pitches on the inside half and they’re one or two inches off and they’re calling it a ball, you know that makes the pitcher freak out a little bit. So just trying to go up there and have some good ABs. If I walk, I walk. If I strike out, I strike out, if I hit a homer I hit a homer. It’s just part of the game.”

Still, Harper remains critical of himself. The player who was depicted on a Sports Illustrated cover at 16 years old, selected No. 1 overall in the Major League Baseball draft at 17 and named National League Rookie of the Year at 19 knows this mindset is the only way he can continue to improve.

“Today of course, I felt good. There’s times when I’m still missing my pitch,” Harper said. “If you look at a minor leaguer and a big leaguer, a high school guy and a big league guy, they don’t miss their pitch. Big leaguers do not miss. That’s why Nelson Cruz is so good. That’s why Mike Trout is so good. That’s why Robinson Cano is so good. That’s why all these guys are so good, because they don’t miss their pitch. I’m still trying to get to that point.”

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