- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 9, 2015

Bryce Harper’s jersey was stained with chocolate sauce Saturday night, the buttons ripped from their seams and scattered on the dirt near home plate, where the winning runs had been scored and the Gatorade had been dumped and the celebration had begun.

Harper stood in front of the dugout at Nationals Park, awaiting a television interview. His mind was racing. “I was a little flustered,” he said later. His tattered jersey was draped over his shoulders.

“Hopefully they can fix that tonight so I can wear it tomorrow,” Harper said with a grin.

In the latest chapter of what has become a legendary week, Harper hit a walk-off two-run home run to lead the Washington Nationals past the Atlanta Braves, 8-6. He flung his bat toward the dugout. He pointed toward right field and pumped his fist as he ran toward second base. And he ducked his head as he touched the plate, mobbed by teammates after Washington’s ninth win in 11 games.

“Just right when I hit it, I knew it was gone,” Harper said.

The 22-year-old right fielder has now hit six home runs in his past 13 at-bats and driven in 12 of the team’s 24 runs during that span. He homered three times on Wednesday and twice on Friday before delivering the knockout punch Saturday afternoon.

SEE ALSO: Former manager Frank Robinson joins Nationals’ Ring of Honor

For a former No. 1 overall prospect who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16, it is easy to view this stretch as Harper’s arrival. After navigating injuries and inexperience in his first three major-league seasons, and still reaching the All-Star Game twice, many believe this year’s version of Harper is his potential fully realized.

Not so fast, manager Matt Williams said.

“That’s the perception a little bit, right?” Williams explained. “[People think] ‘finally’. He’s 22 years old — and just 22. I think he’s starting to learn himself. He’s learning how to play within himself. He’s learning how to take what’s given to him. He’s taken to right field very well. He’s taken to the middle of the order very well. We certainly don’t expect him to hit a home run every day, but he can get in streaks like that where he’s seeing the ball very well and putting the head on it.”

At the conclusion of Saturday’s game, Harper lead the National League with 11 home runs and 27 walks. Lost in the mix is another number: 31. With 31 starts, Harper has started every game for the Nationals so far this season, joining Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman as the only players to do so.

Harper stressed the importance of staying healthy before the season, and he remains cognizant of it now.

“I mean, [it’s just] not running into a wall and not sliding into third base and busting my hand,” he said. “Just try to play smart to do everything I can for season, know I can lay out and make some plays and when I need to take that extra bag. Just need to keep staying smart so I can be in the lineup every single day so I can help this team win.”

Beyond the statistics, Harper’s teammates say they have seen a change in his approach, specifically the way in which he has adapted to hitting in the middle of the batting order at the major-league level.

“The hardest thing is to really know if someone’s gone pitch to you or not pitch to you, and we’ve talked about that a bunch,” Zimmerman said. “When you’re hitting three, four, five, in the middle of the order in the big leagues, it’s tough because a lot of the times the other team is not going to let one of those guys beat you, and obviously we don’t know who that guy is. So he’s gotten a lot better at swinging at strikes and being patient and not trying to do it every time. And realizing that he can’t.

“But when he does get a chance to do it, the last two weeks he hasn’t missed many. I think it’s just sort of the maturation with him and him learning to play at this level and it’s fun to watch.”

Over the past four days, Harper has been asked repeatedly about his feeling at the plate. Is the game slowing down? Does he feel as locked in as he looks? Each time, Harper has demurred, speaking about his teammates or the game on the whole.

On Saturday, he struck a similar tone.

“I just want to keep having fun, staying healthy. That’s all I care about,” Harper said. “If I end up staying healthy, that’s what I want to do. I just want to keep playing this game, playing hard. Like I’ve been saying, I’ve got a lot of great guys around me, I’ve got a great manager that believes in me. We have a lot of fun in this clubhouse, and that makes it easier.”

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