- - Sunday, September 9, 2018

Bryce Harper was hitting .214 in mid-July when his retired former teammate Kevin Frandsen went on 106.7 The Fan and proclaimed the Nationals slugger would have a big second half.

Frandsen, who has done work with Phillies radio, was proven correct.

After posting a pedestrian .235 in July, Harper batted .324 in August and was hitting .381 this month in games through Saturday.

While his home run ratio has actually fallen off, the Nationals outfielder is on track to post the best numbers of his career outside of his MVP year of 2015.

He smashed a go-ahead homer to center in the last of the seventh as the Nationals beat the Cubs 6-5 in the second game of a doubleheader Saturday at Nationals Park. In the first game, Max Scherzer pitched his second complete game of the season and improved to 17-6 as the Nationals won 10-3.

Since the All-Star break, Harper ranks among the National League leaders in doubles, RBI, on-base average and OPS. In games through Saturday he was hitting .251 with 32 homers, 28 doubles and 91 RBI with OPS of .899 and an on-base average of .391.

So what are the most impressive numbers this year for Harper?

“For me, it is more about slugging (.508) and on-base percentage,” said Nationals manager Dave Martinez. “He has driven in plenty of runs. He has done really well; his doubles are up.”

The second-half comeback certainly won’t hurt his stock as Harper enters free agency after this season. His agent, Scott Boras, threw out the price tag of about $400 million for his client after last season.

“I think he would’ve had to completely fall apart offensively to seriously impact his value. On the other hand, I don’t see the mythical $400 million deal on the horizon either,” according to Phil Wood, a broadcaster and program host for Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN).

Of course, the big question is will Harper sign long-term with the Nats, who begin a series Monday in Philadelphia?

“I honestly think Bryce would prefer to spend his whole career with one team, like the great players of the past he’s fond of mentioning,” Wood noted. “I think he’s concerned with his own legacy, something he’s got a real opportunity to establish in Washington. I think the Lerners (ownership) will make a sincere effort to make that happen.”

His recent surge came at the same time he was dealing with a lingering sickness. The left-handed slugger sat on a couch in the Nationals clubhouse during the recent homestand, his hoodie pulled tight against his face.

“I felt pretty good at the plate. My body doesn’t feel very good,” Harper said. “I think I’m just trying to grind out every single day and not try to worry about it. But coughing, yakking, all that good stuff, so … just trying to not worry about it.”

Harper has done a better job of hitting the ball to left field since the All-Star break. He is also taking what the opposing pitcher gives him, and with good results. He reached base in 22 of 33 plate appearances from Sept. 1 through Saturday’s twinbill sweep of the Cubs.

He crushed a two-run homer in the last of the ninth to tie the game on Sept. 3.

“Just trying to get a pitch over the plate that I can drive,” he said. “He gave me something that I can handle a little bit, I was able to get some good wood on it and it went over the fence.”

Then in the last of the 10th inning, he stroked an outside pitch to left field for a sacrifice fly that scored Michael A. Taylor with the winning run against the Cardinals.

Even if Harper leaves via free agency, the Nationals have depth in the outfield.

Veteran Adam Eaton returns while Juan Soto, 19, is a rookie of the year candidate. The Nationals also have Victor Robles, 21, who made his big league debut last year, and Taylor.

But no one in the Nationals outfield has the drawing power or flair for the dramatic of Harper.

And no one in the clubhouse has the number of national endorsements, which certainly helps attract younger fans.

Veteran reliever Greg Holland was signed by the Nationals on Aug. 7 after he was released by the St. Louis Cardinals earlier this season. He had seen Harper from the opposite dugout many times, but now gets to watch him on a regular basis.

“It seems like the bigger the situation the better he is,” Holland said.

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