The Nationals looked to shake things up a bit against (former) Chicago Cubs right-hander Jason Hammel Friday by batting Bryce Harper near the top of the order at No. 2. It didn’t work out that day. Harper went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. The Nationals lost the opener 7-2.
But really that might have more been because of what Hammel was doing and how well he was pitching. (So good in fact he was shipped to the Oakland A’s in a megadeal after the game.)
But either way, manager Matt Williams decided to move Harper back to sixth in today’s lineup, the same place he has hit three times in four games since he returned from the disabled list Monday.
In those games, Harper has hit 3-for-11 (.273) with one walk, one double, two runs, one RBI and four strikeouts. Not earth-shattering, but Williams said you have to give him at-bats and a lot of them as he recovers from that torn ligament in his thumb.
“Just Bryce is a little tick off,” Willaims said of lowering Harper back to No. 6 spot. “Certainly want to get him going. He needs at-bats. Yesterday I thought we’d get him an opportunity potentially to get some good fastballs to hit if we got Denard (Span) on. The guy we were facing we don’t hit very well. Potentially set up the middle-of-the-order guys. He’s a little jumpy still. He’s continuing to work on it. Get him back down to six today and let him go.
“It’s just a lack of at-bats. You take that time off, it’s difficult. He’ll be fine. He’ll get it. It’ll come quickly. Yesterday was a little jumpy. I can understand with (Hammel) because he’s got really good stuff. He’s just trying to generate a little bit. That makes you move toward the pitcher. You don’t see the ball as well as you normally do. But he’ll be good. He’ll be fine.”
Williams said batters can go into slumps and get out of them, all a part of the sine curve a season can create over 600-700 at-bats.
“I think physically and mentally you’re affected throughout the season,” Williams said. “You can get tired, you can have some type of injury. You’re mentally fatigued sometimes, especially when you’re struggling to try to find it. All of those things contribute to slumps.
“The guys that make the adjustments quickly are the guys that get out of it quickly and tend to have higher averages. But it all boils down, in my opinion, every single guy it boils down to pitch selection. And if you can select a good pitch to hit than you stay out of those mini-slumps.
“Question is how quickly do you find it? Bobby Bonds told me once, ‘Matt, don’t worry when you’re in a slump, because you know you’ll come out of it.’ The time to worry is when you are hot because you know eventually it’s going the other way. He was trying to just let me know that when I was in a slump, just relax and see the baseball, it’ll happen eventually. For me, it comes down to pitch selection.”
Williams said he doesn’t believe what Harper is going through is a swing mechanics issue.
“Probably, mostly. Human nature tells us oh, I’ve got to make an adjustment physically,” Williams said. “That’s the benefit of having everything recorded now. You can look at the physical aspect of it and solve that fairly quickly.
“The mental part of it is a little more difficult because your brain is fragile sometimes, regardless of who you are. That’s the hardest one to fix sometimes, too. So yeah, it’s mostly mental.”
Williams said the two built-in off-days recently have helped the Nats cope with the unusual day game start times jumping around this weekend from 11:05 a.m. to 4:05 p.m. to 1:35 p.m. He doesn’t feel compelled to give guys days off because they have already had off-days on June 29 and July 3.
Williams also shared thoughts about his closer Rafael Soriano and what has made him so effective this season. Soriano has recorded 20 saves in 22 opportunities through 34 appearances. Ironically, his pace last season was slightly better. On July 4, 2013, he had recorded 22 saves in 35 appearances.
But this season, he has a 0.90 ERA in his last 10 innings over 10 appearances, allowing only four hits and striking out nine during that span.
“From what I’ve heard, I wasn’t here, he’s got a little bit better fastball this year,” Williams said, getting the reporters involved in the conversation. “Do you think that’s accurate? It’s a little bit better than it was last year, so I think he’s using it a lot more. The concern he had going into spring was his slider and cutter, having both of those available, and I think he’s had both of those, too.
“I heard rumblings of last year not being able to find some of his pitches, some of his pitches being off. But I haven’t seen that. I think he’s been really good. I think for the most part, he’s been ahead of guys, throwing strike one, and his fastball has been really good.”