Bryce Harper says he doesn’t feel pressure to succeed after .214 start

Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper held court this afternoon before the Home Run Derby and talked about how much he loves to play baseball.

But after 96 games in the 2018 campaign, as his Nationals reach the All-Star break, it sometimes appears like Harper hasn’t been loving every day this season.

He’s hitting only .214, the lowest of any of the National League All-Stars who are preparing for Tuesday’s Midsummer Classic. A .243 mark in 2016 was the lowest batting average he ever had to finish a season.

So with things not going well at the plate for Harper, is the solution to make a massive technical change to his swing or his stance? Or is it more of a mental adjustment?

Many believe the pressure of his looming free agency might have gotten to the young slugger, that the reason he is struggling at the plate is because he has a lot on his mind.

Harper said pressure to perform well has always been a big part of his game. It is an element that he has had to wrestle with when he gets into a slump.

He recalled his time at the College of Southern Nevada in 2010. He had worked hard to finish his high school general educational development accreditation in October 2009 so he could accelerate his way to college ball. At 16 and 17, he was advancing quickly to face better competition.

Suddenly he found himself speeding into a roadblock in the game he loved. Harper recounted his mindset during those tough two weeks at the plate.

Harper-Kisses-Bat-Red-Sidebar.jpg“One time going back to college, I got absolutely dominated for two weeks prior our opening season in fall ball. So I’m sitting there, 16 years old, I just back from Team USA, and about to turn 17 in October,” Harper said. “Turned 17, got into fall ball like right after that, I got dominated for two weeks. Probably punched out nine times, 10 times, in a matter of 12 at-bats. I sat there and thought to myself, ‘Man, I’d like to go back to high school right now.’ So I sat there and was like, ‘You know what? I don’t want to do this. I want to go back to high school.’ I want to go enjoy those moments and do that. But I knew I couldn’t do that.”

Harper found himself contemplating how he could bail on college and just go back to the comforts of high school baseball, where he was better than every other player.

“They said, ‘No you can’t do that, you tested out’. I said, ‘Well, I got to cowboy up, and do the things I can to do what I need to do,’ ” Harper said. “A week later, we started our fall ball season and I went deep in my first at-bat at Cashman Field and the rest was history, I guess you could say.”

Harper went on to hit well for the College of Southern Nevada. In 66 games, he hit .443 with 31 homers and 98 RBIs. He said that two-week start of fall ball where he had second thoughts about continuing on was a memory he looks back on today as a major turning point.

“That moment and those opportunities that I had when I was younger at 17 years old, playing with a wood bat in junior college against guys that were 22, 23 years old, was one of the most pressurized situations I ever been in because if I don’t have a good year that year, then I might never be playing baseball,” Harper said. “I might never get drafted.”

Now, playing for the Nationals some 862 games and seven-plus season later, Harper is deeply grateful of where he came from. And he doesn’t take these moments - like batting sixth in the 89th All-Star Game or slamming round trippers in Monday’s Home Run Derby - lightly. Pressure is not something that affects him as much as many people think it might.

“I’m 25 years old, and I’m able to play this wonderful game every single day,” Harper said. “What pressure do I have to feel? What pressure do I feel running out to right field every single day?

“The pressure I feel is for every other guy in my clubhouse, for every other guy on my team, or my fans and my stadium. It’s the game that I love to play. It’s something that ... I’m getting chills.

“There’s nothing better than putting on (jersey No.) 34 and being Bryce Harper and loving the game that I play.”

As for his 48-48 Nationals, Harper still believes they have a good shot to come back and win the division.

“Ever since I was here at the beginning, we all tried to do the best we could to win games,” Harper said. “Our goal at the beginning of the year was to get into the playoffs and do the things we can as a team to win ballgames. We still got a long ways to go. We got two months left, what are we back, how many games? (We’re) 5 1/2 (games) back, I think we got a chance.”

Injuries have slowed this club down this season. Daniel Murphy missed more than two months at the beginning of the season. Harper believes with the return of Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman this week, the Nats can get on a roll like they did in 2016 and 2017 to take over the division.

“Getting Zim back soon. Getting Stras back, as well,” Harper said. “Having a two-headed monster up front with him and Max is going to be huge for us. I think (Jeremy) Hellickson has been an unbelievable add for us this year. I think just as a team, getting (Matt) Wieters back, as well, is going to be huge for us - having pretty much our captain behind the plate back is definitely big. Getting Murph back on his feet, as well, (Adam) Eaton. So everybody getting healthy, getting going.

“We got a battle. Braves are really good, Phillies are good. Those are two teams that are probably going to make some moves, as well. Looking forward to the second half, looking forward to do what we need to do to with the East. Take it one game at a time and see what we can do.”

Harper made it known prior to the start of the 2018 season he would not answer questions about his impending free agency. But he was asked Monday what it would be like to possibly play for another team next season.

“That’s always a possibility,” Harper said. “I think everybody knew that at the beginning of the year. This could be possibly my last year in D.C. Everybody knows that. There’s no elephant in the room. Everybody knows that that is a possibility, but I’m not really focused on that. I’m focused what I can do to help this team win on a daily basis. I look forward to doing that.”

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