The next seven games might be the last opportunities to see Harper playing for the home team at Nats Park. The Mets and then the Marlins play in D.C. Sept. 20-26. The club finishes the regular season in Denver against the Rockies next weekend.
Offensively, Harper has done much better after the All-Star break. He is batting .304 since the Home Run Derby, after stumbling to a .214 average in the season’s early months.
“I think as long as I have fun doing well I’ll be all right,” Harper said. “I think, for me, it’s not worrying, just playing my game and doing the things to help my team win on a nightly basis. Never panic, never worry. It’s a long season. If I continue to play well I have a chance to get my numbers where they need to be.”
One part of why Harper has been able to ease back into a rhythm that is similar to what he had in his first six seasons has been his relationship with his ultra-positive manager, Davey Martinez. It begs the question: Will that relationship help Harper to decide to re-sign with the Nats next season?
The skipper’s famous bear hug lifted Harper off the ground in the dugout after a big play early in the season. They have had a great relationship from the beginning. Harper appreciates Martinez. Despite those rough patches when his month-to-month average stayed around .200, Harper remained positive, thanks to his manager and his hitting coach, Kevin Long.
“Yeah, you have to. This is your livelihood every single day,” Harper noted. “I enjoy coming here every single day, and enjoy coming and playing with the guys around us. It’s a lot of fun to play for a manager that really believes in this team. If we’re losing or we’re winning, he’s the same each day. It’s nice to have a manager that you can go in and talk to, not even just about baseball but about everything else. I enjoy that.”
On working with Long: “I think swing-wise, your swing is always going to be the same no matter what. Kevin doesn’t want to change anybody or anything like that. He just wants to try and make you better, whether that’s mentally or something else. The thing about K. Long is he really enjoys what he does and he really enjoys the mental side of the game. Understands that it’s a grind every single year. If you’re 0-for-4 or 4-for-4 he makes you feel like you are a million bucks. He walked into the cage yesterday and he’s got a smile, he’s going to make you laugh. That’s something that I enjoy. I think every player on the team (agrees). When you play a sport, you need a guy like that in your corner. He’s that guy.”
Martinez knew his high-flying slugger would figure it out and would get back to his career average, or at least close to it as the season wrapped up.
“I played this game for a long time, and I understood that’s the game,” Martinez said. “Typically, by the end of the year you’re going to be pretty close to where you normally are unless injuries or something. But every year I used to play I start off hitting .150 and you’re panicking. And then I say, you know, ‘Forget it.’ And then by the end, I’m hitting .280 and about the same amount of homers, same amount of RBIs.
“So, when Bryce started off that slow, it didn’t bother me at all. The biggest thing for him was just go out there and play and have fun. ‘At the end of the year, you are going to hit 40 (homers), drive in 100 (RBIs).’ He reminded me he’d never had 100. ‘You’re going to drive in 100 this year.’ This will be the first.
“Let’s not jinx it,” Martinez added, knocking on wood.
And with well over 100 walks - including the five he had Tuesday in the Nats’ 4-2 win in the series finale in Miami - Harper has been able to get close to .250 on the season because of his patience at the dish.
So will these numbers at the end of the year mask what was bothering Harper from the beginning? That his contract year was weighing on him early and that’s why his numbers weren’t up to par?
“I really believe he has handled it really, really well,” Martinez said of the season Harper has had as he heads into free agency. “He doesn’t talk about it. He goes about his business. He plays every day, good and bad. As you know, he started off real slow. He’s been unbelievable, so. He’s done a great job. He was here all year to win.”
And with the Nats coming home for a final week before finishing in Denver, does Martinez believe Harper is looking back on his time in D.C. sentimentally or looking ahead? Or both?
“I don’t really think he thinks of it that way,” Martinez said. “He wants to finish off the season and then he’s going to let it play out, see what happens. I know that he wants to come back. Whether that happens or not, we’ll see. But I love having him. I love that he’s a National, still is a National. So, we’re going to ride this thing out until the end and it’s going to be fun.”
Either way, Harper is content in his offensive numbers getting back to where he would like them to be for a full season. He knows these aren’t the numbers he had in the 2015 MVP campaign. But his power numbers are close to the best of his career, and he has a shot at 100 RBIs for the first time. His 34 homers are second only to the 42 he hit in 2015.
“I got great numbers,” Harper said. “People talk, see that, see this. I got great numbers. This is one of my best seasons that I’ve ever had. If I’m hitting .240, .250, of course, that’s not the type of hitter that I want to be, at least in that category. But if I was hitting .300 we’d be talking about another MVP. So, I’m not worried about it. I’m going to go into the offseason and have the same offseason I’ve had every single year.
“Like I’ve always said, there’s a lot of things in life that are bigger than baseball. After the year is done, it’s over and then I can look back on it and ‘Oh, hey, I need to do this or do that.’ Next year is a big year and I go to spring training and do what I can and go about it every single day the right way.”
Now the big question when the offseason begins for Harper and the Nats is: Will this next spring training be in West Palm Beach with the Nationals or with someone else?