Dave Nichols: Harper, everybody’s favorite target, is slowly rounding into shape

Bryce Harper is slumping. Bryce Harper should be sent to the minors to get his timing back. Bryce Harper isn’t living up to the hype. Bryce Harper is more trouble than he’s worth. Bryce Harper is still a punk.

If you read social media, listen to sports talk radio, watch ESPN or listen to opposing team’s broadcasters, you’ve probably heard all of the above ideas floated. His name is click-bait for anyone with an IP address and a blog.

But here’s a fact for you: Harper is still just barely 21 - and he’s in his second full major league season and a two-time All-Star. Here’s another fact: Harper had surgery to repair torn ligaments in his thumb earlier this season, requiring him to miss 57 games.

Anyone - fans, media, managers, coaches, administrators, scouts - that truly thinks Harper belongs in the minors at this stage in his career isn’t worth listening to.

Harper is an easy target. The incident over the weekend where he dragged his foot across the script-A behind home plate in Atlanta’s Turner Field was obvious and a bit juvenile. He played it off for the media afterwards, but watching the video, his intent was clear.

Shenanigans? Sure, but worse has been done in the name of friendly - and not-so friendly - rivalries. He’s under such a microscope that nothing goes unnoticed. And he knows that as much as anyone else. He’s so media-savvy that the denial he gave for the incident should be received in the same tongue-in-cheek manner in which it was delivered.

The bottom line is that Harper is slowly but surely rounding into baseball shape. Detractors point to his .249 average entering play Tuesday and his paltry four home runs and 16 RBIs at this point in the season. Harper was gangbusters in his minor league rehab stint, even slugging three home runs in one game. But once off the DL, he went ice cold, batting a mere .150/.244/.250 in the first 12 games back with the Nationals.

Since then, in the next 23 games, Harper has hit .256/.363/.359. Sure, his power is still suffering. It’s a common malady of players returning from hand and wrist injuries. We often see it when players come back from hamate surgery. Wilson Ramos last season suffered a power outage when he first came back, and we witnessed it with Ryan Zimmerman earlier this season.

But he’s seeing the ball well, as his .363 on-base percentage over the past three weeks will attest. He’s making better contact in general and swinging at better pitches. And make no mistake, the power will come back for Harper. He’s got another month before things get really interesting in the National League East, and if he gets hot down the stretch, it will be a boon to the Nats’ chances.

With a four-game lead over second place Atlanta after 116 games, the Nats haven’t done too badly with the Harper they’ve had. If he gets healthy - really healthy - they’ll be a different team entirely down the stretch.

Dave Nichols is editor-in-chief of District Sports Page and co-hosts the “Nats Nightly” Internet radio show. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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