When Bryce Harper first got brought up to the big leagues, it was his patience at the plate which impressed me maybe more than anything else.
Yes, he was athletic and had a smooth swing and played the game hard. But we knew he'd bring all that to the table. We didn't know that the 19-year-old with massive power and a desire to prove he was a big leaguer would be able to lay off tough pitches out of the zone and wait for something over the fat part of the plate.
A couple weeks ago, however, that patience started to wear off. Beginning with the Nationals' series against the Yankees, the rookie got off his game a bit. That was highlighted by an 0-for-7, five-strikeout effort in a game pitched by Andy Pettitte.
Starting with that Yankees series and continuing into games against Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Colorado, pitchers began feeding Harper off-speed stuff off the plate away - sometimes way off the plate away. Harper wasn't able to lay off those pitches, and took a handful of bad swings as a result.
"Once I got out of Toronto and got into the Yankees series, they really got me off what I was going to do. It kind of hurt me," Harper said. "I was just chasing bad pitches when I shouldn't have."
During an 11-game stretch starting with the opener against the Yankees, Harper had just eight hits in 43 at-bats (.186), struck out 14 times and drew just four walks.
Lately, however, Harper's patient approach has started to come back around.
He isn't necessarily seeing as many pitches as he did earlier this season, when he had a walk in eight games over an 11-game span. Harper still has at-bats where he puts the first pitch in play (like he did in the fifth inning yesterday, when he smacked a get-me-over curveball from Madison Bumgarner to right field for a single), and he only has two walks in his last 49 plate appearances.
But Harper is certainly doing a better job of making sure he lays off that stuff out of the zone, instead offering at the pitches he can drive to the gaps.
"You just try to not chase their pitch," Harper said. "Try to lock in and get your pitch. The past two weeks, I didn't feel comfortable in the box at all. There's spurts where you go like that. Sometimes you look stupid and sometimes you look great. You try to get one hit a day. You try to get that one hit when you're struggling and hopefully the guys behind you will pick you up like they have been."
The last three games, Harper has five hits in 13 at-bats (.385), has two walks and two strikeouts.
"I think they had a book on him in Colorado, slow hooks to slower hooks," manager Davey Johnson said. "He was a little overaggressive. But he's a smart hitter. He makes adjustments. He knows what he's about. He works on things in BP. He's being a little more patient. That comes with his experience up here."
Here are the lineups for both teams tonight:
For the Nationals
LF Steve Lombardozzi
CF Bryce Harper
3B Ryan Zimmerman
RF Michael Morse
1B Adam LaRoche
SS Ian Desmond
2B Danny Espinosa
C Jesus Flores
P Ross Detwiler
For the Giants
RF Justin Christian
2B Ryan Theriot
LF Melky Cabrera
C Buster Posey
3B Pablo Sandoval
CF Angel Pagan
1B Brandon Belt
SS Joaquin Arias
P Matt Cain