How to handle Harper’s struggles

Before last night’s series finale against the Braves, the Nationals presented Braves third baseman Chipper Jones with some going-away presents.

Yesterday marked the future Hall of Fame third baseman’s final game at Nationals Park before he steps away from the game, so the Nats put together a video tribute which was played on the Jumbotron and held a presentation in which Ryan Zimmerman, Mark DeRosa, Adam LaRoche and GM Mike Rizzo gave Jones a few gifts.

Those gifts included a base which was signed by the entire Nationals team, a framed picture of Jones, DeRosa and LaRoche - two of Jones’ former teammates and good friends - and the bat which Jones used to hit the first home run in Nats Park history.

“It meant a lot. It’s the first one where I actually started to get a little misty,” Jones said afterwards. “To have two of my best friends in the game of baseball out there talking on the scoreboard and standing out there with me ... I’m not ashamed to say I’m one of the many people who have a man crush on Ryan Zimmerman too, so to have those three guys standing out there, it meant a lot to me, along with Mike Rizzo. Probably the most extensive and most meaningful of all the tributes thus far.”

Bryce Harper is admittedly a huge Jones fan, and it’s probably fair to say that the rookie outfielder wished he’d put on a better performance in his final home series against the Braves third baseman.

Harper went 1-for-4 last night, finishing the series by going 2-for-13 with six strikeouts. He demonstrated his typical hustle yesterday by taking the extra base on a simple ground ball single to start the eighth, but overall, he had a rough day at the plate, flailing at off-speed pitches out of the zone.

That’s been a theme which Davey Johnson has seen repeat itself over the last few weeks.

“He’s just overly aggressive, overly aggressive, trying to put a big charge in it,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t quite that aggressive early (in the season), and now that he’s going through a little slump ... but he’ll make adjustments. He’ll get through it.”

Strangely enough, when Harper first came up to the big leagues, he was super-patient, waiting on the soft stuff away and forcing pitchers to challenge him with fastballs once they got behind in the count. If those fastballs never came, Harper was plenty happy to take a walk.

Lately, that patient approach has been lost. Harper is hitting .188 since the All-Star break and has just 16 walks to 39 strikeouts in the 38 games since the Midsummer Classic.

harper frustrated road sidebar.jpgWhile Harper has struggled, two guys on the bench have hit the heck out of the ball over the last handful of weeks. Steve Lombardozzi delivered another pinch-hit single last night, making him 3-for-3 in pinch-hit situations on the homestand. Over his last 10 games, Lombardozzi is a ridiculous 18-for-33 (.545) with a 1.238 OPS. Roger Bernadina, meanwhile, has just two at-bats since Aug. 13, but is hitting .298 on the season and was red-hot on the Nats’ last road trip.

Has Johnson thought about giving Harper a rest and mixing in either Lombardozzi or Bernadina?

“I always think about all those things; that’s what my job is,” Johnson said. “I’m just real pleased, Lombo, I mean he’s got a couple hits off left-handers pinch hitting, had a good at-bat. ... But it’s my job to try to find ways to get these young guys that have been playing, now that I’ve got a regular lineup, I’ll have to try to get them in. Nothing has gone on in my head on how to do it yet.”

Time and again this season, we’ve seen Johnson stick with a guy that’s been struggling, believing that if someone is talented enough and you give them enough of a chance, they’ll start to perform eventually. Harper clearly has tons of talent, and Johnson is determined to stick by him. At some point, he’s bound to make the necessary adjustment and start forcing pitchers to give him better pitches to hit.

But if Lombardozzi (and possibly, to a lesser extent, Bernadina) keeps swinging the bat well while Harper struggles, Johnson might have to consider sitting Harper every now and then and giving someone else a shot.

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