The continued evolution of an ace

In his third at-bat yesterday, Bryce Harper struck out swinging at an off-speed pitch for the second time on the day.

Clearly frustrated with himself, Harper slammed the barrel of his bat on home plate, breaking the piece of lumber down the middle and causing Marlins catcher John Buck to flinch.

When Harper came to the plate for his next at-bat, he quickly apologized to Buck before stepping into the box.

“He told me he was really sorry, it was terrible,” Buck said. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry about it. I did the same thing, but when I was your age it was a metal bat and I was in high school.’ It’s a learning experience for him. He’s just having to do it in front of the eyes of the whole country and the world. I bet you he probably won’t do that anymore.”

We all know Harper is 19 years old. We read it in every blog, hear it on ESPN every time they show a Harper highlight. But while we know Harper’s age, sometimes it might not truly sink in. We might forget how young he really is. He let his emotions get the better of him for a moment yesterday, but again showed how mature a young man he is with how he subsequently handled things.

Harper is learning how to adapt to the major league level on the fly, but he’s not alone. Stephen Strasburg obviously has more big league experience than his rookie teammate five years his junior. But Strasburg is very much still evolving in his own right.

His manager, Davey Johnson, has talked in recent weeks about how Strasburg isn’t sure who he wants to be as a pitcher yet. It’s almost like the Nationals’ ace has so many weapons, he doesn’t completely know how best to utilize them all.

“He’s just learning about himself and learning about the league,” Johnson said. “It’s just a process they go through.”

strasburg red pitch sidebar.jpgIn Strasburg’s last five outings, three have been tremendous. The other two, not so much. According to the guys around him, the issue in Strasburg’s sub-par outings hasn’t necessarily been that his stuff wasn’t there or his location was terrible. He often times, they say, tends to overthink things instead of just trusting his stuff, relying on his fastball and having faith in the game plan, even if he gives up a few hits.

“I’ve told him that,” Adam LaRoche said. “I’ve said, ‘Stras, these are big league hitters. Occasionally, they’re going to run into a 98 mile-an-hour fastball.’ Don’t look at it like, ‘OK, I don’t have it today.’ We’re paid to do a job, too. I said, ‘Just because somebody turns on one, stick with your game plan.’

“Nobody’s ever come down to first (base) and said it’s a comfortable at-bat (against him). Every hitter I’ve ever talked to down there is not comfortable in the box. That’s the best thing a pitcher can ask for. So he just needs to believe it every start, to work off that fastball. He’s getting there.”

Strasburg is so competitive on days that he pitches that Johnson says, “You don’t really wanna get close to him, because he’s very cognizant of every little thing that doesn’t go how he plans.”

If he gives up a couple hits early or falls behind, he can be overly hard on himself, which might negatively affect how Strasburg approaches hitters later on.

“They could be lucky and run into it,” LaRoche said. “Don’t all of a sudden abort that pitch for the next couple innings because someone hit it. Don’t change and fall into their game plan. Stick with yours.

“I haven’t pitched in a long time, but I remember when I did. When I did get in trouble, it was just overthinking stuff. When you throw 98 with three unbelievable pitches ... they’ll hit it once in a while. Blow the next guy away.”

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