Harper feels improved health will lead to improved numbers against lefties

VIERA, Fla. - The Nationals’ first split-squad games of spring are today, meaning they’ll send a couple buses of players to Jupiter to face the Cardinals and leave most of their regulars back home to take on the Braves at Space Coast Stadium.

Anthony Rendon is the only 2013 regular making the trip to Jupiter, along with Nate McLouth, Scott Hairston, Tyler Moore and Jamey Carroll. Bench coach Randy Knorr will manage the Nats in Jupiter, in a game started by Chris Young.

As I mentioned yesterday, Taylor Jordan will stay in Viera and work a few innings once Ross Detwiler’s day is done. Jordan had originally been scheduled to start the game in Jupiter, but manager Matt Williams wanted to get more of a look at Jordan in person, so he adjusted the pitching schedule to have the 25-year-old piggyback Detwiler today.

Looking back on yesterday for a minute, two things about Bryce Harper’s long homer in the first inning of the Nats’ win over the Astros made it noteworthy. First of all, the longball had to fight through a stiff wind to clear the fence (and it did so with ease), and secondly, the homer came against Houston left-hander Brett Oberholtzer.

In his big league career, Harper has only hit eight homers off left-handed pitching, spanning 314 at-bats. That includes just two last season, when Harper posted a .214/.327/.321 slash line against southpaws. Harper often faced tough left-handed relievers late in games when opposing managers tried to work the match-ups, but he also struggled to post numbers against even middle-of-the-road lefties.

“I hit lefties pretty good, I always have,” Harper said yesterday. “Last year, my knee killed me. I couldn’t stay back on lefties. I was killing myself on that. It’s gonna be a little bit different this year. I think my first year, I swung against lefties really well. The second year, struggled, and this year, hopefully go in and have some good ABs and see where I’m at.”

Harper’s splits against lefties in 2012, his rookie season, weren’t excellent, but they were solid. He hit .240 off southpaws with a .715 OPS, which is manageable if he’s going to crush right-handed pitching the way that he’s shown he can. Consider that it was his first taste of the big leagues and he was just 19, as well, and those numbers look more solid.

Last year, the drop-off was evident. Harper flailed at pitches on the outer half of the plate and wasn’t able to drive the ball firmly the other way when facing lefties.

“My knee just gave out every single time, on every single pitch on the outside half or anything,” he said. “I didn’t have the swing that I wanted to have. My knee killed me every time I swung, and this year it’s a little bit different. I can stay back and not explode on my lower half and have to go. If there’s a curveball and I’m sitting back on it (last year), I’m ready to go, I had to go. It was that painful that I had to just go.

“The guy threw me (a curveball Friday) that I check-swung on it a little bit, but I could finally do that. It wasn’t, ‘Ah, (crap)!’ and it really hurt. So that felt great. Knowing that I can do that is really nice.”

Harper had surgery this offseason to debride and repair the bursa sac in his left knee, and came into camp feeling great health-wise. He’s taken part in pretty much every step of spring training to this point, as far as workouts and cage work, and has played a normal game schedule. More than a week into games, Harper still says his knee is in good shape.

“It’s felt great,” Harper said. “I’ve had zero pain on it. I’ve been able to do everything that I’ve wanted to do. It’s felt really good, so I’m excited about that. Having no pain is something that I’m very excited about.”

In 11 plate appearances this spring, Harper has walked three times, another promising sign for his progression as a hitter. In his rookie year, Harper walked in 9.4 percent of his plate appearances. Last year, even despite the knee issues, Harper walked in 12.3 percent of his plate appearances. He hopes that number will increase again in 2014.

“I’m trying to be as patient as I can,” Harper said. “If they’re not gonna come to me, if they’re gonna throw around me or throw doo-doo up there and things like that, I’m not gonna swing. I’m just gonna try to take my walks this year and get a little bit smarter up there and get on base. If I have a .450 on-base percentage and I’m getting on base, that’s all that matters.”

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