NEW YORK - What’s the most impressive thing Bryce Harper is doing right now? Take your pick.
He’s hitting home runs, including his first career blast off Matt Harvey tonight, giving him a league-leading seven for the young season. He’s driving in runs, two more tonight to give him 20 RBIs, tops in the majors. He’s hitting for average, going 2-for-4 tonight to raise his season number to .407, tops in the National League. He’s drawing walks, including one tonight to leave him with 14 for the season and a .521 on-base percentage that is best in baseball.
All of that is incredible, the kind of stuff that makes Harper the (extremely) early favorite for another MVP award. And it still might not be the most incredible thing he’s doing right now.
That honor goes to Harper’s performance against left-handers, those southpaws who caused him so much trouble last year, holding him to a .226 batting average.
This year, it’s an entirely different story. Harper is currently batting .875 against lefties, with a .909 on-base percentage. Yes, that’s correct. He’s batting .875 (7-for-8) with a .909 on-base percentage (reaching in 10-of-11 plate appearances).
Oh, and the one time he made an out against a left-hander? On a smoked line drive off Cardinals reliever Brett Cecil that required a lunging catch by third baseman Jedd Gyorko.
And these lefty-lefty matchups haven’t been coming in meaningless situations. Like the top of the 11th tonight at Citi Field, when Harper lashed an opposite-field double off Josh Smoker to ignite the rally that gave the Nationals a 4-3 victory over the Mets.
“Just trying to go out there and have good at-bats,” the 24-year-old said, maintaining his cliché-filled approach to interviews in 2017. “That’s all you can do: See a pitch, try to hit it. Smoker’s tough. So just trying to go up there and have a good at-bat, and good things will happen. And that’s what happened.”
The Nationals got contributions from any number of players to win tonight’s marathon game. They got another quality start from Tanner Roark. They got a surprise home run from Jose Lobaton, making only his second start. They got 4 1/3 hitless innings of relief from Oliver Pérez, Joe Blanton, Enny Romero and Shawn Kelley.
But nobody was more responsible for this victory than Harper, who was personally responsible for three of the team’s four runs.
It began with his towering, two-run homer off Matt Harvey in the top of the first, a long-awaited moment. Harper entered the evening a scant 1-for-26 in his career against the Mets right-hander, confounded by him more than any other pitcher he has ever faced. But then he launched a 2-2 fastball to center field, and suddenly past track records meant nothing.
“You try to go up there with a clear slate every single year, and every single game, and that’s what I try to do,” Harper said. “Harvey’s really good up there, mixes his pitches really well. Heater always is good, and offspeed and changeup as well. So just trying to have good at-bats and got a pitch I could drive and did some damage.”
Before the game, manager Dusty Baker noted the law of averages had to eventually deliver for Harper. Little did he know it would deliver only a couple hours later.
“Hey man, you gotta be on the money sometimes,” Baker said. “The law of averages. ... So, hopefully, the worm has turned and he’s kind of figured him out a little bit.”
It would be another 10 innings before Harper’s next hit put the Nationals in position to win. After battling Smoker to a full count, he sent a 95-mph fastball careening down the left field line, past a diving Michael Conforto for a leadoff double.
“Bryce’s at-bat, that was a beautiful at-bat,” Baker said. “That was a determination at-bat.”
And what constitutes a determination at-bat?
“You’ve got to want it,” Baker explained. “You’ve got to want it. And that’s what good hitting is all about. It’s a battle. It’s a fight. You don’t give up. You don’t give outs.”
Harper displayed some more determination moments later when, upon seeing Jeurys Familia’s sinker bounce in the dirt and skip ever-so-slightly away from catcher Kevin Plawecki, he bolted for third base and narrowly beat the tag (confirmed upon review).
“I mean, Familia’s got one of the best sinkers in the game, if not the best,” Harper said. “So just trying to anticipate a little bit. (Third base coach) Bobby (Henley), before they brought the pitcher in, said: ‘Anticipate in the dirt, just try to move on.’ And I tried to do that the best I could and got a safe call.”
Two batters later, Harper didn’t need to hustle to score the winning run. He was able to trot the final 90 feet after Trea Turner (in his first at-bat since injuring his hamstring 13 days ago) drew a four-pitch walk from Familia with the bases loaded.
That was Harper’s 20th run scored this season. Yes, he’s tied for the major league lead in that category, too.
“Just keep on keepin’ on,” Baker said. “And keep it comin’.”