It was one of the calmest, smoothest-looking swings Bryce Harper has taken this season, the kind that you might normally expect to result in a simple, looping single over an infielder’s head.
Except this one left Harper’s bat at 110 mph and was crushed to right-center field for a first-inning double in Wednesday night’s game at Nationals Park.
If you’re looking for evidence of the state of Harper’s swing right now, that was as good an example as any. He didn’t let his shoulders fly open. He didn’t lose balance in his legs. His head didn’t jerk around. It was nice and simple, and the result was a positive one.
And that was just one of the good things Harper did at the plate Wednesday night. He also produced a hustle double for an RBI in the sixth, smoked a grounder to first base that required a great play by Anthony Rizzo in the fourth and also drew a bases-loaded walk in the second.
That walk was notable for a couple of reasons: 1) Despite the number of teammates on the bases waiting to be driven in, he remained patient and didn’t expand his zone, and 2) It was only the second time the Cubs have walked him through the first three games of this series, and it wasn’t on purpose.
“It seems like he’s getting his act back together,” manager Dusty Baker said. “You see him taking pitches and not really going for a lot of the bait. It’s a different series than when we played them last year. Last year, they were walking him a lot. This year, I figure there’s some times where they could have walked him and didn’t. He swung the bat well.”
The story entering this series was Joe Maddon’s approach to Harper. One year ago, the Cubs manager walked the then-reigning league MVP a staggering 13 times in four games. This time, Chicago’s pitchers have gone after Harper, and he has responded by going 5-for-13 with two doubles.
The hits are important to Harper, but so are the walks, even if there haven’t been many of them. When he came up with the bases loaded in the bottom of the second, with John Lackey laboring on the mound, the temptation was there to try to launch a ball into the third deck.
Harper, though, calmly took four balls and didn’t try to force the issue.
“It’s tough. You want to do damage and do everything possible that you can to help the team win,” he said. “I try to go up there and wait for a pitch to drive, especially bases loaded right there. I’d rather cash in three or four instead of one. It worked out. We got some runs in that inning.”
Harper’s performance Wednesday night continued his recent uptick. After a brief slump while the Nationals were out west a few weeks ago, he has found his stroke again. Over his last 20 games, Harper is batting .325 with a .411 on-base percentage and .917 OPS.