Comfortable Harper thinks "it could get better"

Bryce Harper's left leg is healthy, at least as healthy as it's going to be before he has an entire winter of rest. Everything the star right fielder has done during his six games back from the disabled list suggests he's not physically limited and can play the way he normally plays.

But is Harper actually performing the way he normally performs? That question has been tougher to answer.

"I think it could get better," the 24-year-old said today as he prepared for Game 2 of the National League Division Series. "It always can. But I think it can definitely get better the farther we go."

There's the key sentiment: "the farther we go." The Nationals knew Harper wasn't going to be in elite form when the postseason began, considering he only had a week's worth of major league at-bats to get himself into form. The best chance for him to morph back into his elite, pre-injury self is for the Nats to have a lengthy October run, not a fourth one-and-done in the last six years.

sidebar-Bryce-Harper-white.jpg"The more at-bats I get, the more comfortable I get," he said. "Those (five final regular season) games, it's kind of like playing (five) games in spring training. You know, taking six weeks off, seven weeks off, not seeing live pitching, is tough."

Harper's manager concurs with his sentiments.

"Yeah, he's telling the truth," Dusty Baker said. "You know, one thing about Bryce, he's going to tell you the truth. And so I feel the same way he feels. I've already stated that the longer this goes, the better (chance) Bryce has to get right."

Which isn't to say Harper looks lost at the plate. Not at all. His first-inning single off Kyle Hendricks in Game 1 capped a solid at-bat and built off his strong 2-for-4 showing in Sunday's regular season finale.

But Harper did look jumpy later in Game 1, once batting with his team trailing 2-0. Leading off the bottom of the sixth moments after the Cubs took the lead, he started swinging for the fences and wound up sending a lazy fly ball to left for an out. He then popped up to second in the bottom of the eighth to complete a 1-for-4 showing.

Recognizing that the 2015 league MVP is not all the way back, Baker has chosen to bat him second in his lineup, behind Trea Turner and ahead of Anthony Rendon.

"Perhaps he'll get fastballs with Trea getting on base, which is important," Baker said Friday. "And we know that Bryce isn't back 100 percent timing-wise. So you want to not have him in those key RBI situations right now. By next week, or the end of this five-game series, we might do something different."

Harper does have extensive experience batting second in his career, with 151 games started (as opposed to 365 batting third and 120 batting fourth). He also hit second in the both the 2012 and 2016 NLDS.

He said he's learned not to change his approach based on his position in the batting order.

"I'm just trying to have good at-bats and do the things I can do to get on base," he said. "There's guys behind me that have done a great job all year long. And, you know, if me and Trea can table-set a little bit and get on base, have the faith in the guys behind us, I think we'll score a lot of runs and get ahead real quick."

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