Harper reaches third deck for 20th homer (Nats win 8-1)

If it’s possible for one swing to get Bryce Harper back into MVP form, this might have been the one.

Harper launched a towering home run off Bud Norris in the bottom of the first inning tonight, sending the 3-1 pitch halfway up the third deck down the right field line at Nationals Park, the farthest a ball has ever traveled to that portion of the stadium.

Bryce Harper white stares.jpgThe two-run blast traveled 451 feet and left Harper’s bat with a velocity of 113 mph, according to Major League Baseball’s Statcast system. It was the young slugger’s longest home run of the season, and it gave the Nationals a 2-0 lead over the Dodgers.

Charlie Culberson’s two-out RBI single off Gio Gonzalez in the top of the second trimmed the lead to 2-1, which it where it still stands after three innings of play.

This was Harper’s 20th homer of 2016, which leaves him on pace to hit 34 for the season. That’s hardly a minuscule total, but it’s only his 11th in his last 73 games, evidence of the prolonged downturn he has taken since winning NL Player of the Month honors in April.

Manager Dusty Baker has tried a few things to help Harper find his groove again, including moving him down from the third spot in the Nationals lineup to the cleanup position. That has perhaps helped a bit; Harper has homered three times in nine games batting fourth.

According to the Nationals, Harper is the 12th player in major league history with at least four 20-homer seasons before turning 24. The only time he hasn’t reached the 20-homer mark was in 2014, when he hit 13 while playing in only 100 games due to injuries.

Update: It’s Home Run Night at Nationals Park, and it’s not just the usual suspects participating in the festivities. Ben Revere - yes, Ben Revere - launched one to right-center field in the bottom of the fifth. That’s the second of his season and only the sixth of his career. Moments later, Jayson Werth sent one flying to left field, giving the Nationals their major league-leading 12th back-to-back homers this year. Gonzalez has made the most of the support, holding the Dodgers to one run on three hits through six innings, though his pitch count is a bit elevated at 97. Nats lead 4-1 in the middle of the sixth.

Update II: They’re piling on now. The Nats scored three runs in the bottom of the sixth to break this game open. Wilson Ramos sent a double off that little sliver of high wall next to the right field foul line, scoring Harper all the way from first. Trea Turner then turned a ball down the left field line into an RBI triple (his second in as many nights). And then, after Danny Espinosa walked, the Nats pulled off a perfect double steal. Espinosa got caught in a rundown between first and second, giving Turner an opportunity take off for the plate. He slid in safely with the first steal of home in his career and only the third in Nationals history, joining Ian Desmond in 2011 and Harper’s famous one off Cole Hamels in 2012. It’s 7-1 heading to the seventh.

Update III: That’s it. Nats win 8-1, with Anthony Rendon homering in the bottom of the eighth and Koda Glover impressing in a scoreless MLB debut to finish it off, needing only four pitches (all strikes) to retire the side.

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