Harper’s disastrous July nearly over (Nationals lose 3-1)

SAN FRANCISCO - Nobody on the Nationals will be happier when the calendar flips to August on Monday than Bryce Harper, who is wrapping up a disastrous July that ranks among the worst months of his career.

After striking out in the top of the third inning this afternoon, Harper is hitting just .169 this month, a prolonged slump that has dropped his season batting average to a paltry .233.

Harper has connected for four home runs, including his third-deck shot at Nationals Park two weeks ago, but he has only one other extra-base hit and has struck out 21 times.

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Plenty of observers, both professional and amateur, have been trying to diagnose what ails the reigning NL MVP, but Nationals manager Dusty Baker wants his struggling star to try to block it all out, if possible.

“We hate to see him struggle like this, but after a while it seems like the more you give and the more advice you give - we’ve all been there at some point in time - it seems just to be more confusing than anything,” Baker said earlier this weekend. “The main thing I can say is just try to simplify it best you can. Just remember what it was like, the feeling it was like when we were really getting down.”

Harper isn’t the only member of the Nationals lineup struggling today against Matt Cain. The veteran right-hander hasn’t allowed a hit through his first four innings of work.

Cain has issued four walks, and his pitch count is already at 79, but the Nationals have yet to record a base hit. They’re playing without Daniel Murphy (out for the second straight game with tightness in his left leg) and Jayson Werth (getting a day off despite his streak of 33 consecutive games reaching base).

The Giants have taken a 1-0 lead, but it could have been worse. Or better. After loading the bases in the bottom of the third, Gio Gonzalez got Angel Pagan to hit a groundball to second base for what looked like an easy 4-6-3 double play. But Trea Turner’s flip to Danny Espinosa was offline, leaving everybody safe and allowing the afternoon’s first run to cross the plate.

Gonzalez did escape the jam without any more damage, getting Hunter Pence to strike out and then watching as catcher Wilson Ramos threw out Pagan on the back end of a double-steal attempt.

Update: Make it 2-0 Giants after five innings, with both runs scoring off throwing errors by the Nats’ infield. Anthony Rendon was the culprit this time, skipping his throw across the diamond past Ryan Zimmerman and allowing Jeff Samardzija (who was pinch-running for Madison Bumgarner, who was pinch-hitting for Matt Cain) to score from second. Yeah, don’t ask. Cain tossed five no-hit innings, but with his pitch count at 93, Bruce Bochy is going to his bullpen already. Strange day at the ballpark so far.

Update II: The Nats finally broke through in the sixth, recording their first three hits of the day and scoring their first run. Harper broke up the no-hitter with a leadoff single off George Kontos. He then scored on Rendon’s RBI double to right-center. But things got ugly after that. Rendon failed to advance from second on Zimmerman’s line drive single to left (which landed well in front of Mac Williamson). Then, he got thrown out at third when Williamson dropped Chris Heisey’s pop-up, which also ended with Williamson getting hurt and having to leave the game. Weird stuff. After all that, the Nats trail 2-1 heading to the seventh.

Update III: The Giants got a big insurance run in the top of the eighth, thanks to Denard Span’s leadoff triple and Pagan’s bloop single to center field off Matt Belisle. So now the Nats face a real uphill battle, trying to rally from a 3-1 deficit with only six outs left at their disposal.

Update IV: No rally today. Nats lose 3-1. They end up splitting the four-game series. On to Arizona.

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