Looking every bit the MVP, Bryce Harper powers Nationals to fifth straight win

WASHINGTON -- With the first-place New York Mets coming to town for three games starting Monday, Bryce Harper is doing everything in his power to make sure the series matters.

Harper, a leading candidate for the National League MVP, went 2-for-4 with a home run and a walk on Sunday. Combined with long balls from Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon, a three-hit day from Yunel Escobar, and four-plus innings of shutout relief, Harper's performance was more than enough to help the Washington Nationals to a crucial 8-4 win over the visiting Atlanta Braves. The victory was Washington's fifth straight, just the second time since April that it has put together a streak that long. And the timing couldn't be better.

After the bullpen blew late leads on back-to-back nights earlier this week in St. Louis, the Nationals found themselves 6.5 games behind the Mets. But over the past five days, Washington has managed to pick up 2.5 games, and now sits four back. While the Mets -- who lost on Sunday in Miami thanks to Martin Prado's second walk-off in three days -- are clearly in the driver's seat, the fact remains that Washington has six games left against the Mets. In other words, the NL East title is still up for grabs. And Harper is doing everything in his power to help the Nationals seize it.

Over his past seven games, the 22-year old outfielder, who entered September already one of the frontrunners for the NL MVP, might have separated himself from the field. In his past 29 plate appearances, the lefty slugger has reached base 21 times and upped his on-base percentage to .470, the best in baseball. Over that span, he has 12 walks. Four of those came on Thursday, when he scored four runs despite not swinging at a single one of the 20 pitches he saw. He also has three doubles and three home runs during the stretch, and has posted a video game OPS of 1.935.

"It reminds you of Barry Bonds," said Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman. "Obviously he's not hitting 70 home runs. But he's gonna take his walks and take his walks. Then he gets one pitch to hit and he hits it. That's what he's doing this year, and he's doing it every single day. It's incredible to watch."

As for the home runs, Harper has three in his past three games, with each one seemingly more impressive than the one before. On Friday, he clubbed a 453-foot shot to dead center off Julio Teheran that was the longest of his career. On Saturday, he got behind 0-2 on righty Shelby Miller, then proceeded to foul off four pitches before going deep to left-center. The at-bat lasted 10 pitches and resulted in Harper's 500th career hit. Then on Sunday, leading off the third inning, he hit another opposite-field shot, this one coming on an 0-2 slider from southpaw Manny Banuelos. Said Washington manager Matt Williams: "His stroke is under control."

Despite the barrage of bombs and bases on balls, the thing that stood out the most to Williams -- at least on Sunday -- was a seemingly innocuous opposite-field single in Harper's final plate appearance. On the surface, it was a relatively meaningless base hit. After all, it came with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the eighth inning, and the Nationals already holding a comfortable 8-4 lead. "The telling at-bat," said Williams, "is the one to left in the last at-bat today."

While the Nats skipper was referring to Harper's ability to control his bat and use the whole field, the at-bat was telling in other ways too. When Harper stepped into the batter's box, even though the bases were empty, the crowd of just less than 30,000 became noticeably noisier, showering thunderous applause down on the face of the franchise. The applause then morphed into chanting, namely of the "M-V-P" variety.

After the game, when asked what it feels like to be so locked in, what's different, Harper predictably deflected the question, instead choosing to focus on his fellow Nationals. "Our whole team is swinging the bat right now," he said. "One through nine, we're having good AB's. I'm just trying to help out and do the things I can to win ballgames."

Lately, that has been an awful lot. The question is, will it be enough?

Only time will tell.