New leadoff man Bryce Harper just wants to hit

WASHINGTON -- Bryce Harper just wanted to hit.

That’s why, four hours before Tuesday night’s 12-4 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was out on the field at Nationals Park, taking early batting practice. Taking hack after hack after hack in the bright D.C. sunshine, for no other reason than he just wanted to knock the ever-loving snot out of the baseball.

“Just hit some homers,” said Harper when asked what the goal of his rare early BP session was. “Get some balls over the plate and do some damage. BP is a good spot to get out there and, when you’re not swinging the bat as much, try to stay as effective as you can. Just feel the ball hitting the barrel. I was trying to hit the ball as far as I could.”

Then he went out against the Pirates and, facing starter Chad Kuhl in the fifth inning, hit the ball as far as he could. To be exact, Harper’s three-run bomb to left-center traveled 416 feet, which, when it comes to opposite-field shots, is roughly equivalent to a country mile. It was a welcome sight for Harper, who lately had been struggling to hit the ball so much as a country meter.

After a white-hot start to the season -- through Washington’s first 17 games, he was hitting .315 with eight home runs and 17 RBIs -- the former MVP had gone blue cold. Entering Tuesday, he was mired in a 5-for-35 slump and had gone 12 games without an extra-base hit, the longest such drought of his career. That’s not to say he wasn’t getting on base.

Entering Tuesday, Harper -- slump and all -- was leading the National League with a .458 on-base percentage. Because that’s what happens when you get walked more frequently than a canine with a bladder problem. He’d received 38 free passes in 29 games, by far the most in the majors. He was on pace to draw 212 walks, the second-highest single-season total ever behind Barry Bonds (232 in 2004). He had been walked intentionally six times in his past six games, becoming the first player with six purposeful passes over a six-game stretch since … Bryce Harper.

Perhaps you recall the last time Harper hosted his own walk-a-thon. The year was 2016, and the cluster in question was centered around a four-game May set at Wrigley Field. It was the infamous series wherein Cubs pitchers walked him an unfathomable 13 times. In the finale alone he drew six free passes, three of which were intentional. That series (perhaps combined with some unpublicized health issues) helped send Harper, who at the time was the reigning MVP, into a tailspin from which he never recovered. He grew impatient. He started chasing pitches out of the strike zone. He tried to do too much. As a result, he ended up doing very little.

Nearly two years later to the day, Harper was reliving the same nightmare. With sluggers Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon on the disabled list and frequent cleanup hitter Ryan Zimmerman off to his typical sluggish start, the Nats lineup has offered little in the way of protection. In fact, entering the month of May, Washington’s cleanup hitters were batting just .200, tied for worst in the majors. Not surprisingly, opposing pitchers have been avoiding Harper as if he has the Cheese Touch.

Through the end of April, only 39.8 percent of the pitches Harper had seen this season were in the strike zone. That was the lowest rate in the majors, and over 2 percent less than his career mark coming into this season. And that doesn’t even count the 32 pitches he never got the chance to see as a result of his MLB-high eight intentional walks. It doesn’t help that the Nats’ offense is stuck in neutral, contributing to a ho-hum start in which Washington entered May three games under .500 and in fourth place in the NL East. It’s the kind of situation that could make even the most patient of hitters start to come unglued.

“I mean, at 25 years old, you want to hit the baseball,” said Harper, explaining the challenge of remaining disciplined while getting the Cheese Touch treatment. It’s a challenge that, lately, he’d been losing. Over the past week, Harper’s chase percentage had skyrocketed to 40 percent, nearly double the 21.5 percent clip he’d posted over the first three-plus weeks of the season. So as the calendar turned to May Day, Harper went all mayday with his uncommon early batting practice session. He wasn’t the only one who took extreme measures.

On Tuesday, manager Davey Martinez moved Harper into the leadoff spot, the first time since 2013 that Harper started a game atop the order. It’s a move Martinez tinkered with in spring training, one that the rookie manager suspected he’d eventually resort to in the regular season.

“I knew there would come a point in time where it was going to happen,” Martinez said before Tuesday’s game. He knew it because he’d seen something just like it last year. Serving as bench coach in Chicago, he watched as Cubs manager Joe Maddon jump-started sluggers Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant by moving them up toward the top of the lineup. “I think this is one way to hopefully get him to relax a little bit,” said Martinez of Harper. “Go back and have some fun and see some pitches. When you get your pitch, just don’t miss it.”

For the record, Harper missed his pitch in each of his first two trips to the plate on Tuesday. Leading off the bottom of the first, he swung right through a center-cut fastball from Kuhl before grounding out sharply to first base. In the third inning, he missed by a lot less, jumping on a first-pitch hanging breaking ball and driving it to the warning track in left field. In the fifth, he didn’t miss, depositing a center-cut fastball from Kuhl into the left-field seats. When he got back to the dugout, the first person Harper encountered was his manager. A bear hug ensued.

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“Proud of him,” Martinez said after the game of Harper, who also walked and scored twice. “Like I said, he was frustrated. It was a good day for him.”

Harper’s good day led to an even better day for the Nationals, who won their third straight game, just the second time this season they’ve ripped off three straight. Combined with a Mets loss, the Nats’ lopsided victory -- which also featured a pair of Matt Adams bombs and six strong innings from ace Max Scherzer -- moved Washington to within 4½ games of first place. Of course, there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Getting back to .500 comes to mind, as does getting back Murphy and Rendon. Getting back leadoff hitter Adam Eaton, whom the Nats miss perhaps more than any of their injured stars, wouldn’t be so terrible, either. Then again, given how productive Harper was at the top of the order, Eaton’s return might be wrought with lineup construction controversy (or not). For now, Martinez doesn’t have to worry about that. For now, he’ll continue to pencil Harper into the 1-hole.

“We’ll let it ride for a couple days,” Martinez said. “See what happens.”