Thursday, September 6, 2012
Bryce Harper, Nats winning slugly
By Christina Kahrl
“That really pops” is usually a phrase you’re more likely to see on Bravo than ESPN. But these days, it’s what you can say about the Nationals’ lineup, because for a second consecutive night, it put up another power display that might have made you wonder whether they’d really put away the batting cages.
There were six home runs hit off Nats bats Tuesday and then the six more they hit Wednesday. Checking with Baseball-Reference.com can tell you that a team has done that just twice before since 1918. The Dodgers did it June 29 and 30, 1996, in Denver, in Coors Field, pre-humidor -- although even that is not doing the trick at altitude so much anymore, a story for another night. And the other time? That was in 2003, by the Angels against the Expos in rinky-dink Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico. Two crazy parks where crazy stuff was supposed to happen.
The Nats have been their own kind of crazy, but it has had nothing to do with the dimensions of Nationals Park. Starting with the “now you see him, but soon you won’t” saga of Stephen Strasburg, they’ve been nothing but fun from Opening Day on, to Bryce Harper's lauded arrival and beyond. Want some sour grapes? You can keep sniping about Jayson Werth's paydays, although with an on-base percentage better than .400, he’s a 6-foot-6 leadoff man who delivers what’s needed instead of being a tower of power. A pitching staff whiffing 22 percent of opposing hitters, third best in the league? A lineup that ranks third in homers hit? Gio Gonzalez notches his 18th win Wednesday to keep pace with R.A. Dickey for the league lead? Gotta squeeze that in there somewhere, too.
Put all of that together, and the Nats have been as action-packed as any team in the league. And if you need off-field drama, how about a war of words between general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson? That’s the sort of thing that might make you wonder whether chemistry is just something you talk about when all the other stuff isn’t happening.
But it’s the power that deserves the headline right now. Perhaps the signature slugging feat in Wednesday’s cornucopia of clouts was Harper’s pair of home runs. Maybe that can help end worries that his second-half slump will be something he’ll have to carry into October. After a low-wattage July (during which he powered just one homer and had a .313 slugging percentage), followed by a fading walk rate in August but better bopping (six homers), Harper seems to be slowly asserting his ability to dominate at the plate. Before Wednesday, he’d been OPS’ing at a .999 clip since Aug. 17. You can parse any hot streak to make a man a statistical hero, of course, but ESPN Stats & Information provides a peek at where he’s been doing damage lately.
Bryce Harper's heat map during his recent hot streak.
That's a lot of red, of course, but it's also interesting that he's clobbering stuff on the outside corner as well. For more on that, check out Stats & Info's blog post from Wednesday night's action.
Harper hasn’t been the only hero, however. First baseman Adam LaRoche, so long the target of derisive “he’s so average” catcalls from the stathead community, combined for three across Tuesday and Wednesday nights. In a day and age when he was dismissed for not being Albert Pujols, he’s leading National League first basemen in home runs with 28, his highest single-season tally since 2006, when he belted 32 bombs and slugged .561. That helped him catch the eye of the Pirates, who dealt him for Mike Gonzalez and Brent Lillibridge, a lose-lose move that might turn up only in a never-to-be-released Braves documentary, "John Schuerholz: The Blunder Years." As a Pirate, Red Sox, Brave and Diamondback through 2010, LaRoche slugged .478, with a mediocre isolated slugging number of .208. But this year, he's the resident steady Eddie in the Nats’ lineup while coming back from an injury-ruined 2011. Even now, he’s managing to be a background hero on a power-laden lineup, but that’s a nice problem to have.
Now, admittedly, a good chunk of the Nats’ feat is just the genuine pleasure big league hitters will get stepping in against these Cubs these days. They’re on an 8-26 tumble since July 31, and this isn’t Wrigleyville’s midseason staff with Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza or even Paul Maholm out there. Instead, it’s the legacy of former GM Jim Hendry’s player development program on display, as Theo Epstein’s management crew riffles through the farm system’s upper-level options in a pitch-or-ditch test to see what the team has to work with. The Nats aren’t going to be stepping in against Blake Parker or Chris Rusin or Rafael Dolis in October, after all.
Even so, the Nationals have a lineup packed with top-to-bottom power, and guess what? They get to face the Cubs again Thursday. Could a team hit six or more homers three nights in a row? As with so much else about this club, you can ask, “Why not the Nationals?” Look around and then look back, because on the baseball landscape, face it, the Nats just pop.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Roger Bernadina may well be coming back to the dugout asking who hasn't hit a home run lately.