May 6, 2015 (c) 2015, The Washington Post.
Bryce Harper has been more patient at the plate this season, tiring out pitchers and getting on base. He leads the league in walks and is more selective, less inclined to swing recklessly to show off his power than he was as a big league teenager.
But to maximize the potential of a hitter as powerful as Harper, patience is a two-step process: Take the pitches you do not want, but hit the ones you do.
In the Nationals' 7-5 win over the Marlins Wednesday afternoon, Harper saw six pitches in his first three at bats. He hit three of them out of Nationals Park.
"If you look at a minor leaguer and a big leaguer, a high school guy and a big league guy, they don't miss their pitch. Big leaguers do not miss," Harper said.
"I'm still trying to get to that point."
Harper got there, for one day at least, and lifted his team to its seventh win in nine games and its third straight series win. His first career three-homer game game backed Max Scherzer, who struck out 10 and gave up two runs in seven innings before faltering in the eighth. In that inning, Scherzer allowed three straight hits, the third a home run to Giancarlo Stanton that cut the lead to two and forced him from the game.
Entering Wednesday, Scherzer was averaging nearly eight strikeouts a game with a 1.26 ERA but a 1-3 record thanks to a lack of run support — 2.86 runs per start, 13th-lowest among National League starters.
Harper provided more than that by himself Wednesday. Just hours before, Harper's 20-game on-base streak had ended. His patience and pitch selection lapsed Tuesday night, when he went 0 for 4, slamming his bat against the ground in frustration after popping out late.
In his first three at-bats Wednesday, Harper opted to slam the ball instead.
"That's what I expect out of myself," Harper said. "Of course, you're not going to do that every single day. You're not going to hit three homers, or whatever, and drive in five. But that's the type of player I need to be."
Harper did not get all of the 92 mile per hour Tom Koehler fastball he hit off the end of the bat to left field in the second inning, but it carried out anyway, 404 feet.
Harper could not have gotten much more of the 93 mph fastball Koehler left up and over the plate in the third inning. He sent that pitch into the second deck in right field, a two-run, 431-foot shot.
By the time Harper hit his third homer, a 441-foot drive to right field, Stanton felt no need to watch history repeat itself. He did not flinch or start to turn, just stared back at the infield, legs spread, hands at his hips as the ball flew over his head. Only three other Nationals have hit three home runs in a game: Alfonso Soriano, Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman.
"He's putting great swings on good pitches," said Nationals reliever Tanner Roark, who watched two of those home runs soar over the wall next to the Nationals bullpen. "Three home runs is a pretty big achievement."
Those shots were Harper's sixth, seventh, and eighth of the season, his sixth multi-homer game. Harper drove another run in with a ground out in the seventh. He drove in five runs and third baseman Yunel Escobar drove in two, one with a sacrifice fly, the other with a seventh-inning single.
Scherzer said he did not see any of the homers, just heard them from the tunnel, where he was trying to stay cool. From the crowd's reaction, he could tell where they landed.
After he gave up four quick hits in the second inning, Scherzer settled into his typical rhythmic dominance, and struck out 10 hitters for the seventh time in his career.
Only when Scherzer's pitch count climbed well above 100 pitches in that eighth inning, when faced the top of the Marlins order, did he stumble. Dee Gordon and Martin Prado singled. Then Stanton battled Scherzer for eight pitches. He homered on the ninth, a 3-2 slider he said later he did not finish, and therefore hung.
"I had great stuff today," Scherzer said. "[Wilson Ramos] and I were on a really good run right there, and we were really getting on the same page of what to throw in different situations. I really thought I only made two mistakes: one to Ichiro [Suzuki] in the second inning when he was able to get a single there and obviously that one to Stanton."
Nationals manager Matt Williams said he left Scherzer in because he knew he was "good to 115" pitches. He finished the game with 114, having given up five runs on 10 hits. Roark and Drew Storen both pitched out of trouble in relief. Storen struck out Stanton, who was the go-ahead run, with two on and one out. He sealed the win Harper sparked.
After big home runs, Ian Desmond removes Harper's helmet, and Harper flings his hair back to show the "flow." But earlier this week, Harper got a haircut, trimming the voluminous swatch of slicked-back hair on the top of his head. So he had less hair to flip when he celebrated his second home run. By the time he hit his third, the fans required a more traditional celebration: a curtain call.
"I didn't want to go up there because I wanted to get one more," said Harper, 22, the 10th youngest player to hit three homer in a game, youngest to do so since 1969.