Harper's upper-deck moon shot a sign of maturity

WASHINGTON — Bryce Harper’s bomb begat another bomb.

“That was one of the longest f—ing home runs I’ve ever seen,” said Washington Nationals interim manager Chris Speier after his team’s 5-1 win over the visiting San Diego Padres on Friday night. The home run in question was a two-run, seventh-inning moon shot that Harper deposited into the third deck. It was just the sixth jack ever to reach the upper bowl of Nats Park. Although five of those six have come off Harper’s bat, this one had added significance because of what happened earlier in the game.

In the bottom of the third, Trea Turner led off the inning with a double to left-center off San Diego starter Luis Perdomo. Jayson Werth then flied out to center, which brought Harper to the plate. After Perdomo fell behind in the count 2-0, Padres skipper Andy Green decided that he didn’t like his chances against a guy who came in hitting .340 with a 1.123 OPS that ranked second in the National League. So he ordered his club to intentionally walk Harper. It was the third time in three games the Nats slugger had received an intentional pass. No big deal, right? Wrong.

The last time Harper was intentionally walked that many times over such a short span was May 2016 during the infamous four-game series at Wrigley Field. Officially, the Cubs intentionally walked Harper three times in the third game and once more in the finale (not to mention another nine walks in the same series that may or may not have been unintentional). As if that weren’t enough, in each of his next two games against the Tigers, Harper received an IBB. All that getting pitched around seemed to take its toll on Harper, as the otherworldly patience that was part of his historic 2015 MVP season (and the beginning of 2016) disappeared and he became a shadow of his old self. Granted, three intentional walks in three games isn’t the same as what Joe Maddon did last year, but still — given the history, you could hardly blame Harper if these last few games started messing with his head. So far though, the preponderance of free passes doesn’t seem to be phasing him.

After receiving two intentional walks Wednesday against Seattle, Harper went 1-for-4 Thursday with a double. In his first at-bat Friday, he lined out to the opposite field, a sure sign of a hitter not trying to do too much. Then, in the seventh, he worked a seven-pitch at-bat against reliever Kirby Yates, fouling off two pitches before jumping all over an 86 mph slider for his 15th homer of the season, tops in the National League. It was the kind of patient at-bat that reeked of maturity.

“I think that experience last year helped,” Speier said. “I think maybe he’s grown up a little bit.”

Judging by how hard Harper hit the ball, it looks like he has grown up a lot. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the apex on his mammoth blast was 144 feet, the highest of any homer in his career. The exit velocity was 112.2 mph, his third hardest this season. Even though it measured “only” 414 feet because of the unusually high launch angle, it looked and sounded off the bat more like 514 feet.

“He just hit the living daylights out of it,” said starter Max Scherzer, who was brilliant over 8 2/3 innings, fanning a season-high 13 and allowing just three hits before giving way to newly minted closer Koda Glover, who finished the job. “I was watching it on TV, and I knew that thing was going to end up in that upper deck. What he’s doing for our ballclub is huge.”

As for Harper, he says he’s just trying to keep things simple, regardless of how much opposing pitchers avoid him.

“Just trying to hit the baseball and have good at-bats. Just trying to stay as locked in as I can. Just trying to maintain it, get better and see what I can do.”

Right now, he’s doing plenty.

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