Harper, Nats aim for better in second half

Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper. (AP/Wilfredo Lee)
July 18, 2013, 9:30 PM

WASHINGTON — A few days in the life of Bryce Harper:

– Saturday. Get tossed arguing balls and strikes, robbing the Washington Nationals of their most dynamic player when his spot in the order comes up with two men on base in the 10th inning.

– Sunday. Bat leadoff for the first time in the majors, going 1 for 5 with a double and a walk, then proclaim that the first half of the season was "terrible."

– Monday. Finish second in the Home Run Derby during the All-Star festivities while sporting a Mohawk held together by an extreme amount of gel, with dad throwing the pitches.

– Tuesday. Bat ninth for the first time ever, going 0 for 2 while bringing up the rear in the starting lineup at the All-Star game.

And that’s just a taste. Already this season Harper stubbornly kept playing when he should have rested following a collision with the Dodger Stadium wall, landing him on the disabled list longer than need be.

And he famously texted "play me or trade me" to Davey Johnson, starting a dialogue that talked his way back into the lineup when the manager had planned to rest him following an 0-for-18 slump.

Is there more drama to come from last year’s NL rookie of the year? That’s a clown question, bro.

"I’m not going to back off the throttle at all," he said. "I’m full speed every day."

Not surprising. Harper is a talented yo-yo of behaviours and emotions, which is easily explained when reminded that he’s only 20 years old.

Too bad the rest of the teammates don’t have that excuse.

The favourites to repeat as NL East champs are as uneven as their young star, sitting at a game over .500 as they return from the break Friday with a homestand-opening series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

They can’t hit, they can’t field, the bullpen has been overhauled, and two-fifths of the starting rotation has issues.

Yet they are only six games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves.

"I think we’re really lucky to be this close," Johnson said.

For 56 of the past 60 days, the Nationals have been within two games of .500. The oft-repeated refrain from Johnson and his players is that the uneven play will at some point be replaced by a nice winning run over a couple of weeks, perhaps a 10-2 surge in which the pitchers actually get reliable run support and throws to first don’t end up in the stands.

The latest final linchpins were supposed to be the returns of Harper and catcher Wilson Ramos from the disabled list in the same week, giving the Nationals something close to the starting lineup that played on opening day.

The reunited group promptly won four straight games — then stumbled into the break with a 2-5 road trip and barely avoided a sweep by the cellar-dwelling Miami Marlins.

The Nationals are hitting a majors-worst .218 on the road. Their 67 errors are tied for most in the NL. Stephen Strasburg is tied for the least amount of run support in the league, which explains why his 2.99 ERA comes with a 5-7 record.

Johnson keeps shuffling the batting order in search of a eureka combination — he’s threatened to start drawing names out of a hat — and Harper’s appearance at leadoff in the final game before the break could be a sign of things to come.

"As far as I’m concerned, we’re primed to start doing the things we’re capable of doing," Johnson said.

Harper is the type of player who could lead a second-half climb. He has the power, the speed and the energy to carry a ballclub. What he lacks is seasoning — the type of major-league maturity in which the extremes become less extreme.

Everyone knows he has high standards, but his self-evaluation of his season up to this point was a bit brutal for someone hitting .264 with 13 home runs and 29 RBIs in 58 games.

"I thought it was terrible. I don’t think I did very well," he said. "Hopefully I can get into the second half and start playing a lot better."

But perhaps that’s the mindset he and his teammates need with only 67 games to go.

"We definitely haven’t played to our potential," centre fielder Denard Span said. "We’ve still got a lot of work to do."

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