NEW YORK — You don’t win MVP awards in April, but you can sure put some distance between yourself and the rest of the field with the kinds of performances Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper has turned in over the past few days.
The latest came at Citi Field on Friday, in the first of what should be an enthralling best-of-19 with their top division rivals, the injury-depleted New York Mets. Harper homered in the first inning to start things off, then finished them in the 11th inning by hitting an opposite-field double, taking third (barely) on a wild pitch and scoring the winning run on Trea Turner’s walk in the Nationals’ 4-3 decision.
This was like watching the Atlanta Braves‘ Chipper Jones win his National League MVP award against the 1999 Mets, only that was over three games in September, and this is April, with Harper loading up on big moments in one game.
Regardless, this was a nice message-sending performance. The winning team is 11-5. The losing team is a walking MASH unit playing without four regulars (not even counting David Wright) and is 8-9. The Mets played with desperation, but that wasn’t going to win on this night.
Nationals manager Dusty Baker had said before the game he felt good about Harper against Matt Harvey, even though Harper entered 1-for-26 in his career against the Mets starter.
“I don’t know why, and I don’t think Harper knows why,” Baker said regarding those struggles. “But I know one thing. The law of averages is on Bryce’s side.”
Harper’s subsequent home run was his fifth in five games. During that span, he is hitting .632 with 12 hits and 12 RBIs. Friday’s blast was a 418-foot no-doubter.
“It’s all in the past,” Harper said. “You try to go up there with a clean slate in every year and every game.”
The law of averages might have been against Harper when he batted against lefty Josh Smoker in the 11th inning, but superhuman skill outweighed statistical tendency.
Baker called it “a beautiful at-bat, a determination at-bat,” one in which Harper muscled a 95 mph fastball to left-center field, making him 7-for-8 against left-handed pitching this season.
“That’s what good hitting is all about,” Baker said. “It’s a battle. It’s a fight.”
Harper then snagged an extra 90 feet, taking third base on a wild pitch that didn’t skip too far from Mets catcher Kevin Plawecki. Getting that base was about determination (replay confirmed Harper was safe on a close play), but also anticipation and thinking the game through.
“He’s a heads-up player, and he was ready for that,” said Turner, someone who knows something about taking an extra base or two and whose return from the disabled list began by drawing the game-winning walk off Mets closer Jeurys Familia.
“Familia has one of the best sinkers in the game,” Harper said. “I was trying to anticipate a little bit. Bobby [Henley, the Nationals third-base coach] said when the pitcher came in to anticipate. I tried to do the best I could, got the safe call.”
Harper’s best is otherworldly right now. With a strong finish, this could match May 2015 (.360, 13 home runs, 28 RBIs) as the best calendar month of Harper’s career — and remember, 2015 was Harper’s MVP season.
Harper leads the majors in batting average (.407) and on-base percentage (.521) and ranks second to Eric Thames in slugging percentage (.864). Harper’s slugging percentage is 50 points higher than his 2016 OPS.
By the time the updated wins above replacement numbers come out Saturday morning, Harper might have matched his 2016 1.6 WAR within one month. (He entered Friday at 1.2.) He also leads the majors in win probability added, which measures the value of each plate appearance as it relates to winning.
You don’t have to get off to a quick start like this to win an MVP award, but you’re probably going to have to have a month like it at some point. Each of the past four National League position-player MVPs had at least one calendar month in which he hit .370 or better, including Harper.
Yet when you ask Harper about how comfortable his swing is right now, he seems guarded, almost as if he doesn’t want to jinx it. He doesn’t break from a straight face, giving a simple, “I feel good.”
So do the Nationals, who have a nice jump-start on a Mets team that figures to be their top rivals in the East.
“That was championship-level baseball,” Baker said.
And the Nationals have a championship-level player leading the way.