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Harper rewards skipper with HR in leadoff spot

Outfielder hit No. 1 in lineup for first time since 2013
MLB.com @JamalCollier

WASHINGTON -- When he returned to the dugout after snapping his 12-game drought without a home run, Bryce Harper embraced Nationals manager Dave Martinez with a big hug. The pair had a conversation in Martinez's office on Monday night, and the skipper could sense Harper's frustration with the lack of pitches he has been thrown in the strike zone recently. So, Martinez came to an unconventional conclusion.

For the first time since 2013, Harper hit leadoff for the Nationals on Tuesday night and the move jumpstarted Washington's offense to a 12-4 victory over the Pirates at Nationals Park.

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WASHINGTON -- When he returned to the dugout after snapping his 12-game drought without a home run, Bryce Harper embraced Nationals manager Dave Martinez with a big hug. The pair had a conversation in Martinez's office on Monday night, and the skipper could sense Harper's frustration with the lack of pitches he has been thrown in the strike zone recently. So, Martinez came to an unconventional conclusion.

For the first time since 2013, Harper hit leadoff for the Nationals on Tuesday night and the move jumpstarted Washington's offense to a 12-4 victory over the Pirates at Nationals Park.

View Full Game Coverage

"Why not?" Martinez said prior to the game. "He's a little frustrated and hopefully he gets some more pitches to hit."

Video: PIT@WSH: Martinez on Harper, Nationals' 12-4 victory

Harper shared Martinez's sentiment, so the outfielder gladly agreed to his first game in the leadoff spot in five years. Harper grounded out to first base in his first at-bat, then flied out deep to the left-field corner in the third inning. In the fifth, he hit his ninth home run of the season and first since April 16, a two-run shot to left-center off Pittsburgh's Chad Kuhl.

"I think it all starts in that manager's office every night," Harper said. "Martinez believes in our team. He believes in us as a group, and we believe in him as well. He's one of the best managers I've ever been around."

Tweet from @Bharper3407: Nobody believes in us more than this man right here!🙌 #Habit #DM4 pic.twitter.com/kUuaFCGVT6

It is high praise from Harper and not the first time he has shown such public support of Martinez, who is in his first year as the Nationals' manager.

Martinez initially brought up the idea of batting Harper in the No. 1 spot during Spring Training. It's a tactic the Cubs and Rays utilized while Martinez was the bench coach, when Anthony Rizzo and Evan Longoria hit leadoff at times to ignite struggling offenses. All 16 games of Harper's career leading off came during the 2013 season, and he hit .317/.419/.603 with four home runs in that position in the lineup.

Martinez liked the idea that the change could get Harper an extra at-bat or two during the game, and perhaps lead to more pitches to hit in the strike zone, which Harper has not seen many of lately.

In the 12 games prior to the lineup switch, Harper had been walked 17 times (.415 on-base percentage), six of which were intentional. He finished with 38 walks during the season's opening month, the second most all-time behind Barry Bonds, who drew 39 walks in March-April of 2004. Although Martinez has encouraged Harper to take his walks, the outfielder has started to chase pitches out of the zone a bit more frequently lately, which has contributed to his struggles. In those 12 games, Harper went 5-for-35 without an extra-base hit.

"At 25 years old, you want to hit the baseball," Harper said. "That's just going to make me a better baseball player. Every single day, going in, having a good mentality about it and just trying to be the best I can. Try to get on base and having good at-bats. It's definitely tough, but just go out there and try to get on base and score some runs."

Harper was on the field at Nationals Park for early batting practice Tuesday, taking swings along with the injured Daniel Murphy. It's about the only time in the past few weeks Harper has seen pitches in the strike zone consistently, so he wanted to take advantage and perhaps release some of that frustration.

Video: PIT@WSH: Murphy advises Harper, takes part in drills

"Just hit some homers. Get some balls over the plate and do some damage," Harper said of his pregame work. "BP is a good spot to get out there and when you're not swinging the bat as much, try to stay as effective as you can, just feel the ball hitting the barrel. I was trying to hit the ball as far as I could, just trying to get my body going again and feeling that."

It's the latest example of Martinez's willingness to think outside the box and try something to create a spark. And after the new-look Washington lineup worked so well Tuesday night, Martinez is willing to continue the arrangement for the time being.

"We'll let it ride for a couple days, see what happens," Martinez said. "I'm proud of [Harper] because he has been frustrated and he went out there today and got some pitches to hit and hit them hard."

Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.

Washington Nationals, Bryce Harper