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April mastered, Harper poised for big season

MLB.com @TracyRingolsby

DENVER -- Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper has mastered April, again. The challenge, however, awaits.

As Pirates manager Clint Hurdle likes to say, greatness is the result of being very good for a long period of time. And that's the challenge still facing Harper.

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DENVER -- Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper has mastered April, again. The challenge, however, awaits.

As Pirates manager Clint Hurdle likes to say, greatness is the result of being very good for a long period of time. And that's the challenge still facing Harper.

View Full Game Coverage

Don't get the wrong idea. Harper is a special talent. He's a guy who won the National League Rookie of the Year Award at the age of 19, won the NL Most Valuable Player Award at 22, and earned his fourth selection to the All-Star Game at 23.

Now, at the age of 24, Harper is looking to put together a start-to-finish bombshell of a season. He's off to a good start.

After unloading another three-run home run in the Nats' 16-5 victory against the Rockies at Coors Field on Thursday afternoon that helped the team set a franchise record by completing a 9-1 road trip, Harper shares the team lead in home runs (eight) and RBIs (25), and he has Major League-leading totals in average (.418), on-base percentage (.535) and OPS (1.358).

Video: WSH@COL: Harper's long ball highlights 11-run inning

But that's not really a surprise. When it comes to that opening month of the season, not many in the history of the game have been on par with Harper. His career 1.076 OPS for March/April is better than anyone who has ever played the game except Babe Ruth (1.090) and Ted Williams (1.088), according to Stats LLC. Barry Bonds is just behind Harper at 1.072.

It's the next five months that Harper is looking to master. It's the next five months that were particularly a challenge a year ago when he hit .286 with a 1.121 OPS in April but finished hitting .243 with an OPS of .814, the low point of his five big league seasons.

"Don't overlook his youth," Hurdle has said in trying to put into perspective just what Harper has accomplished. "He's ahead of the curve."

The biggest problem for Harper is he spoiled the baseball world by stepping into the middle of a big league lineup at age 19 and helped to lead the Nationals to the postseason. Now when he has, heaven forbid, a rather mundane statistical line, like last year, the cynics bellow.

This could be the year that Harper really blossoms. He is older, turning 25 in October, and from what manager Dusty Baker has seen, Harper is wiser.

"He just needs to maintain what he has done so far," said Baker.

After making a late-game entry and getting only one at-bat in the first of four games against Colorado this week, Harper went 7-for-13 with two doubles, a home run and five RBIs.

And what caught Baker's attention?

"The key to his April is he is hitting the ball to the opposite field," said Baker. "He's not just hitting home runs. [Wednesday] night he had three singles to left. He is taking what he has been given, not trying to force things. He's becoming more of a hitter."

Video: WSH@COL: Harper stellar in four-hit performance

Harper is trying to just be one of the guys.

But it's not easy, not for Harper, not for a young man who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16 and graduated from high school early to attend College of Southern Nevada. Not for a young man who was 17 when he was made the No. 1 pick in the 2010 MLB Draft and made his Major League debut 20 games into the 2012 season at the age of 19.

Harper's every move and word are dissected, like when he was asked a rather strange question and suddenly found himself a national focal point when he responded, "That's a clown question," which it was. That was part of his education about being cautious in his public pronouncements.

There's no bragging and chest-beating, even in the aftermath of the series Harper put together at Coors Field.

"I am trying to have good at-bats and help the team win," he said. "I want to do the best I can to help the team win and play the game right."

That's not going to grab attention.

With Harper, what he does says more than enough to keep him in the baseball spotlight.

Tracy Ringolsby is a national columnist for MLB.com.

Washington Nationals, Bryce Harper