WASHINGTON -- Without question, Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper is a clutch performer. Yes, he hit a long two-run homer, his 41st of the season, in the seventh inning as part of a three-RBI day in Saturday's 5-2 win over Miami. But it was his battle with Marlins left-hander Brad Hand in the fifth inning that was more impressive.
The Marlins had a 2-1 lead when Harper stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and one out. It turned out to be a 10-pitch at-bat, and it almost looked like a fight for survival. In between, Harper broke his bat and even took his batting gloves off because it was making the bat slippery.
"My hands kept slipping off the knob, so I tried to battle as best as I could to get through the at-bat," Harper said.
On the 10th pitch, Harper hit a slider and drove it to right fielder Ichiro Suzuki for a sacrifice fly, scoring Jordan Zimmermann. Hand tired after that, walking the next two hitters, including Ian Desmond with the bases loaded to put the Nationals ahead.
"[Harper's] one of the best players in the game, and he's putting up a great year," Hand said. "I made some really good pitches to him, and he kept fouling 'em off, fouling 'em off, fouling 'em off. And then he got enough of one to get a deep fly ball and get a run in."
Nationals manager Matt Williams talked about the evolution of Harper's game.
"He grinds at-bats," Williams said. "Bases loaded, the lefty-on-lefty matchup, staying on balls, doing what he can to put that ball in play. Those are the steps that he has made this year and will continue to make. It will allow him to do the things on the field. Pretty good at-bat.
"That's an important moment. So it's one thing to try to hit a home run. It's another thing to grind an at-bat and simply get one [run]. That will allow him to have success throughout his career and have at-bats like that."
There is no question in Zimmermann's mind that Harper is the MVP of the National League. The difference between Harper now and Harper two years ago, according to Zimmermann, is that he is no longer chasing pitches.
"He was chasing stuff out of the zone," Zimmermann said. "Now, he is a lot more patient. He knows they are not going to give him strikes. He has to take his walks when he can. He has been awesome all year."