Postseason gives Harper new life after tough year

Postseason gives Harper new life after tough year

WASHINGTON -- After striking out in his first three at-bats during a game last month, Bryce Harper stood in right field thinking to himself about redemption. If he hits a homer in his last at-bat -- he thought to himself -- the strikeouts won't matter.

Well, in his final at-bat of the night, Harper launched a three-run homer, breaking a scoreless tie to lead the Nationals to a 3-0 victory over the Phillies on Sept.10. It was his first and only home run during the month of September, one of the toughest months of what was a disappointing 2016, a year after Harper won the National League Most Valuable Player Award unanimously.

But that night can serve as a microcosm of Harper's season. Once the Nationals open up the National League Division Series against the Dodgers on Friday night (5:30 p.m. ET on FS1) at Nationals Park, what happened during Harper's regular season won't matter either.

Game Date Matchup Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 7 LAD 4, WAS 3 video
Gm 2 Oct. 9 WSH 5, LAD 2 video
Gm 3 Oct. 10 WAS 8, LAD 3 video
Gm 4 Oct. 11 LAD 6, WAS 5 video
Gm 5 Oct. 13 LAD 4, WSH 3 video

"All that's behind us, as a team, as an organization," Harper said. "We can sit here and talk about how great we were and things like that, but that's all behind us. So I just really want to focus on what we can [do] now, as a team, as an organization."

Harper has never shied away from the spotlight that was thrust upon him when he was just 16 years old and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In fact, he appears to relish it. When opposing fans vigorously boo him, Harper has a penchant for responding with a homer.

His most recent postseason performance showed his ability to succeed on the biggest stage. While the Nationals dropped the 2014 NLDS to the Giants, Harper homered three times in four games for an absurd .882 slugging percentage and a 1.251 OPS.

Harper's power surge during NLDS

"I enjoy playing in front of millions of people and doing those kind of things," he said. "I've always said I played in a lot bigger games, I feel like, when I was younger -- 10, 11, 12 years old -- than these now. But that's just the mentality I have going into the game. Maybe it just helps me out. My heart doesn't really race or anything like that. I'm super calm. I feel great at the plate. I feel great in the outfield. Just feels like home. So being able to go out there and play the game that we do, it's a lot of fun for me."

The expectations where heightened for Harper this year after putting together a historic 2015, when he hit .330 with 42 homers and posted a league-leading 1.109 OPS. He got off to a fast start this April, but has struggled for most of the year. He batted .243/.373/.441 with an .814 OPS, although with 24 homers and 21 stolen bases, he became a 20-20 player for the first time in his career.

Harper's struggles led to questions about his health, when a report surfaced that he had been hampered by a shoulder injury for much of the season. The Nationals immediately shot down the reports as false. Meanwhile, Harper has never confirmed or denied them.

Baker on club's health for NLDS

He has battled a few minor injuries this year, to his neck a few months ago and most recently his left thumb, but after the Nationals workout Tuesday afternoon, he said he felt good.

Last October, Daniel Murphy showed what one player can do if he gets on a hot streak during the right time in the postseason. Harper is capable -- if he is truly healthy -- of providing that same impact.

"That's the beautiful thing about the playoffs. It's kind of a new season," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

"If you've had a good season, you want to continue to carry it over. If you had a season that you weren't too happy about, it gives you a chance to kind of turn the page and say, 'All right, that was the regular season, and I can start fresh and try and do something special in the postseason to help us win.'"

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.