It took until the seventh inning of his 19th game, but Bryce Harper finally slugged his first Double-A home run Wednesday, sending an 0-2 breaking ball over the right-field fence to give Harrisburg the lead in a 6-3 win over Bowie.
"It was against a lefty who was kind of mixing it up on [Harper]," said Senators manager Tony Beasley in reference to Bowie starter Michael Ballard. "He left a curveball middle-in, and [Harper] hit it out to right-center field."
Hitting coach Troy Gingrich described it economically: "The pitcher had him 0-2 and missed his spot."
The one-out, bases-empty clout gave the Senators a 2-1 lead. Harrisburg first baseman Tim Pahuta immediately followed with a home run of his own, and Ballard's day was done two batters later. The blast was Harper's second of three hits on the day. His ninth-inning single preceded catcher Devin Ivany's three-run blast that turned out to be needed insurance in the three-run win.
The three hits in four at-bats equal his Harrisburg high for hits set July 6 against Erie. This was also the first game in which the 18-year-old had scored as many as two runs, and he picked up his third stolen base.
"He swung the bat well, played solid defensively, stole a base, went first to third," said Beasley. "I'm really happy with the way he's approaching the game. He's under control, and he's not just doing things -- he's doing things with a purpose."
For Harper, this was the culmination of a week of improved offense for the first overall pick in the 2010 Draft. He is 10-for-29 (.345) in the last seven games and has all four of his Double-A extra-base hits in that span.
"About a week ago, we'd just noticed that he'd been going through a period of adjustment where he's been trying to do too much," said Gingrich. "When he gets anxious, he loses his front side a little bit, and his swing gets longer. We talked about it and did a few things in the cage. Ever since Richmond, he's started doing better."
This hot stretch comes on the heels of a 1-for-25 stretch from July 7-20 in which Harper struck out eight times and also went 0-for-3 in the MLB Futures Game in Phoenix.
"His mental approach has been solid, but he gets frustrated every now and then, because he's 18 and he wants hits," said Beasley.
The clout came in Harper's 63rd at-bat for Harrisburg, and Harper didn't homer in his last 60 at-bats for Class A Hagerstown before his promotion. The outfielder had hit 14 in his first 198 at-bats of his professional career with the Suns.
Harper's homer comes not a day too soon for a Harrisburg team that has seen its once-large Eastern League West Division lead shrink to a half-game over Bowie entering Wednesday. The Senators also got the bad news Tuesday that slugger Bill Rhinehart had been traded to the Reds as part of a deal that sent Jonny Gomes to Washington.
Rhinehart left the Eastern League with 21 home runs, second only to former teammate Tyler Moore. He was also second in the league in slugging and OPS behind Portland's Chih-Hsien Chiang.
"His bat's been outstanding," said Beasley of Rhinehart, who joins Double-A Carolina in the Southern League. "He's a power bat that's hit third for us. I don't know that you can replace it, but that's what it's all about: a player creating value for himself, creating a situation that's conducive for him to play at the Major League level."
The win gave Harrisburg a series victory for the first time since Harper's first series with the club, a four-game sweep of Erie from July 4-7. The Senators were 6-11 since then, entering the three-game set in Bowie, where they won two.
Beasley does not attribute the recent run of poor play to the added media focus or any distractions Harper's arrival might have caused.
"We've obviously had extra attention with the added media and fan base," he said. "That has nothing to do with how we've played on the field. We've had a tough stretch, faced good opponents. The team in Bowie is really hot right now. We had six games in four days in extreme heat in Richmond. We've had to face a lot of tough lefties, just finished facing three left-handed starters here, and we have a lot of left-handers that we depend on."
Harrisburg now heads back home to welcome last-place Binghamton to Metro Bank Park for a four-game set.
With 40 days left in Harper's first professional season, his manager is looking for continued improvement and more of what he's already seen.
"Just keep learning the dos and don'ts," said Beasley. "He's starting to apply to his game the things we've been talking about. He can process information and apply it. For a kid that's 18 years old that's as athletic as he is -- we just want to hone all of those abilities, to make sure things are clicking properly at the right time. I've been really impressed with how he's handled himself."