Freeman: Nats slugger Harper has taken it to another level

WASHINGTON — While many or most of the young Braves are struggling mightily these days, the Nationals’ young star, Bryce Harper, has become a slugger in full. He’s on hitting rampage.

Harper’s leadoff homer in the third inning Sunday was his 34th of the season and sixth against the Braves, including one in each of the last three games of the four-game series that ended Sunday. In the series opener, he scored four runs on four walks in four plate appearances, without swinging the bat once.

In his fourth full season, Harper entered Sunday leading the league in batting average (.337), on-base percentage (.469), slugging percentage (.647) and runs (100), and was second in walks (106) and third in home runs and doubles (33).

“He’s 23, and I think he’s going to be one of the greatest players of all time if he keeps going on this pace,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said.

Actually, Harper is 22. He doesn’t turn 23 until Oct. 16.

The four-walk performance illustrated a big part of development of Harper from a phenomenal young talent into a complete hitter, one who’s among the leading candidates for National League Most Valuable Player in a season with a handful of players having MVP-caliber seasons.

“He kind of reminds you of Barry Bonds, in those games where he only gets one pitch to hit and he hits it,” Freeman said. “That’s what he’s done this year. He’s stayed healthy all year; I think that’s a big thing for him also. He’s really just turned the corner. He’s taking his walks, he’s being selective, he’s not getting himself out. I think the first couple of years he’d have 3-1 (counts) and just go for it, and if you’d throw a two-seamer in he’d roll it over. Now he’s actually taking those pitches and looking for a pitch to hit, and getting it in the zone and going after it, and he’s having a lot of success this year.

Before Sunday, Harper was 21-for-50 (.420) in 14 games against the Braves this season with eight doubles, five homers, 20 runs, 14 RBIs and a .532 OBP and .880 slugging percentage. Again, that’s before he homered against them once more Sunday.

The MVP ballot is going to be one of the most difficult to fill out in recent seasons, with voters forced to choose between the likes of Harper, Andrew McCutchen (Pirates), Anthony Rizzo (Cubs), Paul Goldschmidt (Diamondbacks), Nolan Arenado (Rockies) and Buster Posey (Giants). And that’s just the hitters.

“I think a lot of the writers put (importance) on the playoff picture” when voting for MVP, Freeman said. “If (the Nationals) get in a race to the finish with the Mets it’s going to be exciting for them. If he keeps doing what he’s been doing for the rest of the month he’s going to be my top candidate. You’ve got the Goldschmidts, the McCutchens…. In my opinion, I don’t agree with pitchers getting MVPs, but they’re going to put (Zack) Greinke in there, and you can’t look past what (Jake) Arrieta’s doing in Chicago. You’ve got Rizzo….

“There’s a lot of good guys, but I think Bryce Harper tops them all right now. He’s on a whole nother level right now.”