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Harper proving he can lead baseball into next generation

Time will eventually solve the problem, but it still seems strange to flip to a Yankees game on television and see someone other than Derek Jeter playing shortstop. No matter how many times Didi Gregorius’ name is mentioned, my brain keeps hearing “Ernie DiGregorio.”

Jeter left a gaping hole when he retired last year after 20 seasons. You didn’t need to be a Yankees fan – and I’m not – to appreciate what he meant to the game. What people said about him was true. He wasn’t just the Yanks’ captain. He was the captain of baseball, a true leader for all to treasure.

Baseball fans who are adjusting to Jeter’s exit, and Alex Rodriguez’s re-entry, can take comfort knowing Bryce Harper is evolving into the kind of player the scouts anticipated when he was a young phenomenon. His timing couldn’t be better for a sport desperate for a superstar who can lead the game for next generation.

It’s not as if Harper is some new revelation. He was in high school when he was introduced as the next great player. He was named Rookie of the Year in 2012 and was a two-time all-star. Last year, he hit three homers in four games for the Nationals before the Giants knocked them from the postseason.

Still, never before has Harper taken over the big leagues the way he has this season, particularly this month. He’s batting .338 through 39 games overall. His 14 homers, second-most in baseball, are one more than he had in 100 games last season. He leads with 37 RBIs, 36 walks and a 1.206 OPS (on-base plus slugging) percentage.

In the previous 30 days, he batted .376 with 11 homers, 31 RBIs, 28 walks and 1.344 OPS (in my book, the most telling stat for a hitter) in 28 games. In May, he’s hitting .411 with nine homers, 22 RBIs and a 1.511 OPS. His numbers this month are ridiculous considering he had a single in 17 at-bats over his first five games.

The slump, if we can call it one, ended May 6 with a three-homer game against the Marlins that kick-started the 22-year-old to becoming the youngest player in history to hit six homers in a three-game stretch. In his last 11 games before a day off Monday, he batted .564 with nine homers and 22 RBIs.

In his last three games against the Padres, he was 8 for 11 with two homers and six RBIs. He nearly hit for the cycle Sunday after hitting a triple, and opposite field homer and beating out a dribbler to third. There’s a sense that he's not just a good player with a hot stick but a great player who has mastered the art of using one.

“I’ve done it before,” Harper told the Washington Post after the three-homer game against Miami. “I’m not saying that to be cocky at all, but I am saying that I want to do that again. I don’t want that to be the last time I do it.”

It’s more likely that this in only the beginning.

In Harper, we’re seeing a kid mature into a man and reach boundless potential. He’s coming of age. Nobody doubted his physical gifts. He was a Tiger-like prodigy since early childhood, was compared to LeBron on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16, was drafted first overall a year later and made his big-league debut at 19.

Harper hasn’t been baseball’s best player since he burst onto the scene, but he might be its most polarizing figure. Little League ballparks are decorated with Bryce Harper wannabes, with their eye black smeared across their cheeks, who didn’t know his first three seasons were largely hype and hope. He was no Mike Trout.

The biggest questions surrounded his head and whether it would catch up to the rest of his body. Harper, who as a 15-year-old high school sophomore hit a 570-foot over a five-lane highway, now has the discipline and maturity needed to harness his swing and become a better hitter without abandoning his power.

He’s more selective at the plate in his fourth season. The best hitters aren’t tethered to the strike zone outlined in the rule book. Instead, they develop their own individual strike zone. For him, it has turned into more walks while capitalizing on pitchers’ mistakes, raising his average and making him a dangerous player.

Hopefully, for him and baseball, Harper will stay healthy. He was limited to fewer than 140 games in each of his first three seasons. Last year, he played only 100 games after undergoing surgery on his left thumb, which followed offseason knee surgery. He came back this year a more muscular 215 pounds with a better mindset.

Harper was so bent on achieving so much so early, and hitting the ball so far, that he had problems handling failure. He batted between .270 and .274 in each of his first three seasons. He had 20-plus homers in his first two years before missing 62 games last season and hitting 13. He fell short of his own standards.

Fans are marveling over what his production this year, but this is what he expected all along. Now, there’s no telling what he can accomplish with sound body and mind. Years from now, assuming he starts stacking one great year atop another, he’ll also be one the best players of his generation.

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