Checking in with Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos after two long home runs

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by Amanda Comak

VIERA, Fla. — Bryce Harper‘s swing smacked into the strong crosswind blowing across Space Coast Stadium Friday afternoon and pushed up against it. A ball that started out, in his estimation, about nine feet foul, suddenly cut back. And as well as he hit it, cutting back was all he needed it to do for it to become his first home run of the spring.

“I knew I got it fairly (well),” Harper said, commending the pitch from Houston Astros left-hander Brett Oberholtzer. “But I thought it was going to be nine feet foul.

“I thought it was a good pitch. I got the barrel up there and tried to do what I did. I think a lot of guys throw the two-seamer in and go soft away. Trying to cut that two-seamer in, I think I got a good piece of it. It was a good pitch, though, it really was. If I’m the catcher, I like where that’s (pitched).”

He didn’t have long to admire his handiwork, as Wilson Ramos stepped to the plate three batters later and smashed a ball so far in the other direction — this one with the wind at its back — that it cleared the tiki bar in left field.

“I hit that ball well,” Ramos said, a sly smile crossing his face.

Before Friday's game, Bryce Harper caught a first pitch from former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie.

Before Friday’s game, Bryce Harper caught a first pitch from former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie.

The two swings, which keyed an early 6-0 lead in the Nationals’ 8-5 victory over the Astros, continued the positive signs coming out of two of the Nationals’ heaviest hitters this spring, both of whom are coming off leg injuries from a year ago.

Ramos is now 7-for-13 this spring with two extra-base hits in five games, and Harper owns a .455 on-base percentage through four games.

For Harper, the absence of pain has made a huge difference — generally in how he’s been able to go about his preparation for the season, as well in more subtle ways, like hitting left-handed pitching.

“I’ve had zero pain on it,” Harper said of the left knee that hampered him in 2013. “I’ve been able to do everything that I wanted to do. It has felt really good. I’m excited about that. Having no pain is something I am very excited about.”

“Last year, my knee killed me,” Harper added, asked specifically about hitting left-handed pitching. “I couldn’t stay back on lefties and my knee killed me on that. It’s going to be a little different this year… My knee just gave out every single time, every pitch on the outside half (of the plate). I didn’t have the swing that I wanted to have. My knee killed me every time I swung.

“This year it’s a little bit different. I can stay back and not explode on my lower half and have to go. (Last year), If there was a curveball and I’m sitting back on it and I’m ready to go, I had to go. It was just that painful that I had to (swing). Today I check-swung on (a curveball) a little bit,  but I could finally do that. It wasn’t ‘ah’ where it really hurt. That felt great. Knowing I could do that is very nice.”

For Ramos, as he approaches the two-year anniversary of tearing the ACL in his right knee and pushes further past the left hamstring issues that sidelined him in 2013, health has allowed him to keep his focus on more of the nuances of his game.

“During winter ball I played as the designated hitter down in Venezuela and those at-bats helped me to concentrate a little more at the plate, be patient and concentrate on my strike zone,” Ramos said. “I want to take good at-bats, swing the bat just at strikes. Right now I’m working on that, my strike zone. That’s helped me to hit the ball well.”

He is not alone in that regard.

“I’m trying to be as patient as I can,” Harper said. “If they’re not going to come to me, if they’re going to throw around me and they’re going to throw (crappy pitches) up there, I’m not going to swing. I’m just going to try to take my walks this year, be a little bit smarter, get on base. If I have a .450 on-base percentage and I’m getting on-base, that’s all that matters.”

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