Cardinals vs. Nationals: Will Bryce Harper Shrink Under Postseason Pressure?

Michael NargiSenior Analyst IOctober 7, 2012

ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 07: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals walks back to the dugout after strinking out in the fifth inning against the St Louis Cardinals during Game One of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium on October 7, 2012 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Bryce Harper has had a storied first season in the MLB, including a season in which the Washington Nationals were able to claim the best record in baseball.

However, in his postseason debut against the St. Louis Cardinals, Harper went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts. Despite the performance, the Nationals rallied to beat the Cards in Game 1 of the NLDS on Saturday night.

Although he was not involved offensively in his first postseason game, Harper's importance to the Nats this season has been evident, with the Nationals tallying an 81-58 record during the regular season in games in which Harper appeared.

It is October, however, and the brightest lights are shining on Harper. The question now becomes, can Harper handle the postseason pressure? 

Harper's history tends to suggest that he actually is at his best when all eyes are on him. He has been dealing with enormous amounts of pressure for years already and has been tested at the big league level this season.

So much so that Harper should be expected to not only pick up his game going forward in the postseason, but he should become the centerpiece of the Nats' offense.

To fully understand if Harper's 0-for-5 performance in Game 1 is going to be a trend going forward, it is imperative to get a gauge on how the pressure is actually going to measure up to what Harper has already had to deal with in his young career.

Harper has been heralded as the next best thing for years now. His appearance in 2009 on the cover of Sports Illustrated was accompanied by the headline, "Baseball's Chosen One," and text declaring "Bryce Harper is the most exciting prodigy since LeBron." 

This season alone, Harper was saddled with the pressure of being called up while the Nationals struggled through injury after injury and lacked any offensive identity. It was Harper who ignited the team at the end of April and carried them through May and June.

The pressure that he dealt with in May and June might outweigh the pressure that Harper is facing in the postseason. The lineup was depleted and the Nationals were on everyone's radar as one of the early-season favorites. Not to mention the hype and expectations that were associated with Harper's call-up.

Harper went on to have two of his best months, hitting .271 in May with five doubles, four triples and four home runs, and hitting .274 in June with six doubles, four home runs and six stolen bases.

Surprisingly, in July, when players began returning and the pressure began to lessen, Harper hit a wall, only hitting .222. Down the stretch in September and October with the pressure mounting once again as the Atlanta Braves crept closer in the East and home-field advantage was on the line with the Cincinnati Reds, Harper hit .330 with seven home runs.

Harper is clearly becoming a player who thrives in pressure-packed situations. As further evidence for this argument, Harper has hit .273 with 20 RBI and a .443 slugging percentage when the game has been tied this season.

After one game in the NLDS, it is important to keep things in perspective; Harper has proven all season long that pressure is not an obstacle for him, but rather a small hurdle that brings out the best in him.

Harper has proven to have the ability to rebound nicely as well this season. After an embarrassing 0-for-7, five-strikeout performance against the New York Yankees, he collected himself the following day to go 2-for-4 with a double.

Harper has the ability to take pressure and turn it into a positive. It helps him succeed. It drives him.

This season, Harper has shown his ability at the major league level to rebound throughout the course of a season and from game to game, and there is no reason to think that "The Phenom" will not do the same thing in the postseason.