Harper went 0-for-3 with two walks and struck out looking twice Wednesday, arguing with home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez in the fourth inning, then getting rung up again in the sixth on pitches that looked to be low and outside the zone.
After posting a .282/.354/.472 batting line in the first half, Harper has hit .176/.276/.265 since the All-Star break.
"I'm not frustrated at all. I think I've been having good [at-bats]," Harper said. "The only thing I think I'm frustrated about is [letting down] the other 24 guys in my clubhouse. I think going into those ABs and being in crucial situations and having 3-0, 3-1 counts and trying to battle as best I can, then things happen.
"I couldn't care less about my numbers. I couldn't care less about anything like that. As long as we're in first place, that's the biggest thing to me."
His confrontation with Hernandez on Wednesday night brought forward the question of whether the 19-year-old phenom is being treated differently by umpires. Hernandez said Wednesday night that he wouldn't call a game that way. He told Harper that the pitches were inside his strike zone, and he told Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche that he loves Harper and the way he plays the game.
"I've talked to Bryce a lot about it. I said you've got to keep your mouth shut, but at some point, if it gets really bad, you've got to stand up for yourself and not sit there and take it, especially as competitive as he is," LaRoche said Wednesday night. "He's done it right for the most part. He's held his tongue and, eventually, you lose it, and he's going to let somebody know about it."
Despite his back-and-forth with Hernandez, Harper wouldn't come out and say that umpires call pitches differently when he's at the plate, instead saying, "you just try to battle the best you can." He did hint at that suggestion, however, when asked if he's being pitched to differently than everyone else.
"When they know they're going to get 2-3 inches off the plate, I think it's good to pitch like that," Harper said. "And if I'm a catcher, I'm calling that.
"You try to adjust as much as you can. I'm not going to change my zone or anything. I'm still going to get those pitches. It's [not good] if you strike out with three runners on in that situation, a 3-2 ballgame. It's something you've got to battle with, and you've got to take it."
That means Harper has no plans to change his approach, so he'll keep taking balls and swinging at strikes no matter where they're called. He acknowledged that it's "not fun" feeling like he has to chase a 2-1 fastball two inches off the plate, "especially when you could be 3-1 and be ahead in the count even more."
"When he's calling something that I really don't think is a strike, you've just got to battle with it, try to do the best you can. That's the zone," Harper said. "You've got to deal with that zone that night. All these umpires, they're human beings, too. They're going to make mistakes. It happens. I make mistakes. Everybody does in this world. That's their zone. You've got to try to really battle with that zone."
With all that happening Wednesday, Johnson decided it was time to give him a day off Thursday. He said after Wednesday's game that Harper's offensive struggles had bled into his defense, specifically his overthrow to third base as the Astros threatened in the ninth. Harper said he realized his mistake right after he made it -- he should have thrown the ball to second base -- and vowed it wouldn't happen again.
While Harper insisted he went after Hernandez the way he did because it spoiled an opportunity to blow the game open, Johnson seemed concerned with the way Harper expressed his frustration.
"There's a right way and a wrong way to deal with things. What we were seeing there is his emotions from being in a little slump, and every little thing is magnified in his eyes," Johnson said. "You've got to drop it and take a little different approach. I learned a long time ago that yelling at umpires and trying to argue with them a whole lot doesn't do a whole lot of good. It may look good on TV or something. It doesn't really do anything for your cause."