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Bryce Harper on Cubs: ‘We want to be the team knocking them out’

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Bryce Harper’s batting average was nearly 100 points lower last season than it was in 2015, his MVP year. His OPS plummeted from a major-league-best 1.109 to a who-is-this-guy? .814. His home-run production — from 42 down to 24 — made nearly everyone around baseball want to know:

What the heck happened to the brilliant young superstar of the up-and-coming Washington Nationals?

As Harper himself might say: That’s a clown question, bro.

The 24-year-old right fielder, already entering his sixth big-league season, isn’t worried about a thing. Still capable of dominating the National League? Check. Capable of leading his team — which won 95 games and a division title despite his struggles — to unprecedented heights? Check.

Three superstars: Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rizzo. The Nats' Harper intends to be the man in 2017.

Harper’s offseason can be summed up in one word: “great.” He used it liberally in his first interaction with the media since last year’s NL Division Series.

“It was more of an emotional roller coaster for you guys than for me,” he said. “I’m 24 and living my dream every single day. . . . Everybody that said I was worried about baseball? I could care less.”

The difficulty for Harper seemed to trace back to an unforgettable afternoon at Wrigley Field early last May when the Cubs, on the verge of a four-game sweep, had the audacity to walk him six times. Three of those walks were intentional, and Harper also was hit by a pitch. The Cubs won in 13 innings.

“That certainly didn’t help, but when was that game, May?” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “That’s a long time from May to September.”

But Harper never did get his groove back. He even disappointed at the plate during the postseason loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who rallied from a 2-1 series deficit and secured each of their victories by a run.

“Just part of the game, part of the process,” Harper said. “Hopefully, we can do some things different this year.”

It’s foolish to doubt Harper, who is so consumed with being the best that he got his GED after his sophomore year of high school so he’d be eligible as early as possible for the MLB draft. It paid off when he was selected No. 1 overall by the Nats in 2010 at 17. The NL Rookie of the Year award came only two years later, and in 2015, he became baseball’s youngest MVP since Johnny Bench in 1970.

Yo, Kris Bryant: Harper wants his MVP back. The two are well-acquainted from their days as boyhood phenoms in Las Vegas, or else Harper might not bother to be gracious about it.

“I was watching Kris a lot and seeing what he was doing,” he said. “I was excited for him and excited for Vegas.”

But Harper wants it all — the World Series trophy, too — and believes he has the team to pull it off.

He ticks off names of teammates he calls “grinders”: infielders Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon and former White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton. He speaks of a multitude of leaders: Daniel Murphy, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and others. Of course, the Nats have superstar power in a starting rotation led by 2016 Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.

“We’ve got the group of guys to win [the World Series],” he said.

As for the Cubs?

“Of course we want to be the team knocking them out,” he said.

So there you have it: Harper is eyeing the mother of all bounce-backs in 2017.

We’ll see what he’s got.

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.
Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com