MLB

Nats' Harper a talent whose time is now

Image: Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals (© Susan Walsh/Associated Press)
Just 19, Bryce Harper plays the game with an old-school approach.
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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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WASHINGTON

Nationals third base coach Bo Porter walked off the mound, dripping with sweat, beaming.

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These athletes burst onto the scene with great fanfare.

He had just thrown batting practice to Bryce Harper.

Nationals manager Davey Johnson stood in foul territory as Porter approached, nodding and smiling. He, too, experiences joy watching Harper take BP.

“The beauty of him is that he hits the ball hard to all fields,” Johnson says. “He’s not a pull hitter or a total oppo hitter. He hits the ball where the pitch is thrown.”

It’s that simple, that logical and, like everything else about Harper, that wonderfully old school.

Harper, 19, runs to first base like Pete Rose. He throws like outfielders used to throw. On Monday, his first day in Washington, he even took a few swings in a pickup softball game near the Washington Monument, evoking Willie Mays playing stickball in the streets of New York.

And the Nationals might send him back to Triple A? Are you kidding me?

There are a lot of people who need to be shipped out of Washington. Harper should not be on the list.

If Nats fans were capable of causing a riot — and I sort of doubt it, seeing as how only 22,675 attended Harper’s DC debut on Tuesday night — I’d recommend Occupy Dulles, Occupy Reagan and Occupy BWI — the three area airports.

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Shut ’em down, and Harper can’t leave town.

Don’t tell me that Harper is only 2 for 9 after going 0 for 3 in the Nats’ 5-1 loss to the Diamondbacks on Tuesday night. And please, spare me any talk of Harper needing to “complete his development.” It’s understood that he will fail, and fail often. But the Nats players will tell you, the kid figures things out as he goes along, talking the game on the bench, adjusting at-bat to at-bat.

And so the daily chess match begins.

Opposing shortstops already are adjusting their defenses to Harper, opposing pitchers already are throwing him 2-0 sliders. I can’t think of five players in the game who are more compelling. Harper’s talent is blinding, but you can’t take your eyes off him.

“He has an aura,” Nats lefty Gio Gonzalez says.

On Tuesday night, Harper nearly threw out the D-backs’ John McDonald at the plate on the fly from almost 300 feet in left field.

He chased changeups from righty Trevor Cahill in his first at-bat, then drilled a ball through Cahill’s legs in his second, only to be thwarted by the shortstop McDonald, who was playing toward the middle. (Harper, a left-handed hitter, had taken big swings in his previous at-bat, prompting McDonald to think he might pull.)

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Harper’s final at-bat produced a hard-hit but fairly routine grounder to first. He ran hard enough to at least make the play interesting.

“He puts his head down, and he’s going to run through the bag,” says Diamondbacks pitcher Josh Collmenter, who was Harper’s teammate in the Arizona Fall League.

“It’s refreshing. With all the hype and everything, it can go to your head. But he plays the game the way you were taught to play growing up.”

That’s what the Nationals’ staff loves about him.

“Hits the ball where it’s pitched,” Johnson says.

“Tries to drive the ball regardless,” Porter adds.

“Baseball 101,” Johnson replies.

 



Of course, Harper isn’t just a batting-practice prodigy. He’s pretty good in games, too.

The Nats still are talking about his at-bat in the ninth inning Sunday at Dodger Stadium:

Two outs, runner on first, Harper representing the tying run against the Dodgers’ hard-throwing right-hander, Kenley Jansen.

“Jansen is throwing 95 with a natural cut on it,” outfielder Mark DeRosa recalls. “(Harper) turned around on a 1-2 or 2-2 count, turned and looked at the bench and nodded his head like, ‘I’m getting on here.’ ”

The players couldn’t believe it.

“Fifty thousand people, standing, cheering,” shortstop Ian Desmond says. “And he’s laying off close pitches.”

Harper drew a seven-pitch walk, but the Nationals lost 2-0 after catcher Jesus Flores struck out.

The Harper-Jensen showdown, while failing to change the course of the game, was perfectly in character for Harper.

Johnson was teammates with Frank Robinson and managed Cal Ripken Jr., Gary Carter and Barry Larkin — all Hall of Famers. Yet the manager calls Harper the most driven player he has ever seen.

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“If you just follow his career, since he was out of Little League, he was always competing against guys older than him,” Johnson says. “In high school, I don’t know anybody in their right mind who would take their GED as a sophomore so they can go to college (and become eligible for the baseball draft).

“The first thing I asked him last year was, ‘What was that all about? . . . You didn’t enjoy your junior and senior years.’ He wanted to get in college and move along. If that isn’t driven . . .”

Uh, that’s driven. And that’s Harper.

It’s not just the baseball, either. Harper already is adept with the media, seemingly understanding, while still a teenager, that the attention is an accoutrement of stardom.

“It’s a blessing, let me tell you that,” Harper says.

Dozens of reporters surrounded him on the field before batting practice Tuesday, and Harper patiently answered questions for almost 15 minutes. He also talked for about five minutes after the game was over.

True, he speaks mostly in clichés, but what do you expect from a 19-year-old, advanced oratory? Harper at least spun an entertaining yarn about his softball escapades Monday on the National Mall.

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“I was just walking around a little bit,” he said. “I hadn’t seen the Lincoln Memorial before. I wanted to go over there, check that out.

“I was just walking through and they (a group of fans) asked me if I would take a few hacks. I went, ‘Nah, I don’t know about that.’ (They said) ‘C’mon.’ I was like, ‘All right. No problem.’

“I walked over there, hung out a little bit with the fans. . . . I was trying to interact with the fans, the community a little bit. I like doing that kind of stuff.”

His energy is infectious; Johnson joked Tuesday about getting a PRP (platelet-rich plasma) treatment using Harper’s blood.

Porter prefers to talk about Harper’s humility, saying, “He appreciates the game. He doesn’t feel like the game owes him anything. He feels like he owes the game something.”

“The talent is one thing,” Porter says. “The person puts it over the top.”

 



The new party line around the Nationals, as it pertains to Harper, sounds like a classic bit of Washington spin.

Now that Harper is in the majors, he doesn’t need to fret about proving himself the way he did in the minors. He can just play the game.

“I agree with that,” Johnson says. “Young players with a lot of potential, their goal is the big leagues. When they’re at the level they’re at, a lot of times they try to do too much, hit .600 or hit balls 500 feet.

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“Really, (minor league ball) is an exercise to learn how pitchers will pitch you in professional ball, how the top pitchers will attack you to get you out. And your one thought is being overly great to get to the big leagues. . . .

“I do think the driving force of getting to the big leagues puts more pressure on you to try to do too much.”

So now Harper can relax?

That’s what Johnson is saying, and it just happens to be in his self-interest, seeing as how the skipper wanted Harper’s left-handed bat in his lineup all spring.

Desmond, though, reinforces Johnson’s point, saying that while no minor league pitcher wanted to give up a home run to Harper, major league pitchers will be less reluctant to confront him.

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Right-hander Drew Storen, the Nats’ injured closer, adds that Harper is the kind of player who needs a challenge, explaining, “That’s why he’s so good.”

Harper embraces all of the above theories.

“In Triple A, it was like, ‘I’ve got to prove . . . I’ve got to do stuff to get back up to the big leagues. I want to be there so bad,’ ” Harper recalls.

“Once I got up here, it was like a calm went over my body. I said, ‘You’re here. Play the game you know how to play. Don’t worry about anything around you.’ ”

That final thought could be the ballplayer’s creed; so much is out of a player’s control. Harper says he is going — ahem — one at-bat at a time, one game at time, trying not to think about the demotion that might await him.

Slugger Ryan Zimmerman, suffering from right shoulder inflammation, is eligible to come off the disabled list Friday but won’t be ready that soon. Even when he returns, the Nats can demote rookie first baseman/outfielder Tyler Moore before Harper.

“I don’t look that far down the road,” Johnson says. “(Harper) belongs here right now. He fits. How things progress each day . . . in this game, things can change.

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“The only thing I’ve been thinking about really is how long I hit him seventh.”

Hint: Johnson is not thinking about dropping Harper in the order.

A common refrain among baseball people is that a team does not determine the fate of a young player. Instead, the young player “tells” the team when he is ready by the way he performs.

Harper will be no different, but Porter already senses what type of answer the kid will provide.

“Loud and resounding,” Porter says, laughing.

The kind of noise that Harper creates when he makes contact. The kind that will follow him throughout his career.

The Nat is out of the bag. And he’s not going back in.

Tagged: Dodgers, Nationals, Diamondbacks, John McDonald

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