Harper runs the gamut in 1st year in the minors

Bryce Harper took an outside strike and shot a disapproving

glance at the umpire.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise to the young phenom. The ump

had been calling them wide all game. Showing displeasure now – with

a man on base in the seventh inning when his team needed runs – was

hardly going to help.

Three pitches later, Harper struck out by flailing at a pitch

that was well outside with the runner going. Another lesson learned

by a teenager navigating the backwaters of minor league

baseball.

Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16 and

accelerated his way into college, setting himself up to be the No.

1 overall pick by the Washington Nationals in last year’s draft. He

signed a $9.9 million contract, the biggest payday for a drafted

position player.

He added to his legacy shortly after joining the Class A

Hagerstown Suns, when he emerged from a slow start and went on an

18-game hitting streak, to the point that he’s now among the South

Atlantic League leaders in batting average and homers (.338 and 13

through Sunday’s games). He attributed the turnaround to new

contact lenses, saying he was ”blind as a bat” until he got them

on April 18 – an instant-legend anecdote that no doubt is already

finding its way into a movie script.

Nationals fans are, of course, paying attention. Some have

started clamoring for Harper’s promotion to the big club. If not

now, then very soon. Washington is in last place in the NL East and

one of the worst-hitting teams in the majors, so why take the long,

slow road with the kid?

The answer, for those who see Harper every day, is an easy one.

There are dozens of things, from obvious to subtle and tangible to

intangible, that go into making a major league baseball player.

Maturity. Baserunning. Learning to work the count. Dealing with the

grind. Attitude. Adjusting to umpires. Meshing with teammates in

the clubhouse.

Harper has a head start on most of them, but he’s mastered maybe

three. He’s got a major league arm in the outfield, a powerful

swing and is very competitive. Everything else is a work in

progress for an 18-year-old who, in another world, would right now

be rehashing tales from his senior prom.

”One of the biggest sins you can make is putting guys into

position where they’re going to fail early,” said Doug Harris, who

keeps a close in-person eye on Harper as the Nationals’ director of

player development. ”We’re really committed, but lay the blocks

before we try to put in some chandeliers and some granite

countertops. We want to make sure we’ve built a good foundation,

not only on the field but in the clubhouse.”

Harper validated Harris’ point perfectly in a game last

Thursday. While the headline will forever record that Harper hit

his first walkoff homer with the Suns – a two-run shot in the

bottom of the 10th for a 9-8 win over Greenville – the details

reveal that earlier in the game he was twice erased from the bases

by simple mistakes. He was picked off in the first inning, then got

caught in a rundown in the fifth trying to advance on a ball in the

dirt.

Harper shrugged off both miscues, chalking them up to things

that just happen in a game.

”They got me when I was leaning,” he said of the pickoff, and

he attributed the rundown to a good play made by the catcher. It’s

part of a recurring theme – he’s been embarrassed more than once

trying to snag an extra 90 feet this season.

”He’s a very aggressive player, which is great,” said

Hagerstown manager Brian Daubach, who played eight seasons in the

majors, mixed in with parts of 14 years in the minors. ”It’s

always easier to rein a guy in a little bit instead of getting a

passive guy to play aggressive and take extra bases. We talk about

the right situations to be aggressive, just really trying to think

before the play happens.”

On Monday night, Harper showed his immature side, puckering a

kiss toward the pitcher while rounding the bases after hitting a

home run against Greensboro. That’s the type of behavior that will

get him beaned in the majors – as perhaps in the minors as well.

The first pitch in his next at-bat was a brushback, high and

inside.

Such moments aside, Harper looks very much like the real deal.

Even on other nights when the boxscore seems humdrum, he’s still

the most compelling player to watch at Hagerstown’s Municipal

Stadium.

He made a perfect one-hop throw home from center field in the

first inning of a game against Asheville, turning what should have

been an easy run into a close play. He then used his speed to make

a nice warning track catch before hitting the wall in deep center

in the third.

He went 0 for 3 at the plate, but one of his outs was a frozen

rope right at the center fielder. Harper naturally gets every

pitcher’s best game – everyone wants a Harper strikeout on the

resume.

”Raw power stands out the most,” Daubach said. ”He does

things that guys, it takes until they’re 25 or 30 years old (to

do). When he’s taking batting practice, it’s like watching a major

leaguer already.

”The things he needs to work on is, first of all, the everyday

grind of playing professional baseball, which no matter how many

games you play in college or high school, it’s different. There’s

always going to be an adjustment period for anybody. We came off a

stretch where we played 20 straight days. All the guys, the first

full season, you can see them getting a little bit tired, that’s

part of the growing process, too. Being able to get through when

you’re not 100 percent. Still give 100 percent of what you have

that day, even if it’s only 80.”

Harper is still learning the outfield, having been converted by

the Nationals after being a catcher most of his baseball life.

Still, he already has his first legendary outfield moment: Against

Lexington on May 6, he slipped while trying to cut off the ball at

the warning track in right field, picked the ball up and, seemingly

out of frustration, flung it to third base to nail the batter going

for a triple.

”He launched a one-hopper, perfect,” Daubach said. ”The

runner was stunned.”

Harper is the youngest player in the league, but by all accounts

he has blended in well among his older teammates. The Suns’ have an

in-house nickname – ”Beaver” – for anyone who works hard and

makes hustle plays. Harper is a natural beaver.

”I think he’s doing just fine for being an 18-year-old kid,”

first baseman Brett Newsome said. ”He runs balls out and gets

dirty. He’s one of the guys, man.”

Harper’s father, Ron, points out that his son long ago had

adapted to the rigors of the baseball grind, playing 100 games or

more per year, usually with older teammates, and traveling

extensively, including stints in the U.S. national team program.

Ron Harper keeps a close eye on his son, attending many of the

games and often throwing his son batting practice before they

arrive at the park.

”He’s having more good days than bad days,” Ron Harper said.

”And in baseball if you do that, you’re going to be

successful.”

Ron Harper said the role that contact lenses played in his son’s

turnaround was perhaps exaggerated, but there’s no mistaking that

seeing better helps quite a bit.

”I wanted him to go get checked, and he did because I knew he

had a problem with his eyes before,” he said. ”It’s not as bad as

everybody thought. The contacts he had before gave him

headaches.”

General manager Mike Rizzo has made it clear that Harper won’t

be in the majors this year. In fact, it could be a while before

there’s a promotion from Hagerstown, about a 90-minute drive from

Nationals Park.

The Nationals did a lot of work on the Suns’ ancient ballpark in

the offseason, remodeling the clubhouse and installing a new field,

new grandstand seats and a new video board.

”I like the setup he has there,” Rizzo said. ”He’s very

comfortable in the surroundings. He’s got a great staff around him,

but I don’t see him staying there for the entire season. He’ll be

moved at some time. We’re just not at the point where he’s ready to

move yet.”

Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP