Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper rounds first after hitting a double during the seventh inning of their baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Saturday, April 28, 2012, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Sunday, April 29, 2012 1:44 am
Harper flashes star potential in big league debut
The Associated Press
The No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft went 1 for 3 in his first game for the Washington Nationals, with a booming double against Chad Billingsley, a tiebreaking sacrifice fly in the ninth and a bullet throw from left field that nearly cut down a runner at the plate.
"We played a great team tonight," Harper said. "Billingsley threw a great game and we fought till the end. That's the way you want to start off your career, I think. But I wish we would have gotten the W, or course."
It wasn't enough to keep the Los Angeles Dodgers from winning 4-3 in 10 innings Saturday night on a homer by Matt Kemp, but it was an impressive debut for the 19-year-old.
"I really didn't have butterflies at all. I think that's one of the first times I've never gotten butterflies," Harper said. "I was sitting in the dugout before the game and I was thinking to myself: `Wow, I'm in the big leagues.' But I was talking to Adam LaRoche before the game and I told him: `Hey, I'm really calm right now.' I was just trying to look for my pitch and got into some good counts. I think in the next week or so, it'll really sink in."
Harper's promotion from Triple-A Syracuse came a little earlier than expected. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was placed on the disabled list because of inflammation in his right shoulder, making room for Harper. And there he was, listed on the Nationals' lineup card: The No. 1 overall pick in 2010 was set to start in left field and bat seventh.
It didn't take long for him to make an impression. In the seventh inning, Harper lined a double to straightaway center field in his third at-bat for his first major league hit. He lifted a sacrifice fly to left in the ninth to break a 1-1 tie.
The Nationals' bullpen couldn't hold a two-run lead.
Harper grounded back to the pitcher in his first at-bat and flew out to left in the fifth. He also made a perfect throw from left in the bottom of the seventh that would have nailed the tying run at the plate, but catcher Wilson Ramos let the ball pop out of his glove.
"He seemed very relaxed," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said before the game. "I asked him if he had enough sleep, because he came in very late last night. But as strong and as young as he is, I'm sure he doesn't need any sleep. Basically, I told him: `Glad to have you. Just relax and have fun.'"
Hype has followed Harper every step of the way. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in June 2009.
He signed a five-year, $9.9 million contract with the Nationals in August 2010, a record for a non-pitcher signed out of the draft who had not become a free agent. The deal included $6.5 million in signing bonuses.
He progressed through the Nationals' farm system rapidly, playing in Class A and Double-A last year and at Triple-A Syracuse this season, where he was hitting .250 with a homer and three RBIs in 72 at-bats.
This spring there was talk about Harper making the Nationals out of spring training but he was sent to the minors for more experience.
"I talked to him about why he was going down to play, so that I won't have to answer these questions if he struggled up here about why he didn't get more seasoning. So we got that out of the way," Johnson said.
Harper, who doesn't turn 20 until Oct. 16, joined the Nationals with 142 games left in the season. There have been 17 players in major league history who have played at least 100 games as a teenager, including Mel Ott, Ken Griffey Jr., Robin Yount, Al Kaline, Ed Kranepool, Rusty Staub, Tony Conigliaro, Edgar Renteria and Jose Oquendo.
"I think they are very careful with the people they call up at a young age - because, obviously, getting to the big leagues and sticking is not guaranteed for anyone. So I think they took that into consideration," said Zimmerman, who made his big league debut at age 20, less than three months after the Nationals selected him fourth overall in the 2005 draft.
Harper made plenty of headlines and highlight shows while in the minors because of his quick temper. His teammates are hopeful that his days of slamming helmets, getting in umpires' faces and getting himself ejected for arguing third strikes are over.
"At first, Bryce had a different way of expressing his confidence. But from last spring training to this spring training, I've never seen someone grow up as much as he has in one year - just the way he carries himself and the way he thinks things differently now," Zimmerman said. "That's not to say that two years ago he was a bad person. I mean, Bryce is a great kid. He means well, works hard and plays the game the right way. So you'll never have to worry about him not playing hard."
Notes: Strasburg hit two batters, one more than he plunked in 177 innings over his 21 previous big league starts. But he hasn't allowed a home run in his last 10 starts and 63 1-3 innings since LaRoche took him deep on Aug. 15, 2010 while playing for Arizona. ... Strasburg led off the sixth with an opposite-field double to right-center, his first extra-base hit in 35 career at-bats to that point and the first by a Nationals pitcher this season. ... The youngest player in the 44-year history of the Montreal/Washington franchise was LHP Balor Moore, who was 19 years and 116 days old when he made his big league debut on May 21, 1970. Harper is 79 days older than Moore was.