Bryce Harper entered the Nationals’ 6-5 loss to the Astros tonight as a defensive replacement in the bottom of the seventh inning, and during his brief time on the field he left more fingerprints on the game than probably any other player. He made a running catch at the wall. He stretched a routine single into a double. And he threw away a chance to send the game into extra innings.
Let’s go one play at a time. With two outs in the seventh, the score tied and a runner on first, Matt Downs lashed a Cole Kimball pitch to right. Harper sprinted back to the warning track and made a running, over-the-shoulder catch to end the inning and keep the game tied.
Harper gave credit for the catch to Rick Ankiel, who from center fielder screamed, “Wall! Wall! You got room!” as Harper drifted back. Harper’s relative inexperience in the outfield - he was a catcher growing up - means that he doesn’t yet have total comfort with some of the nuances, such as dealing with the fence.
“It was a little scary going toward to the wall,” Harper said. “To have Ank helping me out from center field was huge.”
Harper came up third in the next inning and dumped a base hit into left field, his fifth hit in seven at-bats. It seemed like a normal single. The left fielder fielded the ball casually, but not lazily.
Harper treated the flare like anything but a normal single. He sprinted hellbent for leather to first and made a wide turn. And he never stopped. He bolted for second, showing off above-average speed, and slid in hard a step ahead of the throw. There really aren’t any breathtaking moments on March 10, but this was breathtaking. The crowd stood and cheered.
“Coming out of the box, you should think ‘three’ on everything,” Harper said. “I run the bases hard. That’s my game.”
“He just ran hard out of the box,” Riggleman said. “It’s what you teach. It goes in one ear and out the other with some players at times. But that’s why you run hard out of the box, because you round the base and you can make a decision. If you jog to first, there’s no decision to make.”
The most impressive thing wasn’t the clichéd superlatives about grit and hustle, although they were present, too. Rather, it was Harper’s athleticism, which allowed him to take the extra base.
“He has the skills to do it,” Riggleman said. “Not everybody can do it, because not everybody can make the turn that athletically and keep their speed while rounding the base. Some guys would want to do it, but can’t do it. Other guys want to do it, but choose not to.”
By the way: The double made Harper 6 for 16 on the spring, good for a .375 average.
But Harper’s night ended with a blemish. In the ninth, with a runner on first and one out, Brian Dopirak smoked a pitch from Atahualpa Severino into the right field corner. Harper gave chase and corralled the ball in time to hold the runner at third. Only when Harper fired the ball to the infield, his throw sailed wide of both cutoff men and bounded through the infield, allowing the winning run to scamper home and the Astros to walk off with a win.
“I threw right a little bit and lost the game,” Harper said. “Get the next one.”
After another question, Harper clarified his intent - he was trying hit the cutoff man, he just misfired.
“I wasn’t trying to throw home,” Harper said. “I don’t have that good of an arm.”
FROM THE POST
Okay, everyone, this is a big one. Sheinin’s monster magazine profile of Bryce Harper hit the web today. It’s 5,000 words, and every last one is worth reading.
Drew Storen is working on his fastball command with a new maturity in his second spring training with the Nationals.