Before this afternoon, Bryce Harper had never started against a major league team. Harper’s only action last spring, when he was an 18-year-old definitively headed for a season in the minors, came off the bench. Harper took the field this afternoon as a starter, a 19-year-old trying to make the major leagues. Once he stepped between the lines, he sensed no difference.
“I’m just out there playing,” Harper said. “Just trying to get at-bats, trying to see pitches.”
In the Nationals’ Grapefruit League opener, a 3-1 loss to the Astros, Harper went 1 for 3 with a single and two groundouts to second base, all three of hits sharp grounders to the right side. He blended in with the game, hustling out grounders and backing up bases from the outfield. The only thing that stuck out about his performance was the name on the back of his jersey.
“He seems to be more at peace, more comfortable with his surroundings,” Nationals director of player development Doug Harris said. “He’s showing the evolution. Every first-year player, no matter their skill set or ability is, once they have that first offseason to process or let a lot of things sink in, they’re more comfortable with themselves.”
Harper may have felt the same as last year, but at the plate he showed a significant difference. Last spring, Harper swung frequently at the first pitch. Today, his at-bats reached counts of 2-1, 0-2 and 3-1.
“I’m just trying to work in deep counts,” Harper said. “I just want to be in those battle counts, just to be in that situation. Try to not do too much and drive the ball to the left side. Just try to hit offspeed pitches and react to that fastball. If I can see that offspeed and get used to that, that’s huge for me.”
Harper faced former Nationals starter Livan Hernandez in his first at-bat. When he walked into the box, Harper expected Hernandez to start him with one of his trademark looping curveballs. That’s just the pitch Harper saw – except he still missed as the ball broke toward his ankles.
“I was actually hoping he’d throw me a curveball first pitch,” Harper said. “It was just down. I swung right through it.”
Harper worked his back in the count by taking two balls, then smacked a grounder through the infield. Houston closer Brett Myers got Harper into an 0-2 count and induced a grounder. He took a mighty swing at a ball he fouled off in his third at-bat, against Brandon Lyon, before grounding out again.
Nothing, of course, will be decided after one major league spring training game. “It’s so dang early,” Manager Davey Johnson said. The stakes are high for Harper this spring, but Harper puts them aside on the field.
“I don’t even think about it when I go out there,” Harper said. “If I play my game and do things right, I’ve got a shot. I’m not going to try to do too much. I’m just going to roll with what I get.”