Before we get to Bryce Harper’s delight in playing center field, his left calf’s clean bill of health or his giddiness at facing the Yankees, we should get this out of the way: Harper has not changed his mentality in regard to making the Nationals’ opening day roster.
Tuesday, Harper reportedly told CBSSports.com’s Jon Heyman he figured he would “probably not” make the roster after missing six games with a strained left calf. Wednesday night, he retracted the sentiment.
“Yesterday, I don’t know what happened with that, so, you know, Heyman,” Harper said. “But I’m for sure trying to make this club. I want to frickin’ go up there, try and win. I’ve never had that mentality to say, ‘Ah, probably not.’ Or, ‘Ah, I don’t want to make the club.’ So I’m shooting to be one of the top of the top 25 guys on this team and get up there to D.C. and try to win. That’s my main goal.”
Harper said he may have been misquoted, but didn’t know for sure. My hunch is, Harper blurted something off the cuff he didn’t necessarily mean or even think about. You can’t blame the reporter for reporting what he said. Let’s not make this a thing and just move on.
In tonight’s game, Harper returned in center field, which he relished. Harper played 20 games in center, 81 in right and 37 in left during his first minor league season. Center field, though, might be his favorite.
“I was excited,” Harper said. “I like center field a lot. It’s a lot easier to play out there. Just the angles to ball and everything like that, seeing the whole field. It’s one of my favorite spots.”
Harper only had two chances. In the second inning, David Ross lofted a lazy fly ball to right-center. Harper yelled “I got it!” so loud you could hear him from the press box. The wind pushed the ball farther to right, and by the time he settled under the ball and made the catch, Harper nudged right fielder Eury Perez’s shoulder.
In the fifth, Dan Uggla blasted a high fly ball to deep center. Harper got a good read and turned immediately, but he almost stumbled after his first few steps. “He got his feet crossed a little bit,” Manager Davey Johnson said. Harper recovered and made a routine catch just short of the warning track.
“I felt good out there,” Harper said. “I felt relaxed.”
Harper never experienced any issues with his calf as he went 0 for 2 with a walk. Harper thought he could have played sooner, which he expressed, often, to Johnson. Harper hovered around Johnson in the dugout so much Wednesday night that Johnson eventually told him to just go home.
“My ADD kicked in there for a little bit,” Harper said. “It’s kind of hard to sit on the bench and just watch. I was trying to learn as much as I could. It felt good a couple days ago, but they didn’t want to push it. I understood where they coming from, things like that. So they made the right decision. I came back tonight, felt good.”
Harper tested his calf after his third at-bat, when he led off the seventh with a walk. Harper moved to second on an infield single up the middle by Jesus Flores. Mark Teahen followed with a fly ball to center field, not shallow but not all that deep, either. Harper immediately tagged up and bolted to third, taking the extra base without even drawing a throw.
“Outstanding,” third base coach Bo Porter said. “He understood there were no outs. There was no hesitation. A lot of guys take off right away then say, ‘Oh, I need to tag.’ The timing of it was perfect.”
After Harper came out of the game, Johnson immediately told him he would be playing tomorrow and Friday, when the Nationals play the Yankees in Viera and then travel to play them in Tampa.
“I said, ‘You gonna be able to go tomorrow?’ ” Johnson said. “He said, ‘Am I going to Tampa?’ I said, ‘You’re a rookie, aren’t you? Yeah, you’re going.’ ”
Harper, of course, grew up cheering for the Yankees and openly rooted for New York in the playoffs last fall, including a Tweet during Game 5 of the ALCS that read, “Yankees lets go, get some runs for ya boy CC!”
Friday in Tampa, the Nationals will be facing CC Sabathia with Harper in the lineup. Harper also expressed his willingness to face Thursday starter Michael Pineda – he actually knew who was pitching for New York without any prodding – but was especially eager to see the Yankees’ ace.
“Oh, man, that’s going to be fun,” Harper said. “Even Pineada tomorrow. You’ve got a guy who pitched for Seattle and was great, came over to the Yankees of course. He’s going to be fun to face tomorrow. It’s going to kind of crazy to have CC, a frickin’ train coming at you. He’s kind of big on the bump.”