Bryce Harper arrived at Nationals Park this afternoon for his first home game in the majors, and he believed this is place he belongs. He felt more at ease in his first two major league games than all the minor league games before them. For a player with “big leagues” stamped on him since adolescence, reaching the highest level means more pressure than playing in them.
“I think that was the biggest thing,” Harper said. “When I got to L.A., I got really comfortable. In Triple A, it was like, ‘God, I got to prove. I got to do stuff to get back up to the big leagues.’ I wanted to be there so bad. Once I got up here, it was like a calm went over my body. You’re here. Just play your game like you know how to play.”
When the Nationals flew back from Los Angeles yesterday, Harper made his third trip to Washington, having visited previously for his introductory news conference and last year’s FanFest. He wanted to see the Lincoln Memorial, and two teams playing softball on the Mall recognized him. “They see the rat tail and the tattoos,” he said. “I think they can notice that.” Suddenly, Harper’s sight-seeing jaunt had been interrupted.
“I was just walking around a little bit, checking out all the stuff,” Harper said. “I hadn’t seen the Lincoln Memorial before. I was checking that out. I was just walking through and they asked me if I would take a few hacks. I was like, ‘Nah, I don’t know about that.’ They were like, ‘Come on!’ So I was like, ‘Alright, no problem.’ I hung out a little bit.”
In Los Angeles, Harper wondered if it would sink in that he was now a major leaguer. Coming to Washington and spending his day off walking around the city, he said, allow that to happen.
“I loved it,” Harper said. “I thought it was awesome. I think everything in this city is really cool. Seeing the White House, the Jefferson Memorial, all that kind of stuff. I don’t think you could play in a better city, everything that happens here every single day. It’s just going to be a great place to play.”
The question now is whether Washington will be home to stay. Harper deflected any such questions, saying he wanted to enjoy his time and focus on every game. (He can be a great quote, but knows also when to turn to cliché.)
General Manager Mike Rizzo will monitor his progress and make a decision when third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and other injured players return. Rizzo wanted to keep Harper in the minors for 250 to 350 at-bats, but his performance could cut those plans short.
“If he’s ready mentally, emotionally and physically to stay here, then he’ll stay,” Rizzo said. “He may change the developmental plan for us.”
Harper’s teammates and his manager, after two impressive games in Los Angeles, believe he’s here to stay. Well, Manager Davey Johnson wouldn’t go that far explicitly. But he couldn’t stop raving about the 19-year-old he advocated to make the major league roster.
“He belongs here right now,” Johnson said. “He fits. He gives us a little more left-handed presence in the lineup, which we’ve been looking for. In this game, things can change. The only thing that I’ve been thinking about, really, is how long I hit him seventh. If he keeps having quality at-bats. . . . Even when he hits the ball to shortstop, he can beat the ball out.”
Zimmerman watched Harper in Los Angeles and was not surprised a bit by his powerful, poised performance. His talent, Zimmerman believes, will make Harper a success here and now, regardless of his youth.
“I’ve never been worried about him,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t know why anyone is worried about him. Age is just a number. This game is the same wherever you play. He’s got that special It Factor. It’s not so much his talent. In big spots in games, like his at-bat against Jansen, that’s the hardest thing to get over, is learning to get in big spots and stay inside yourself. He does a really good job of that.”
Harper’s brash on-field attitude has led some to wonder if he would fit in with the Nationals’ clubhouse. That has not been an issue. Harper said he tries to keep his mouth shut in the locker room and seek advice only when offered. His hustle has won over his teammates.
“When he ran max effort on the comebacker in his first a-b, that was pretty fun to watch,” closer Drew Storen said. “It’s just a whole other gear. Like running into the wall – you can tell there’s something different about him. You saw it in spring training. He obviously gains a lot of respect for that. You’ve got a guy who is literally going to run through a wall for you.”
Tonight, Harper will play in front of home fans for the first time. “He’s not just happy he’s here,” Johnson said. “He probably thought, ‘What took so long?’ ” His parents will watch from behind home plate. After a whirlwind on the West Coast, he will feel like a big leaguer for good.
“Once I got here, I think it set in a little bit more,” Harper said. “It’s really going to sink in whenever I run out to left field or wherever I’m playing tonight. When I step in that box and hear the cheers and the loud music, it’s going to be a lot of fun. Those chills are going to come right back.”