Tonight’s Angels-Nationals game had been circled on the schedule since winter. ESPN sent a crew and a reporter for live shots starting in mid-afternoon – which, uncomfortably, played in the Nationals clubhouse. The Nationals placed commercials and newspaper ads hyping Mike Trout vs. Bryce Harper, with the team logos sprinkled somewhere there, too. Forty-eight other players? Whatever do you mean?
In the face of mounting attention, Harper and Trout both made their most admirable effort to calm the hype surrounding their first regular season meeting. “It’s two teams going at it, not just two guys,” Harper said. “This is nine guys on the field trying to win a ballgame. I know everyone is pretty excited about it, but it’s just another team, another team we are playing.”
At a press conference down the hall from the Angels clubhouse – a rarity for any player, especially a visiting one, prior to a game – Trout felt compelled to point out Harper is not a pitcher. “It’s not like we really compete against each other,” Trout said.
While they’re using Nationals Park as their first mutual stage since they were both Scottsdale Scorpions in 2011, it’s only natural to lump Trout and Harper together, even though Trout has out-performed Harper – and every other player in baseball, to be fair – thus far. The Angels drafted Trout, 22, one year before the Nationals took Harper, 21. They both made their first all-star game in 2012 as the youngest player in their league. The Nationals and Major League Baseball promoted the matchup all week.
Harper understands the comparison. He just doesn’t pay attention to it, he said.
“I really don’t care,” Harper said. “I could care less about opinions. Everybody’s got one. If they like him, they like him. If they like me, they like me. If they like both of us, then they know the game. And if they don’t, then they’re crazy.
“This game is a lot of fun to play and we’re both human. We’re both going to make mistakes, we’re both going to make errors. It’s part of the game, it’s part of life. It’s fun to go out there and play, but people blow things out to bigger proportions. That’s how this world is now and that’s just how it is.”
Last spring training, Harper alluded to his goals for the season but declined to be specific with his numbers. Davey Johnson, the Nationals’ manager, offered a clue: “Look at Trout’s,” he said. Harper, though, said he does not see Trout’s performance as a prism to view his own.
“Not at all, because I know I’m a damn good player, and he is too,” Harper said. “We’re going to roll through baseball over the next 20 years hopefully and make people turn their heads. He’s going to do it, and hopefully I can do it, and [Yaisel] Puig and everybody else in this game. Matt Harvey. There’s a lot of great young talent, and [the attention is] just because it’s me and Trout. That’s the way it always has been, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
“We have some young talent in the league, [Manny] Machado, Harper, me,” Trout said. “I can name a bunch of guys. To be a part about it, and playing on the same day in the same city, it’s pretty cool. It’s good for the fans.”
Harper insisted he didn’t track Trout’s statistics – he’s leading the majors in wins above replacement again, by the way. Trout said he’ll use the MLB app on his phone to keep with both Harper and Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks, another Arizona Fall League teammate. After Harper hit a third-deck homer against the Braves earlier this year, Trout sent him a text message.
“Just messing around,” Trout said. “ ‘A couple of guys in the clubhouse are wondering if you got jammed on that ball you hit down the line, the one that went in the third deck.’ Just small talk. Nothing crazy.”
Trout had been paying enough attention to Harper to know about his benching Saturday for, in Manager Matt Williams’s words, “the inability to run 90 feet.” Trout even said he had Harper had discussed the play when the chatted behind the cage during early batting practice.
“He plays the game hard,” Trout said when asked what stands out most about Harper. “He’s max-effort every time — besides that lack of hustle the other day. That’s the way they have it over there. If you don’t obey the rules, you’re going to pay the price. I talked to him about it; he [knows] what he did wrong. We’re both trying to have fun and win ballgames.”
Harper has never shied from a spotlight, and he will play under a large one tonight. The chances of Harper doing something incredible or exasperating seem to be heightened. Williams, though, said he believed Harper would treat it like another game.
“Bryce wants to get a hit every time up, just like everybody else does,” Williams said. “So just because it’s this series or Mike Trout, I don’t think there’s any added pressure on him. He’s as passionate about the game as anybody. I certainly want him, like anybody else on the team, to get a pitch to hit and play. Added stuff, I don’t think so.”