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Bryce Harper goes 2 for 4 in minor league debut in Nationals’ system

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ROME, Ga. — The kid with the tape-measure power, and a reputation for knowing how to wield it, saw the third baseman creeping backward and knew what the situation called for. With everyone at State Mutual Stadium wondering how far Bryce Harper would hit the ball, the 18-year-old prodigy stuck his bat into the path of a fastball . . . and bunted. Put away your tape measures, boys; we can calculate this one with the naked eye: call it 60 feet, give or take.

It wasn’t only Harper’s surprising small-ball propensities — in addition to his third-inning bunt single, he also had a stolen base — that made his minor league debut Thursday night feel anticlimactic. There was also a noteworthy lack of electricity in the air, as Harper’s Hagerstown Suns opened the 2011 campaign with a 3-2 win over the Rome Braves.

Harper’s first minor league game — let the record show he went 2 for 4 with a pair of a singles, one RBI and one strikeout — may have been a highly anticipated affair in Washington, where the Nationals spent the first overall pick of the 2010 draft to select him and $9.9 million to sign him, and in Hagerstown, Md., where the Nationals sent him to open his minor league career with the Class A Suns of the South Atlantic (or “Sally”) League.

But in Rome, where entire rows of stands sat empty on opening night, none of Harper’s four at-bats was greeted as enthusiastically as the mid-sixth-inning appearance of the costumed Henry the Hot Dog, accompanied by Ketchup and Mustard, who arrived in the back of a pickup truck and threw foil-wrapped frankfurters into the stands.

“Just another day in paradise,” Harper joked after the game. “It’s a blast. It’s everything I’ve wanted to do.”

Harper, the youngest player on his team by a full year and a half, seemed unmoved by the nonchalance the same way he is unmoved by hype and hyperbole. Starting in right field and batting third, he strode to the plate expressionlessly and rubbed his bare hands in the dirt. When he singled to center in his first at-bat, he took a wide turn toward second, but showed almost no emotion, as the ball made its way into the Suns’ dugout and into the hands of an authenticator from Major League Baseball.

Perhaps because he is thought to be further from the big leagues, Harper’s debut lacked the sort of buzz and anticipation that accompanied that of Stephen Strasburg a year ago, when the Nationals’ phenom right-hander, 21 at the time, made his first minor league start for Class AA Harrisburg in Altoona, Pa.

There, a sellout crowd pressed in around the bullpen to watch Strasburg warm up, and oohed and aahed over his radar readings. Here, the announced attendance of 4,133 was nearly 1,000 fans shy of a sellout — despite ticket prices that topped out at $10 — and the mention of Harper’s name during the pregame introductions drew only a small smattering of recognition from the stands.

Of course, Harper’s “debut” was a debut only in the strictest sense. By the time he took the field Thursday night, his professional career already encompassed 35 at-bats in the developmental Arizona Fall League and another 18 for the Nationals during spring training — amassing a combined .358 batting average and 1.009 OPS.

And by the time Harper stepped into the batter’s box in the top of the first inning, he and his teammates had already logged nearly 1,600 bus miles, the true “Welcome to the Sally League” experience.

After breaking camp in Viera, Fla., the Suns bused 14 hours up to Hagerstown — essentially waving to Rome as they went past — for a one-off exhibition game that was promptly canceled because of dicey field conditions. In other words, the Suns drove 936 miles to take batting practice at their home park, then packed up again and headed south to Rome — leaving at midnight Tuesday night and arriving at their hotel shortly before noon Wednesday.

Before they get to Hagerstown for their home opener on April 15, their season odometer will be at nearly 2,400 miles, including their visit to the Lexington (Ky.) Legends early next week. Their first scheduled off-day isn’t until April 24, by which time they will have played 17 games.

“Playing in the minor leagues is sometimes tougher than the big leagues, when you’ve got a 140 games in five months, and with the bus travel,” Hagerstown Manager Brian Daubach said. “It can be grueling.”

Fans who had no idea who Harper was probably came away from Thursday night’s game thinking he was a speedy small-ball specialist. In the first, when he was fooled slightly by a full-count off-speed pitch, he reached down and poked a soft liner into shallow center, collecting both his first minor league hit and first minor league RBI in the same swing — and then, two pitches later, adding his first minor league stolen base.

“I had big butterflies going out there tonight,” Harper said, “and after that first pitch was thrown I felt really good, really solid at the plate.”

Then, two innings later, came the perfectly placed bunt single.

After the game, Harper signed autographs for a gaggle of fans down the left field line, then marched up the walkway towards the Suns’ clubhouse. As his spikes crunched on the concrete, he suddenly kicked one foot to the ground, causing sparks to fly off his spikes. He looked back at the team official trailing behind him and grinned mischievously, a teenage kid getting paid to play baseball, a young man on his way to bigger things.

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