Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg poised to become men in full

Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg announced themselves as a full-season, full-force tandem for the first time on opening day Monday. They turned Nationals Park, packed far past capacity, into an arena of pure possibility, a place where fantasy goes when it dreams of becoming reality.

If this day was any hint, the rest of baseball can brace for hardship, Washington for the sight of two of the biggest baseball talents in many years as they improve rapidly, learn the subtleties of their game and, it now seems, thrive on the fuel of trying to surpass each other’s dazzling deeds.

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“You aren’t going to find a pitching-hitting combo that exciting anywhere in baseball,” veteran right-hander Dan Haren said. “On the 130 days when I’m not pitching, I’m going to be having fun watching those guys.”

Their display Monday in the Nats’ 2-0 win over Miami on opening day was almost preposterous. Harper hit home runs in his first two at-bats of the season. He also started a double play with a cannon throw from left field to home plate. Not to be outshone, Strasburg retired 19 batters in a row, allowed only three runners in seven innings and needed just 80 pitches, the most efficient game of his career.

“Those guys keep an eye on each other, that’s how it looked,” veteran first baseman Adam LaRoche. “It’s like, ‘Who’s going to get the first key to the city?’

“I don’t think anybody is surprised by any of this any more. And they both are going to get a lot better. But they do some things that you just laugh about. On that stage, to come out and do that,” the usually stoic LaRoche continued, shaking his head. “Those two were rockin’ and rollin’. ”

And so was the crowd of 45,274, nearly 4,000 over capacity and the second largest Nats Park throng ever, behind only Game 5 of the Division Series last year. With these two, all games are in danger of being “standing room only.” Harper got a curtain call ovation after his second homer. “I tried to look at everybody [in the dugout] to see ‘Should I do it or no?’” Harper said. “Chad [Tracy] said, ‘Get up there, who cares?’”

By Harper’s last at-bat, the entire lower deck, perhaps 15,000 people, was standing for every pitch so they wouldn’t miss anything. “All day long they were ready to just explode — loud and crazy,” Harper said.

After his first homer, Harper slapped hands with Manager Davey Johnson and his teammates so violently that Ryan Zimmerman told him, “Calm down.”

“The first one was very cool. My first opening day, to share with the crowd, my mom and dad here, the team,” Harper said. “On the second one, I didn’t take full advantage of it” for enjoyment. But he could have.

As Harper rounded the bases the second time, a chant of “MVP” started in the crowd. Chill, only 161 to go. “By then I could feel my hand again,” said Johnson, so he spotted Harper 50 years and risked another high-five.

Almost as stunning as the homers was the fact that Harper hit a slow curveball and a slider from crafty Ricky Nolasco, who pitched the only two complete-game shutouts thrown against the Nats last season. Aren’t 20-year-olds supposed to go up to the plate dumb-and-hacking, sitting on fastballs?

“Last year, he carved us up. He carved me,” said Harper who was 4-for-14 off Nolasco last season, all singles. On Sunday, the Nats studied tape, looking for tendencies. Apparently the best student was Harper, who hit 1-0 and 3-2 pitches.

“I’m sure he looked at the films and had a pretty good idea how Nolasco sets up his pitches. Bryce is not just a talent; he’s a smart hitter,” Johnson said. “Last year, he said he’d watched Halladay on TV since he was a kid and Roy liked to start lefthanded hitters off with a breaking ball with runners in scoring position. He did. Harper hit if off the right-field wall.

“After that, I figured he was paying pretty good attention.”

Part of Harper’s stay-in-my-place, I’m-only-20 persona is that, in group interviews, he always says he’s “just looking for a pitch to barrel up” and never implies that he might be on the same page with a veteran who might be insulted by such chutzpah. But ask him about a pitch on which he made an out in his third at-bat and you find out the truth.

“I wasn’t expecting a fastball. I thought he’d go off-speed in that [3-1] count. He got me. Surprised me on the inside half and I just missed it,” said Harper, who still hit a hard high liner to left field.

The education of Strasburg may be more understated, in part because he’s four years older and further along the learning curve. His biggest spring goal was to use fewer pitches to achieve the same results and pitch into the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.

“If it wasn’t the opening day and the first start of the season, it would have been a different story,” Strasburg said. Also, the Nats just had two off days with another Tuesday. Their biggest need is to keep their bullpen sharp before facing 14 games in 15 days, including tough weekend series against the Reds and Braves.

So, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano finished the job.

This was an odd opener with very few rallies for either team but periodic explosions for Harper homers and pregame cheers during introductions for Johnson, Harper, Strasburg, Zimmerman, GM Mike Rizzo, Gio Gonzalez and Ian Desmond in roughly that order.

Was it really three years ago that Phillies fans, invited to come down, invaded Nats Park, took over the place and drowned out the home team’s introductions with boos? That Nats franchise seemed gut-shot and almost lost. And fans wondered, with reason, why on earth they should care.

“It was harder for our fans,” said Zimmerman, who saved a run with a diving stop to his left to end the first inning. “We were still in the big leagues playing baseball and making money to do it. They were paying for tickets to watch 100 losses. Now, they’re starting to learn baseball more, sense the moment more. It’s not an easy game. Give them credit.”

Harper and Strasburg are still learning, too. On days like this, with a spring, summer and fall laid out before them, that means months of cheers, hand-numbing high-fives and, who knows, maybe keys to the city, too.

 
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