The spring has been a relatively quiet one, in terms of controversy, for the 19-year-old lightning rod. He deleted his Twitter account, where he was prone to making grandiose statements and professing his love of Duke, the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys. He appeared in a photo in GQ with an entire baseball stuffed in his mouth, with an accompanying interview in which he blurted several expletives.
On the field, though Harper missed six games with a minor calf injury, the Nationals otherwise rode him hard, sending him on most road trips and giving him four at-bats a game, where most veterans received only two. But since returning from the injury, his bat had gone cold, as he collected just three hits in his last 17 at-bats, with nine strikeouts.
“My swing wasn’t where it was supposed to be,” Harper said. “My hands were a little out of whack, and my body was a little out of whack.”
In what would be his final Grapefruit League game of 2012, Harper came to the plate five times Sunday against the Detroit Tigers. He struck out in each of his first four tries — earning the dreaded “Golden Sombrero” of baseball lore — and when he came to the plate in the ninth, a fan behind home plate yelled, “Five strikeouts in one game! C’mon, Bryce, you can do it!”
But on the first pitch, Harper slammed a fastball off the wall in center field, some 400-plus feet away, just his second extra-base hit of the spring.
“It’s no secret I like his bat potential,” the 69-year-old Johnson said. “And I’m not getting any younger, so the temptation [to keep Harper] was there waiting for me this spring. . . . It was fun to watch. He’s a gamer, and he can play. When Harper does get here, I don’t see him turning back.”
Nationals notes: Along with Harper, catcher Jhonatan Solano and first baseman Tyler Moore were optioned to Syracuse, while infielder Mark Teahen was reassigned to minor league camp. The moves leave the Nationals’ spring roster at 37. . . .
Right-handers Edwin Jackson (four innings, seven hits, four runs, three walks) and Chad Durbin (one inning, five hits, five runs with one earned) were the main pitching culprits in the Nationals’ 11-7 loss to the Tigers. But Jackson said he was encouraged by how strong he felt at the end of his 72-pitch outing.
“I felt like I could have [gone] back out there,” Jackson said. “In fact, I probably felt strongest my last couple of batters. . . . That’s what we’re working on — stamina. I felt pretty strong when I came out of game. I still feel strong.” . . .
Center fielder Rick Ankiel (strained hamstring) has been cleared to play and is expected to be in the Nationals’ lineup Tuesday night in Port St. Lucie against the Mets. . . .
Monday is the Nationals’ only scheduled day off of the spring.