Day after day, he teed off on a small San Diego course by 6:30 a.m., playing alone “to work on my game” and “probably take out some anger.” In three hours, he was done and ready to really work.
“Not as much running. More strength work and core power yoga,” he said of his regimen. “Last year I was a little over-trained for running, like I was getting ready for a triathlon, not pitching.”
His diligence was so incessant he turned down a chance to play in the pro-am event at his hometown Torrey Pines because it would have forced him to miss one throwing session.
“Now I wish I’d done that. I have regrets,” he says, shaking his head at himself. “They say they’ll have a spot next year.”
“You know what’s pushing Harper,” Johnson says, pausing to grin. “Mike Trout.”
Last season at age 20, Trout had one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, regardless of age. If you want to know Harper’s “secret” goals at 20, try 129 runs, 30 homers, 49 stolen bases, a .326 average and .963 on-base plus slugging. Trout-like stuff, though with more power and fewer steals.
“Last year was a long stressful season, lot of wear and tear on the body and the mind,” said Harper, who spent almost all his offseason time with his Las Vegas family and re-bonded with his dog. Yes, he sometimes acts his age. Asked if he’ll behave differently around teammates now that he’s no longer a rookie, he said, “I’m still [only] 20. I’m still that young guy out there. I’m going to keep showing respect for teammates and for other teams.
“And sick, hurt or on my death bed I’m going to go out there and give it everything I have,” he said, letting out the personality that reflects the large raccoon — or perhaps it’s a haircut — that lives on his head.
In one way, Harper and Strasburg are identical: They have boundless baseball dreams.
Every season, “there are a lot of teams that think they are the best. And they aren’t the best,” Strasburg said. “This year, there will be a target on our backs. But a little chip on our shoulders, too — after last year.”
Harper was so bummed after last Oct. 12 that he didn’t watch another postseason pitch either. “No, not one,” he said. “[On to] college football . . .
“This year, we get to try to fulfill some of our dreams, the town’s dreams, the fans’ dreams. We’re going to have a good mix on this team the next few years. For us to do something special in that city, . . . I’m getting chills thinking about it right now.”
He’s not alone. But for those chills to become reality, a lot of thrills will have to be generated by the two most gifted young Nationals. It’s easy to forget that one has just 21 career wins, the other just 22 career homers.
Bulked up and with shoulder chips in place, they look like men for the job. Soon, we will find out if they are.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/