Bryce Harper could turn Washington Nationals' dreams to reality

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, August 27, 2010; 12:40 AM

Look directly at Bryce Harper. Watch his batting practice home run on Thursday as it lands in the third deck in Nationals Park. Watch him blast balls over the fence in every direction.

(You are getting drowsy.)

Check out Bryce's faux-Mohawk hairdo, his black-on-black three-piece suit with the velvet lapels and the magenta-on-black tie: "The ladies like it." (You are getting very sleepy.)

Do not look at Jordan Zimmermann in his first game back from elbow ligament replacement surgery. Do not watch Albert Pujols's 430-foot opposite field home run off him or five Cardinal runs in just four innings. (Your eyelids are feeling heavy. You can barely stay awake to watch the Nats play baseball at all.)

Listen to GM Mike Rizzo: "We are going to bring Bryce along quickly so he can maximize his impactability." (You are almost asleep now. You've forgotten the Nats are 20 games under .500 and haven't played good baseball in more than three months.)

Above all, do not think about Stephen Strasburg. Ignore the result of his forearm-elbow arthrogram that is due on Friday morning. Say slowly to yourself, "Strasburg will not require Tommy John surgery and miss 12 to 18 months." (You have almost lost consciousness.)

Relax, think only about Harper. Focus on his easy grin, his ebullient confidence and his strong parents who seem to ground him with a balance of discipline, high demands and love.

(You are asleep now. When you wake up, you will think it is April '12. Strasburg and Zimmermann will be healthy - at the same time. Catcher Wilson Ramos, second baseman Danny Espinosa, shortstop Ian Desmond and outfielder Roger Bernadina will join Harper and Ryan Zimmerman at a young team's core.)

The Nats themselves do not believe that their present is gruesome, only that their future is fascinating and that mass hypnosis is the best way to endure this 54-74 season.

The team's future "is not a dream," Nats President Stan Kasten said. "And it won't [arrive in] '12. It's next year."

We'll know very soon whether the Nats' notion of their '11 future is self-deluding hypnosis or realistic analysis. We'll know when we find out whether Strasburg is seriously hurt or just on the disabled list nursing a manageable pain in the forearm.

Breath deeply. If Strasburg's still whole, then September is a preface, perhaps even an engrossing one, for '11. If he's not. . . .

If you want omens, the Nats got their seventh walk-off win of the season in the 13th inning after 4 hours 35 minutes on a Desmond single.

"Stephen was in my office [Wednesday] saying, 'I can pitch tonight,' " said Manager Jim Riggleman who then added candidly, "but Jordan thought he could pitch right through the whole situation last year."

Nobody ever really knows. The MRI tells you. To say the Nats' brass looked scared to death Thursday night would be an understatement. You can quote all the stats you want about how 85 to 92 percent of Tommy John surgeries are "successful." A season or more is still lost forever. Some pitchers never make it back. And even though the occasional Josh Johnson returns with an extra foot added to his fastball, no sane person wants to roll the elbow surgery dice.

If Strasburg is healthy, then the Nats, even if they shut him down for the rest of this season, should be walking two inches off the ground with relief as they approach September. With Strasburg in the picture, the Nats' future is still fascinating. Unfortunately, that's a complete contrast to the way they actually play baseball in the present.

Since May 13th when they were 20-15, the Nats have fallen into a summer-long snooze that has reached 93 unacceptable games (34-59). For a team that said it should be graded on its results this year, the school year is coming to an end and a parental warning notice should be sent to the Lerner family.

At least for the moment, we really can keep your eyes fixed on Harper. It's a remarkable sight, even though he may not be on display in Nats Park again for a few years. His BP session had the Nats who saw it buzzing.

"Wow," said hitting coach Rich Eckstein, who watched Harper's first serious swing, after a couple of bunts and slap hits to left field, disappear into the corner of the third deck in right field. "It wasn't even down the line. It was fair by 40 feet.

"What's most impressive is that the balls he hits to left field are line drives that keep carrying, but the balls he pulls are hit high," Eckstein said. "That's an advanced approach. It gets you more hits to the opposite field, but [maximizes] power when you pull."

Harper's personality, however, is certain to get the most immediate attention. He's either brash or charmingly confident. He's either at ease with stardom at an earlier age than almost any ballplayer ever or he's going to have a tough job digesting the normal dose of failure that baseball hands to even the most gifted.

"Harper reminds me of Chipper Jones," Kasten said. "Chipper could speak in public when he was 18 and loved it. As a rookie, some of his teammates thought he should've talked a little less. . . . Both of them were born to play baseball. Chipper's dad taught him every position. He may have had more polish, but this kid has more pop."

Harper was also a product of his pop - iron worker Ron Harper, 45, who looks to be in better shape than a dozen Nats.

"I still say, 'Mow the lawn. Wash the car,' and he does it," said the father of the son who just got a $6.25-million bonus as part of a $9.9-million guaranteed contract. "He's been raised to respect the game and he does. He knows you need to keep your mouth shut and do your work."

Still, what about the eye black, the batter's box antics that sometimes showed up junior college foes and the almost over-the-top quotes about how he "wants to be perfect at every aspect of the game"?

"It can get borderline. But you want him to be confident," Ron Harper said. "If that doesn't suit everybody, use it to fuel the fire."

So, focus, at least for a day, only on Harper. Friday morning is time enough to find out about Strasburg.

"I loved every minute of [Friday] . . . smile and have fun," Harper said. "It's every little kid's dream. . . . Adam Dunn is hilarious. He might be one of the funniest guys I ever met."

Then, for one of the few times on a fantasy day, Harper looked serious. "I'm not where I want to be yet. Well, I am where I want to be," he said. "But I still have a lot to prove."

Count slowly as you wake up: 2011, 2012, 2013. You are wide awake now. Open your eyes. What you see is Bryce Harper - proving it.

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