By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 2010; 12:01 AM
SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. - Most baseball players, even those with exceptional ability, feel some degree of apprehension when attempting to do something no one else really ever has. For Bryce Harper, whom the Washington Nationals made the No. 1 overall pick in baseball's amateur draft less than five months ago, the unprecedented has become a matter of habit.
Harper is playing this month in the Arizona Fall League, where elite prospects hone their skills in what is considered the most advanced competition outside the majors. Some questioned whether someone who turned 18 just days earlier would be overwhelmed among players minimally two years older, all with at least minor league experience. But for Harper, who skipped his junior year of high school and started junior college as a 17-year-old, this is a natural progression.
"There was so much anticipation last year," Harper said. "So much 'do this, do that.' It was insane, because you want to be that first pick. You want to do all those things that you've been wanting to do your whole life. I had to go out there in junior college, and I had to perform every single day. I've still got to perform out here. But it was a lot more tough out there. That was probably the hardest year of my life. This is baseball. This is fun. This is just a blast."
So when Harper walked on the Scottsdale Stadium field Wednesday night to became the second-youngest prospect ever to play in the Arizona Fall League, he was neither nervous nor scared. Instead, he felt only joy.
Before his father, Ron, and an announced crowd of 822 - four times the previous night's attendance - Harper wore a full-fledged Nationals uniform, white and crisp, with a black Scottsdale Scorpions hat. He smeared eye black underneath his eyes in thick, straight lines, a restrained version of the war paint he trademarked in junior college.
Playing right field and batting seventh, Harper went 1 for 4 with a two-RBI, bases-loaded, ground-rule double in his final at-bat. His swings were incredibly violent yet controlled; Harper waited for the ball to reach the plate before he coiled his vicious hacks. Scouts want hitters who let the ball travel and hit with their hands. That's what Harper did.
"I felt really good," Harper said. "I didn't think I was overmatched at all. I felt like I was hitting in my back yard."
The Nationals sent Harper to Arizona because they believed his talent merited his inclusion in the most advanced league that exists outside the majors. They were right.
"He's got the fastest bat out here," one scout said. "It's good to see. I was worried, just because of the age. But he fits in. He belongs."
Half an hour before first pitch, Harper walked into the dugout and a collection of photographers gathered in front of the railing. They snapped his picture as he walked up the stairs and onto the field. One fan whistled before he jogged to the center field fence and leaned against it to stretch.
Harper's first impact on the game came in the top of the first inning, when Cubs prospect Josh Vitters smoked a line drive to right field. Harper traced back with his glove in the air, and the ball fell on the warning track, just over his leaping effort. Harper, one scout said later, took the proper route to the ball. He gunned the throw to the cutoff man, showing off the arm that allowed him to throw mid-90s fastballs as a high school pitcher.
When Harper walked to the plate for his first at-bat, with no outs and a man on second in the bottom of the second inning, fans reached for their cellphone cameras and started shooting. They didn't get much material. Harper took a vicious cut at the first pitch Phillies prospect Josh Zeid threw him. Almost precisely at the moment Harper made contact, it started to rain. He flied the ball a mile high into the starless sky, a majestic popup to short in shallow left field.
"I saw a pitch that I could drive, and I barely missed it," Harper said. "I should have hit it 470 feet, but it didn't happen."
Harper's second at-bat came in the fourth inning, with two outs and a runner on third, against Chicago Cubs prospect Kyle Smit. Harper swung and missed at the first two pitches he saw. On the third, he smoked a screaming line drive to center field. The ball stayed up just long enough for the center fielder to make a shoe-string catch. He clobbered another pitch in his third at-bat, a scalding one-hopper to the third baseman.
In the seventh inning, Harper had his best chance. He walked to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. The crowd, mostly blue-hairs and college kids, buzzed. Brian Leach, a right-handed Pittsburgh Pirates prospect, threw him a fastball. Harper waited and unleashed his final swing. The ball rocketed to left field. For a moment, Harper thought it might be a home run. Instead, the ball bounced on the warning track, some 375 feet from home plate, and over the fence for a two-run, ground-rule double.
On a ball hit into that gap that occupied a pair of infielders as cutoff men, Harper bolted from right field to second base to cover the bag in case of a bad throw, just as Nationals instructor Tony Tarasco taught him last month in the instructional league. Harper's presence was ultimately unnecessary, but his hustle made an impression.
"That's what we learn," Harper said. "You've got to back up every single bag."
Once the game finished, Harper shook hands with teammates and found a scrum of autograph seekers four rows deep by the first base dugout. They extended baseballs, cards and a Sports Illustrated with his picture. Harper signed for about 10 minutes before he apologetically said, "Okay, guys I have to go." After speaking with reporters, Harper signed a few more before ducking into the dugout for good.
"I hope they understand," Ron Harper said. "I told him to try and accommodate as many of them as he can and be respectful. But he also needs to fit in and be one of the guys. When he's out there, his teammates are going into the clubhouse to eat together."
After his debut, Harper will return to driving his manager, Randy Knorr, crazy in the dugout for the next two days. Harper, as a member of the "taxi squad," can play only Wednesdays and Saturdays. He spends his time on the other days trying to read pitchers' tendencies and cheering his teammates; on Tuesday, he was the first one out of the dugout to congratulate a teammate on a slick catch.
Mostly, Harper looks forward to the 15 minutes in the afternoon when he can step into the batting cage. "If I can't play," Harper told his father this week, "I want to try to be the best guy in batting practice."
On Wednesday, he was. Baseball scouts are generally a jaded lot, but when Harper blasted a ball off a brick wall beyond the center field fence, some 450 feet from home plate, two of them sitting behind the third base dugout looked at each other and giggled. On the day of his first game, Harper had enough joy to spread around.