Bryce Harper strikes out twice in spring training Washington Nationals debut

Washington starts off the preseason with a victory, but Bryce Harper strikes out twice.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; 11:24 PM

PORT ST. LUCIE, FLA. - Bryce Harper slept well Sunday night. He woke up Monday morning, hopped on a bus, tweeted, arrived at Digital Domain Park and pulled on a Washington Nationals spring training uniform. He laced opposite-field line drives during batting practice and blasted one baseball 20 feet over a 410-foot sign in dead center field. "Good BP," said his father, Ron, watching from four rows behind the visiting dugout.

Harper entered his first spring training game as a pinch runner. He strode into the batter's box for the first time in the seventh inning, thin strips of eye black standing in for trademark war paint. He scooped dirt from the batter's box and rubbed it over bare hands. He knew nothing of baseball at this level, and to him it didn't matter.

"It felt like the same thing," Harper said. "I tried to go out there and clear everybody out. It felt the same to me."

It was, he would learn, not the same. To the many myths made about Harper, his maiden performance on a major league diamond will not be added. By striking out twice in a span of seven pitches as a designated hitter, against two nominal New York Mets relievers, Harper confirmed his standing as an 18-year-old who is blessed - but still an 18-year-old, would-be high school senior playing a sport at its highest level.

Harper never bought into the hype surrounding his first spring training appearance, which helped him handle his disappointing debut in stride. After right-hander Ryota Igarashi struck him out in four pitches in the ninth, Harper sat next to hitting coach Rick Eckstein. Eckstein said to Harper, "When you see this guy in a week, tell me how you're going to go."

"His answer," Eckstein said, "was real good."

"I felt really good up there," Harper said afterward, smiling and shrugging his way through reporters' questions at his locker. "It's the first two at-bats. That's why we have spring training. That's what it's for - get all the rinky dinks out."

Manager Jim Riggleman planned for Harper to see the field for only one at-bat, but when starting designated hitter Matt Stairs, 43, hit a two-out RBI single in the fifth, Riggleman felt obligated to remove his veteran. Harper jogged to first and bumped fists with Stairs, whose major league debut came May 29, 1992, 140 days before Harper was born.

Two innings later, with one out in the seventh, Michael Morse roped a two-run home run, bringing up Harper's spot in the batting order. Riggleman hoped Harper would face a right-handed pitcher in his first at-bat, but he doesn't get to pick, and the Mets had tabbed left-handed Taylor Tankersley to pitch the seventh.

In 188 regular season at-bats against left-handed hitters, Tankersley had allowed seven home runs and a .233 batting average while striking out 52 hitters, more than one quarter of the lefties he faced. Tankersley is a run-of-the-mill major league pitcher, and Harper had never seen anything like him standing 60 feet 6 inches away.

Tankersley started Harper with a fastball away. Harper swatted it foul, down the third base line, for strike one. Harper was looking outside, and Tankersley threw him an outside slider. He swung and missed. Harper looked outside again, and again Tankersley threw him a slider outside. Again, Harper swung over it. Strike three.

Morse waited when Harper returned to the dugout, helmet in hand. "Now you've seen it," he said. "Go from here."

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