By Adam Kilgore
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."
In the ninth inning, Harper was due up fourth, meaning he needed help for another chance. Brian Bixler complied with a double off Igarashi, and Morse launched another two-run home run, this one to right. Harper would bat again, against a right-hander, with the wind blowing out.
In his first at-bat, Harper had swung three times on three pitches - "I wanted to get my hacks in," he said. "I don't like taking." With Igarashi, he took a different approach. He watched three pitches, a curve over the plate, a fastball high and outside and another curve over the plate. Harper swung at the last pitch, an 86-mph sinking fastball. He missed, and he walked back to the dugout.
"He just got me," Harper said. "I got to tip my cap."
If Harper was disappointed, he hid it. He calmly diagnosed what led to his strikeouts. He was not nervous but he was, in Eckstein's words, "amped up." He felt "quick" with his swing, moving his hands too soon and opening his front shoulder too early.
"I felt really comfortable out there," Harper said. "I might have felt a little too comfortable. It's like I feel way too strong. I feel like I can turn on a 150-mph fastball. I felt really strong out there. I felt really good."
After it ended - after he had replaced a man old enough to be his father, after he had stared down a major league pitcher for the first time and after he had added to the winds gusting through the park - Harper was left with the memories. For now, as he worries more about where he's going than what he's done, Harper focused on one memory most.
"Two Ks," Harper said. "I had two Ks. That's going to stick with me until probably tomorrow morning, when I take my first hacks during BP."