Nationals find beauty in a 9-6-5 putout started by Bryce Harper in spring training

Bryce Harper, shown making a throw to the plate against the Mets on March 1, had an outfield assist Saturday against the Yankees in Tampa.
Bryce Harper, shown making a throw to the plate against the Mets on March 1, had an outfield assist Saturday against the Yankees in Tampa. (John Mcdonnell)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2011

VIERA, FLA. - As soon as the ball was hit, headed for the gap in right-center field, Bo Porter moved to the top step of the Washington Nationals' dugout. This was it: a play that would validate all those February mornings on quiet practice fields running through drills - relays and cutoffs, relays and cutoffs - and Porter's eyes went first to the ball, bounding toward the fence, and then to the figure sprinting to chase it, Nationals phenom Bryce Harper.

It was a one-run game, the Nationals leading the New York Yankees in the eighth inning at Steinbrenner Field on Saturday afternoon in Tampa, and even though it was only an exhibition game, by the time the play was over - with a base runner nailed on a bang-bang play at third base after a relay throw from the shortstop, 9 to 6 to 5 in your scorebooks - Porter would be clear out of the Nationals' dugout, on the grass in foul territory, pumping his fist as the ball went around the horn.

Wins are nice, even in spring training (and the play in question helped secure one), but for a baseball lifer with Porter's job description - third base coach and outfield coordinator - nothing, at least this time of year, compares with seeing a relay play work to perfection.

There is unparalleled beauty in a 9-6-5 putout, if you know what to look for.

"You can actually see the preparation manifesting itself in the game," Porter said. "That's what gets you excited."

As it turned out, Porter would have more excitement on Sunday, as the Nationals pulled off an 8-4-2 putout - center fielder Nyjer Morgan to second baseman Danny Espinosa to catcher Wilson Ramos - to nail Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward at the plate as he tried to score from first on a double into the gap during the Nationals' 5-0 loss.

For every team in any league, a ball in the gap, or down the foul lines, sets in motion a complex choreography that is equal parts standard formula and improvisation. The pieces move in a specific way, with little if any variance from team to team, but any subtle alteration - a bad bounce, an off-line throw, a particularly fast runner - can add a new element to the play that forces new calculations and actions.

On the play in question, Saturday in Tampa, no outs, no one on base, the subtle alteration was a too-aggressive route to the ball - a hard-smash off the bat of Yankees catching prospect Austin Romine, against Nationals lefty Sean Burnett - by Harper, the 18-year-old prodigy who is still learning right field after spending most of his amateur career at catcher.

"I misjudged it," Harper said, "and it was too late to compensate. It was past me."

When he saw Harper had allowed the ball to get to the wall, Alex Cora, the veteran utility infielder playing shortstop for the Nationals, immediately began shouting, "Three! Three!" - in anticipation of a play at third.

And meantime, Harper dug hard to retrieve the ball at the wall and fire it toward the infield.

"The ball ends up basically beating [Harper] to the alley - which, as time goes on, he would take a little more depth in that route and cut the ball off," Porter said. "Instead, the ball ends up at the wall. But to his credit the energy and effort he showed in recovering and getting to the ball was what allowed the first part of that play to happen."

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