And so Harper hatched an unusual plan. As Herrera twirled one of his slow curves, Harper took several steps forward, a head start toward first base, and lashed at the ball.
“I just tried to Ichiro it,” Harper said. “I just tried to put the bat on the ball. That happened, and I just started running.”
And something pretty stunning happened. Harper hit a routine groundball to third base. Vinny Rottino fielded the ball cleanly and made a strong throw to first base. And Harper just beat the throw.
“He hustled,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “He plays hard. He’s a throwback. He plays the game right.”
The infield single highlighted a strong night for Harper. He went 2 for 2 with a walk, his other hit a chopper through the middle in the first. Harper creates a crowd around a batting cage because of his thumping bat, but his spring so far has been about anything but power. He is 4 for 7 with a walk, all four hits groundball singles.
“They’re hits,” Harper said. “That’s all that matters. If it’s on the ground or through the hole or up the middle, they’re hits. That’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter to me if it goes 500 feet or if goes 20 feet. They’re hits.”
Harper has been showing off his speed more than his power. Johnson said Harper typically runs to first base in 4.2 seconds, which is humming for a left-handed batter with a big swing. “For his swing – he takes a full cut – he recovers quick and goes,” Johnson said. Harper also went first-to-third on a ball hit to left field, a piece of smart, aggressive base running.
The Nationals, though, are actually trying to tweak one aspect of Harper’s base running. Both Mike Rizzo and Johnson have mentioned that Harper slams his foot down on bases too hard, whether he’s running through first or sprinting around second. “He really hammers it,” Johnson said. The Nationals are worried Harper may hurt himself.
“They always say something about that,” Harper said. “If I hit it too hard I could pop my hip or pop my knee, something like that. I’ve always done it. I’ve hit bags hard. If I could break that habit, it would be good. I’m trying. We’ll see.”
Harper also drew satisfaction from his walk, which came off top Mets prospect Matt Harvey. Harper has wanted to try working deeper counts this spring training. He had also seen Harvey twice before at Class AA – “I faced him in Dubs,” Harper said – and both times Harvey had struck him out.
“He made me look stupid,” Harper said. “I knew he was going to come at me a little bit. I knew he had that breaker in his back pocket.”
Harper worked the count full, holding off on two curveballs that broke down and in and swinging over a sinker. Harper fouled off one pitch, then watched a low sinker for ball four. “I tried to stay back as best I could, just try to take a good at-bat,” Harper said. “It felt good.”