The Nationals could hardly have asked more of Bryce Harper during his first week in the majors. They toggled him between two outfield positions. They moved to third in the batting order. He kept on delivering: highlight catches and laser-beam throws, professional at-bats and clutch hits, advanced maturity and a steal of home.
“The kid has answered all the questions he needs to answer,” shortstop Ian Desmond said.
With Jayson Werth sidelined for the better part of the next three months, the Nationals will have to ask even more of Harper. Ryan Zimmerman will ease some of his burden when he returns after missing 13 games. If Michael Morse returns in June like he hopes, that will help, too.
But right now, at 19, Harper bats third for a first-place team, in a lineup scoring more than just three major league teams. The starting outfield Tuesday night likely will consist of him and two players who signed with the Nationals as minor league free agents.
“Bryce has come up and provided a little spark,” Xavier Nady said. “He needs to just keep playing the game the way he has, providing us with a little extra energy — that 19-year-old energy.”
In eight games, over 33 plate appearances, Harper has hit .308/.424/.500. No one in baseball has more doubles than his five since his arrival. He has drawn five walks and seen 3.97 pitches per plate appearance. When Cole Hamels drilled him Sunday night, he placed the bat down and went to first. Two hitters later, he stole home. He kept the most level head of anyone involved.
“You watch the kid play, he plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” third base coach Bo Porter said. “A lot of times, whether it’s coaches or media, you get caught up and you go, ‘Wow.’ Is it ‘wow’ because he’s playing the game unlike other people? Or is he playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played? You ask me, he plays the way it’s supposed to be played. Not many guys have the ability he has.”
With Werth out, the Nationals will shift Harper to a third position: right field.
“That sounds like a lot of fun,” Harper said. “I don’t care where I play, as long as I’m helping the ball club.”
In left field, Manager Davey Johnson will platoon Nady and Roger Bernadina, with appearances from Chad Tracy and Steve Lombardozzi, who won’t be needed at third base with Zimmerman on the way back, also likely. “I’ve been down that road before,” Johnson said.
Bernadina and Nady have struggled, especially Nady, who had little time to prepare for the season after the Nationals signed him in mid-March. Nady is 7 for 59 (.119) with a homer, a double and three walks. Bernadina is 9 for 45 (.200) with five doubles and six walks.
“It’s going to be tough, but we’re going to have to see what some of these other guys got,” Desmond said. “I think it’s going to be a good opportunity for Bernie to showcase that he’s either a big leaguer or not.
Said Nady: “It’s frustrating losing J-Dub. I’ve heard a lot of guys talking. Obviously, it’s time to step up. We feel there’s enough talent on this team to step in and fill in while he’s gone. But it’s a long season. Hopefully, we can hold it down until he gets back.”
In a thin outfield, Rick Ankiel’s early-season success makes Werth’s absence slightly more tolerable. Having taken control of the everyday center field job, Ankiel has hit .288/.311/.411 in 61 plate appearances. The Nationals may ask him to hit more off lefties; this season, he’s 2 for 8 with a double.
Werth is the kind of player who will remain a vocal presence in the clubhouse, even when injured. But the Nationals will miss the effect he has on the team beyond his individual performance. Harper leaned on Werth as something of a mentor.
“J-Dub is a great guy out there on the field,” Harper said. “He really knows a lot about other teams and whatnot. It’s a big blow.”
The market for outfielders appears to be thin. If the Nationals try to make a trade, they could deal from their stockpile of catching talent. In the majors, they have Wilson Ramos, whom they envision as their backstop for the next decade, and Jesus Flores, a former everyday catcher and still only 27. The Nationals’ deepest minor league position is catcher.
At Class AAA Syracuse, Carlos Maldonado has major league experience. Nationals officials believe Class AA Harrisburg catcher Sandy Leon could catch and throw in the major leagues right now, even if his bat is still a work in progress. Class A Potomac catcher David Freitas has emerged as one of the Nationals’ best hitting prospects. At Class A Hagerstown, Adrian Nieto is hitting .299 with an .879 OPS.