Bryce Harper is playing a new position this spring, which only expands the possibilities of how he can subvert the languid order of the game. There is a certain flow to major league baseball – especially spring training major league baseball – that seems to verge on etiquette. The action can unfold as if actors are playing parts: The routine single to the outfield. The obligatory turn at first base. The lazy toss back in. On to the next pitch.
Harper, even at 20 and even in spring training, stands in opposition. He makes you keep your eye on him, always, especially if you are his first baseman.
Today, in the fifth inning of a game the Nationals would lose, 4-2, Harper occupied left field at Osceola County Stadium. Astros first baseman Brandon Laird drilled a hard grounder to the left side of the infield. Shortstop Ian Desmond dove, and the ball deflected off his glove and trickled into shallow left.
Harper charged the ball. Laird made a generous turn at first base. From the other side of the field, Harper sensed an opportunity and fired the ball to first baseman Tyler Moore. Think about that: From left field, Harper threw behind a runner, trying to pick him off at first base.
“I was like, ‘Dang, we got a chance to get him,’” Moore said. “He’s able to do that. He read the ball, and the game is not fast for him. He thought maybe he could get him.”
The throw still surprised Moore. The ball skipped to him on a chest-high hop and scooted away.
“It was closer than I thought it’d be,” Moore said. “He would have been safe, I think. But it wasn’t a bad play.”
The play did not offend Manager Davey Johnson. He did not find it ideal – no one was backing up first base – and he had outfield coach Tony Tarasco talk to Harper about when to make that kind throw.
“I was waiting on one,” Johnson said. “You can’t keep him bottled up. … It had a lot on it, too, when it got there. I don’t mind that.”
While Moore thought Laird would have been safe either way, he was upset at himself for not being more alert and not corralling Harper’s left-to-first heave. Moore played with Harper at Class AA Harrisburg in 2011, when Harper played 37 games in left field.
“I’ve seen it a couple times in the minor leagues from him,” Moore said. “Don’t rule it out.”
Even longtime observers probably have not seen that kind of play attempted, a fact mentioned to Harper as he packed his things afterward in the Nationals clubhouse. He laughed.