Bryce Harper’s stay in the minors on a rehab assignment will not be long, but it will afford him opportunities unavailable in the major leagues. He can talk to teammates younger than him, even if there are only two on Class A Potomac’s roster. His mother and father can sit in the front row behind the backstop, only 15 feet away from the plate, and then drive him away in the family Volvo. And he can hit baseballs into a forest.
Harper went 2 for 3 with a walk in his second rehab game and played five innings in center field, and his final act of the night obliterated all other action. Salem right-hander Kyle Kraus threw Harper a 3-1 slider that did not slide, and Harper blasted it clean out of Woodbridge’s Pfitzner Stadium, between the Budweiser billboard and the Little Caesars ad, into the trees beyond the right field fence.
“I mean, that felt really good,” Harper said. “I was trying to go up there and be patient. I got in a good hitting count and put some good wood on the ball. I let it go a little bit.”
The vicious stroke of Harper’s two-tone bat screamed “ready for the majors.” But Harper, now 3 for 4 with two walks against the Carolina League, remained insistent on taking his time. He still wants to play at least seven games in the minors, ensuring his surgically repaired left thumb will be 100 percent once he returns to the Nationals lineup.
“I really want to stick to that same schedule, nothing more, nothing less,” Harper said. “I really want to try to see where my thumb is at. If I need more, I’m going to take more. If I feel like I can play with less, I’m going to re-think that and play as many as I can. I haven’t gotten jammed yet or anything like that. If it happens, I want to see how it feels. Hopefully it doesn’t happen, because that wouldn’t be good.”
Harper said he felt a vibration in his thumb Monday night, but the solid contact he made Tuesday prevented the painful twinge. “I felt really good today,” Harper said. He tested his thumb when he slid into second base feet-first with two outs despite the lack of a close play. He dragged his left hand behind him, and with a black pad that resembled a small oven mitt covering his hand, Harper had no issues.
Harper played center field for five innings, but the only ball he received came on a groundball single up the middle. Despite the dearth of action, he relished playing center, the position he would prefer to play, even with Denard Span entrenched in Washington.
“I love playing center,” Harper said. “I love being out there, being able to communicate with the guys we have out there. … It’s the best position in the outfield, I think, to play. I enjoy doing it. I stay in the game a lot more. It’s a fun place to play. I think I’m a lot better at the plate when I play center.”
During his time on the disabled list, Harper has maintained he is not antsy to return. He stuck to that Tuesday night, refusing to rush back.
“I’m not very eager,” Harper said. “Of course I want to be up there and play in the big leagues. I want to stay on my timetable. This is something I need to do. If I have good numbers, I have good numbers. If I don’t, I don’t. Don’t take that wrong — of course I want to be in the big leagues. But I really want to take those days where I can feel how my thumb is doing and see where I’m at.”
Harper will take Wednesday off to lift weights and let his thumb rest. Thursday, he will move his rehab to either Class A Hagerstown (the lone semi-local Nationals affiliate playing at home) or Class AA Harrisburg. Harper assumed he would not play with Harrisburg because it will be on the road in Akron. Class AAA Syracuse is home, but further away than Hagerstown.
In his first at-bat, Harper took four straight balls from Salem right-hander Pat Light, a first-round pick in the 2012 draft who throws in the mid-90s. Catcher Wilson Ramos, making his final rehab appearance, followed with a single through the left side of the infield. Harper looked fit and fast as he motored from first to third.
In his second at-bat, Harper dribbled Light’s first pitch to first base for an out. Against a right-handed reliever his next time up, Harper blistered a high, 2-0 fastball over the shortstop’s head for an RBI single. He again rocketed down the first base line and made a wide turn, sprinting at his top speed.
Ramos can come off the disabled list Thursday, and his performance over the past two games in Potomac suggests he’s ready to join the Nationals in Chicago. Ramos has caught all 18 innings, gone 5 for 9 and hammered pitches to left, right and center field. He’s tested his strained left hamstring only as much as necessary, trotting down the line. He said Monday night that on easy outs or clear singles, he will not put pressure on his leg.
In a minor league note, right-hander Austin Voth made his debut at Class A Potomac after a promotion over the weekend. He fired six scoreless innings, allowing two hits and two walks while striking out six.