PHOENIX — This was the biggest stage Bryce Harper had ever played on, so the 18-year-old dialed up his style and his swagger. He arrived early from the East Coast, obliging the autograph seekers at Sky Harbor Airport. He rented a silver Aston Martin for the week, turning the keys over to his brother when he had to report to the ballpark. At batting practice Sunday, he eschewed his typical, restrained, build-up-to-it routine and swung for the fences from the get-go.
But when he stepped into the batter’s box in the Futures Game, Harper encountered a new and perhaps disconcerting reality: There are a lot of ridiculously talented pitchers among the top prospects in baseball, and for once, simply being Bryce Harper didn’t automatically equate with winning.
Facing what was undoubtedly the best collection of arms he has encountered in his baseball-playing life, Harper, the Washington Nationals’ power-hitting uber-prospect, went down meekly in four at-bats, striking out twice and failing to hit a ball out of the infield in baseball’s premier showcase of minor league talent.
“You're facing all-stars, and that's what's going to happen,” Harper said. “I . . . got blown away a little bit. I've got to hang with it and keep my chin up.”
At least Harper could console himself with a few facts. First, his U.S. team rallied with three runs in the eighth — sandwiched around his second strikeout — to pull out a 6-4 victory over the World team. Second, he was the youngest player on the U.S. team, just as he was once the youngest player in the Class A South Atlantic League and is now the youngest player in the Class AA Eastern League.
And third, of all the dominant pitching performances Sunday, none was more impressive than that of right-hander Brad Peacock, Harper’s Harrisburg Senators teammate and the Nationals’ top pitching prospect, who needed just nine pitches to retire the side in order in the second inning.
Nothing in Harper’s legendary past — not even big league spring training back in March — had fully prepared him for the challenge of facing the parade of hard-throwing future aces he encountered Sunday. In his four at-bats, against four different pitchers — none of which he had ever faced before — he never saw a fastball slower than 93 mph, and the majority were 95 to 97 mph.
“I was just trying to hit a fastball,” he said, “and if I swung through a change-up or a curveball and looked stupid, that's what happens.”
In Harper’s final at-bat, Kansas City Royals prospect Kelvin Herrera blew him away with a 97-mph heater, three pitches after getting him to chase a slider in the dirt. Harper walked back to his dugout to a chorus of boos, shooting a glance at Herrera as he went.
“I don’t care what I did today, actually. I really don’t,” he said. “I could’ve went 4 for 4, and hallelujah. [Going] 0 for 4, hallelujah, too.”
Harper’s highlight, such as it was, was an epic throw from the left field corner to the plate on the fly — a heave of some 320 feet — that nonetheless was slightly off-line, too late to get the runner and over the head of the cut-off man, which allowed the batter to take third. Afterwards, Harper admitted he was merely trying to get on Top Plays on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”
“Just trying to show off my arm,” he said. “That’s pretty much it.”
Say this for the kid: Even when he goes 0 for 4, he knows how to put on a show. He was in high spirits after the game, though that may have been because the Aston Martin was waiting outside, and he was going home to Las Vegas for a couple of days — “Get some home cooking,” he said — before heading back East.