At every level of his career, from Little League to junior college, Bryce Harper has found a way to excel and become the best player on the field. On April 28, he was unexpectedly thrust into his dream, into the major leagues at the age of 19. And over the next five months, Harper produced one of the finest seasons ever for a teenager, while many his age were in college.

On Monday, the top overall pick in the 2010 draft who became a mainstay in the Washington Nationals’ lineup was honored as the National League’s rookie of the year. He became the first Nationals player to earn the distinction, validation that all the hype and expectations that have surrounded Harper for years were indeed well placed. Harper received 112 points, with 16 first-place votes, narrowly edging Arizona’s Wade Miley who finished with 105 points and 12 first-place votes.

“This is a great award, and I’m so excited and proud of it,” Harper said. “But my biggest thing is I want to win a World Series. I want to put that ring on my finger and give that to the town and city of D.C. They deserve that.”

Harper, who turned 20 in October, is the youngest position player to win the award and second youngest overall, after New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden in 1984, who was one month younger. He became the third player in franchise history to win the award, joining Andre Dawson in 1977 and Carl Morton in 1970, both of whom won it when the team was in Montreal as the Expos.

According to the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, which handles the voting for the award, this year’s seven-point differential was the fourth-closest race in history of the NL award. Among the close races was the one in 2006, in which the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman finished second to the Marlins’ Hanley Ramirez by four points.

Mike Trout, the Los Angeles Angels’ super rookie who is also a top contender for the AL most valuable player award, was unanimously named the AL rookie of the year. Trout and Harper were teammates, and became friends, on the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League last year, and both players will continue to be linked together.

A year ago, Harper was riding buses across the Northeast for Class A Hagerstown and Class AA Harrisburg, serving his time in the minor leagues with a $9.9 million contract in his pocket. After this year’s spring training, the Nationals sent the Las Vegas native to Class AAA Syracuse, keeping in line with a development plan that would keep him there for at least much of the season. “I knew it was only a [moment] of time until I got to the big leagues,” he said.

The Nationals turned to Harper in late April out of need, and he immediately injected life and spark into a then-punchless Washington offense. The cocky player that some feared would carry over from the minor leagues was gone; Harper blended into the Nationals clubhouse. He said all the right things, and on the field displayed a fiery, aggressive style of play. Primarily a catcher in high school and junior college, Harper played a strong center field and batted second for the first-place Nationals.

“This year was a lot of fun,” he said. “I just had a great group of guys around me and they made it the way I wanted it. Just to be able to go in there and just really try to win ballgames and come in and try to be a game-changer for them.”

For the first few months of his season, Harper was one of the Nationals’ best players, hitting better than .280 into late June. He overcame a slump and struggles against left-handed pitchers through August by finishing the season on a tear, playing strong baseball in the final two months while facing the pressures of performing for a contending team.

“He really exceeded my expectations, the way he conducted himself in the clubhouse, the professionalism, the way he interacted with his teammates,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said last week. “As a young kid, he showed the maturity and the leadership to go out there and play every day. He was one of the mainstays of that team. He was an integral part of that team.”

Despite missing the first month of the season, Harper played in 139 games and finished atop many major categories among NL rookies. He was second among NL rookies with 22 home runs, fourth with 59 RBI, tops with 98 runs scored, second with 18 stolen bases, fourth with a .817 on-base plus slugging percentage and first with nine triples.

Most every game, Harper found a way to affect the contest, whether with his powerful swing or his strong throwing arm or aggressiveness on the base paths.

The future looks bright for Harper, who turned 20 in October. Since 1990, with most concentrated in recent years, four players who won the NL rookie of the year award won the league’s most valuable player award a few years after. Albert Pujols was the league’s best rookie in 2001 and won the first of his three MVP awards in 2005. It took Ryan Braun, the 2007 NL rookie of the year, four years to earn both distinctions. Ryan Howard won the NL MVP in 2006, a year after being the best rookie. Buster Posey, perhaps the leading contender for this year’s NL MVP, was the top rookie in 2010.