VIERA, FLA. — Bryce Harper glanced across the Space Coast Stadium diamond Friday afternoon at the Georgetown Hoyas, almost all of whom were older than him. If Harper had stayed on a typical scholastic path, he would have been a freshman in college. Instead, he ran to right field and set about trying to make the Washington Nationals’ opening day roster.
In the Nationals’ spring-opening, 3-0 exhibition win against Georgetown, Harper batted third and played right field for five innings, going 0 for 2 with a walk and a failed attempt at a bunt single. Harper will also start in the lineup Saturday, when the Nationals begin their Grapefruit League schedule against the Houston Astros and their soft-tossing starter, an offseason acquisition named Livan Hernandez.
Friday, not once did Harper consider the oddity that, even as a professional against college players, he had still not found an opposing team full of his peers. Afterward, though, he recalled his own college career, those four halcyon months as a 17-year-old at the College of Southern Nevada.
“I remember when I was in that situation, being in college,” Harper said. “Being able to go out and play a pro team, it’s a lot of fun. Having the Gatorade towels over your head, taking pictures, stuff like that. It’s cool for them to come out here and play, to see how we go about our business.”
Harper acquitted himself fine Friday. In the outfield, the area he has said he wants to improve on most this spring, he made two slick plays. In the first inning, Harper made a running catch in shallow right field. In the fourth, he scooted to the right field corner to cut off a single, spun and fired a dart to the cutoff man to keep the runner at first.
The second play showed how Harper has developed in the field. Last year, he may have whirled and tried to show off his arm strength. This spring, he said, Harper wants to master “what situations I can show off my arm, and what situations not to.” Friday, he made a calm, controlled throw back to the infield.
“I see some improvement,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “His routes were really good. He got a good jump on that line drive and the long single.”
At the plate, Harper showed more patience Friday than he did last year at spring training, when he frequently hacked at the first pitch he saw. With a man on first in his first at-bat, Harper drew a four-pitch walk.
In his second at-bat, Harper surprised the small crowd with a drag bunt on the first pitch. He bolted down the line, but Hoyas pitcher Jack Vander Linder scooped the ball and retired Harper at first. Harper occasionally tried bunting for singles last year, something the Nationals have not discouraged.
“No big deal,” Johnson said. “He’s just trying to get something going.”
Harper, of course, is better known for power. In his third at-bat, he skied a fly ball to deep right field, high enough that he had hustled all the way to second base by the time it settled in the right fielder’s glove. On a less windy day, Johnson said, the ball may have cleared the fence. Instead, Georgetown senior right-hander Tommy Isaacs has a story to tell his grandkids.
From here on out, the pitching Harper faces will get tougher. While Harper dominated the Arizona Fall League, he still hasn’t proven he can mash pitching above Class A. Harper posted a .724 OPS in 37 games at Class AA Harrisburg last year, both a mind-boggling achievement for an 18-year-old and a black mark for a player trying to make a major league team.
“He’s always shown the ability to make the adjustment against the competition that he’s facing,” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “So take it one step at a time. It’s the one thing I think he’s done his entire career: Face competition that’s older than him and make the necessary adjustment to compete at the highest level.
“He’s a student. He’s worked at his craft. And he’s challenged himself as hard as you can challenge yourself to go.”
The other day, Eckstein and Harper had a conversation about how different major league pitchers would attack him. One National League East starter came up, and Harper described precisely how he thought the pitcher would approach. Eckstein nodded and said, “I think you’re right.”
“There are so many things that go through my head when I’m watching something,” Harper explained Friday. “I’m a little different. I sit there and think. I’ll watch it as a fan, but I’m a player, also. If everybody is looking cutter first pitch, and he’s throwing a get-me-over curveball 90 percent of the time, then you got to sit on that get-me-over curveball and crush it.”
Saturday, Harper will have his first chance this year against major league pitching, his best chance to start proving he belongs in Washington this season. Even against the college kids, though, Harper had the same level of anticipation.
“Every game I play, I get really excited,” Harper said. “Running out to the field, I got chills really bad. I think that’s how things happen with me.”