VIERA, Fl. — After surviving the Nationals second round of cuts on Friday, Bryce Harper’s final act as a participant in the team’s major league camp was getting hit by a pitch in his only plate appearance on Saturday, a ninth-inning at-bat with the winning run on third base.
Harper was optioned to Single-A Hagerstown following the game, along with left-handed pitcher Atahualpa Severino, optioned to Triple-A Syracuse. Right-handed pitchers Ryan Mattheus and Tim Wood were also sent to minor league camp after the Nationals beat the New York Yankees 6-5 on Derek Norris’ walkoff single with the bases loaded, two batters after Harper was hit.
“Nobody likes to leave the big league club,” Harper said, looking clearly disappointed by the news. “This is the life that you want to live every day and it’s just the process. I’m still going to go down there, to the minor league club and I’m going to go bust my butt. I’m going to go down there and play hard like I always do and, you know, hopefully get back up here real soon.”
It was the first time ever, Harper said, that he’d not made a team he was trying out for.
“You’ve always got (it) in the back of your head, is it my day to go, is it my time, and today was my time,” he said. “I’m going to take it and go down there, lfike I said, and work hard. Nobody wants to ever get sent down. It’s not what you come here for. You come here to play hard and hopefully be able to make the team, but it didn’t happen.”
Harper finished his first spring training with a .389 average in 13 games (18 at-bats) with five RBI. He displayed strong baserunning, hit three doubles, walked once, struck out three times and compiled a .450 OBP, .556 SLG and 1.006 OPS.
“I understood that I wasn’t going to make the team,” he said. “I understood that completely from the first day, but I’ve got to tell myself, ‘Hey, you’re here, you’ve got to act like you’re that star player on the team.’
“You’ve got to come out here everyday and you’ve got to play like you’re the guy. Bo Porter said that the first day out here, to everybody on the team, you’ve got to come out here and act like you’re the starting right fielder, you’re the starting center fielder or whatever, and that’s what I did.”
What he needs now is to play regularly and pile up at-bats, which he will do in minor league camp. Harper never started a game and was never in a game long enough to get more than two at-bats.
Still, he impressed just about everyone.
“He was outstanding,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “He showed great poise the way he handled himself in the clubhouse and on the field. He handled some really talented pitchers and certainly held his own — and showed signs he’s going to be a fine player, a fine defensive outfielder and a fine hitter… He needs the experience of playing every day, the everyday-ness of the professional game. He’s certainly going to take the lessons he learned here and improve on them.”
“He’s 18 and you have to remember what you were like at 18,” said veteran Rick Ankiel. “Not only that, but put yourself in (his) shoes of what he was going through and what he dealt with every day. I’m sure it’s not easy. But it’s fun having him here, and it’ll be fun to get him back.”
The Nationals do have Harper on a plan for his progression through the minor leagues, much the way they had Stephen Strasburg on one last year, but Rizzo wouldn’t disclose what, specifically, that plan is. In less than a year, though, Harper felt he’d made great strides through the Instructional League, the Arizona Fall League and now spring training.
“I think the AFL really got me pumped to come out to major league camp and really got me wanting to come and play for the big league team,” Harper said. “I wanted to come out here and I think I played pretty well. I think I can always get better every day, no matter what, that’s what minor league camp is for. I’m going to go down there, I’m going to get better everyday, I’m going to play hard and get my at-bats and just work on a lot of things I can improve my game on.”
The demotion did nothing to dampen Harper’s attitude toward the direction he wants the organization to go — and his part in it.
“I think I can play (at this level) but I’ve still got a long ways to go,” he said. “Anywhere they send me I want to succeed and I want to have a championship team. I want to take winning into every single club that I play for and I expect to win. I don’t want to go down there and lose. That’s not something I want to do.
“I’m going to be a leader down there, take everybody on my back and let’s roll. That’s the kind of guy I am and hopefully I’ll see you guys in July.”
The Hagerstown home opener is Friday, April 15, at 6:35 p.m. against the Lakewood BlueClaws.