TAMPA, Fla. — In case you hadn’t heard, Bryce Harper grew up a New York Yankees fan. He loved Mickey Mantle and wears No. 34 because three, plus four, equals Mantle’s No. 7. When Harper signed in Washington that number was owned by Ivan Rodriguez.
This past offseason, he created a stir and withstood a barrage of criticism when he took to his now-defunct twitter account to openly root for the Yankees and CC Sabathia in the playoffs. He toned that down a little Friday (“Ah, they’re just another team out there that I’m playing,” he said. “I want to win, I want to beat them.”) But he knew days in advance that the Nationals would be facing Sabathia on Friday in Tampa.
When manager Davey Johnson asked him Wednesday night if he would be good to go for Thursday’s game, Harper instead asked about being on the trip Friday.
In the second inning Harper finally stepped into the box and stared out at Sabathia. That “frickin’ train coming at you,” as Harper called him Wednesday.
He got one at-bat, saw four pitches and made contact with one that went foul. The last one, he swung through.
“You know, it was pretty cool,” Harper said, a smile crossing his face. “He snapped off some sliders that were pretty damn good. He got me. Hopefully I can get him next time.”
Harper impressed hitting coach Rick Eckstein earlier this spring when the two were discussing a certain unnamed National League East pitcher and Harper laid out the entire sequence he thought that player would attack him with. Eckstein not only agreed but was blown away that Harper had thought about it — just in case he faced him in the major leagues this year. For everything Harper is, what many have mentioned several times this spring is how much of a student of the game he is.
So has he watched film on Sabathia to prepare for this moment?
“No, not really,” Harper said.
“You can’t really watch film on a guy like that. He’s effectively wild and he can get guys to chase pitches that you don’t really want to chase. You’ve got a guy that paints on the corners and can throw a pitch three feet out that looks like a strike. CC’s a great pitcher.”
Harper manned center field for the second game this spring but the first time a ball even came near him was in the bottom of the 10th inning when Brandon Laird’s sacrifice fly went to right center to score the winning run in the Yankees’ 4-3 victory — and Brett Carroll caught that one anyway.
But he was able to pick up one hit on the day, taking a 3-2 curveball to shallow right field for a single in the sixth inning off Yankees right-hander Phil Hughes. Harper said Hughes fed him two fastballs that he swung at but everything else was offspeed — a trend he’s noticing from major league pitchers who’ve perhaps heard that he struggles more with offspeed pitches.
“Pretty much every guy is throwing me offspeed,” he said with a laugh. “I guess I need to learn how to hit a curveball and a changeup.”
“They’re kind of pitching him tough,” agreed Johnson. “Spring training, 3-2 breaking balls? Not really giving him much to hit with the fastball. All that stuff you’ve been writing about him, maybe the pitchers’ have been reading it.”