PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Before the Washington Nationals took the field for their Grapefruit League opener on Saturday afternoon, manager Davey Johnson had one last reminder for all the players who made the trip: Take it easy.
There were a few of his players, though, who admittedly struggled to take the message to heart.
“I need help with that a little bit,” quipped left fielder Bryce Harper, who made his spring debut at his new position alongside center fielder Denard Span. “I understand we have 35 games this spring, but when I do play, I’m going to play hard and try to be ready.
“I don’t have a low button or a middle button. It’s always go, go, go when I’m out on the field. I’m going to play like that.”
Harper ripped a line drive foul down the right field line in his first at-bat on Saturday and then followed it up with a single.
“I like swinging,” he said. “You guys know that.”
But while Harper begins to swing and hit fairly early on in his offseason — and thus has looked to have barely skipped a beat at the plate from the end of the 2012 season — he is again acclimating himself to something of a new position. Last year, he was learning center field. The year before that, he was beginning his transition from catcher to outfielder and focused on right field.
“I’ve switched positions every year, I guess you could say,” Harper said. “I started in the big leagues at left field, though, so it’s just another spot out there. Against lefties, it’s kind of tough because you get that fade and stuff like that. But I’m just trying to get as many reps as I can and try to get better.”
There doesn’t appear to be much, if any, concern that Harper will have a hard time figuring out a full-time role in left field. Harper is an elite athlete who moves well enough to play center field and will have the benefit of playing beside a plus center fielder in Span this season.
For the shortstop, who has to range back on balls often, Saturday’s game was a good start in the opinion of Ian Desmond.
“It’s obviously nice to have him out there,” Desmond said. “He’s a big kid, but he’s no (Michael Morse), so I’m not quite as scared of running into him as I was of Morse.”
“No,” Desmond added more seriously. “He’s obviously a very good outfielder. He got so much better last year and I think he’s just going to continue to progress. Having him in left field, being able to cover a ton of ground, and Denard in center, there won’t be too many balls I’ll have to go for over my head. That’s good for me, obviously, for my body.”
The Nationals spent a good deal of time working on cut-offs and relays on Friday during their workout. That time was proven worthwhile when a ball was lofted into shallow left field on Saturday and Desmond ranged back. He quickly heard Harper call for the ball authoritatively and backed off. Harper caught it. Just the way they drew it up.
“It went seamlessly, which is really what you want,” Desmond said. “Today was great. He didn’t feel timid or shy to call me off. He was loud and (authoritative), so I think it’s going to be pretty seamless.”
Harper did have one moment, typical of him, in which he made the routine look somewhat incredible. In an attempt to catch a fly ball to left, the ball bounced off Harper’s glove, into his mid-section, and then, of course, back into his glove.
“Highlight film,” Johnson joked. “It’s always something with him.”
“I caught it so, I don’t care,” Harper said with a shrug. “Whatever. It’s an out.”