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Double-A means new challenges for Nats’ phenom Bryce Harper

So far, Harper plan is going to form

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 7, 2011

HARRISBURG, Pa — Yes, Bryce Harper is still 18 years old. That's easy to forget after his first three months in the minor leagues elevated his legend to levels that would make Paul Bunyan blush.

Jim Callis, Baseball America's respected executive editor, wondered if Harper was the best power prospect in baseball history. Another writer, statistics wizard Dave Cameron, suggested the Washington Nationals' outfielder was baseball's top prospect. Ever.

Harper's exploits took on a supernatural tint. The only debates missing, it seemed, where whether his throws from the outfield better resembled a cannon or laser or how far, exactly, could he smack a baseball.

As Harper tore through the Class A South Atlantic League in 72 games with the Hagerstown Suns, you could be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, a challenge looked like for him. The answer arrived this week, when Harper was promoted to the Double-A Harrisburg Senators before he plays in the All-Star Futures Game on Sunday in Phoenix.

"I think he was getting a little anxious to get out of this league," said Bryan Holland, who handles radio play-by-play duties and media relations for the Suns, "because he was wearing it out.

"I think I would be frustrated to be told I'm the chosen one, to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated and still be in the Sally League after the All-Star break. But I think it's a positive. He's hungry to get to the next level."

Harper's tour of Class A compares favorably to Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez who, like Harper, were No. 1 overall picks and spent a half-season at A ball when they were 18. Harper hit .318 and rolled up a .423 on-base percentage, to go with 14 home runs and 19 steals.

Still, Harper stayed at Hagerstown after Orioles prospect Manny Machado, the No. 3 pick in 2010, was promoted to the high-A Frederick Keys in June.

But the leap to Double-A is regarded as the toughest transition in the minor leagues. Here, pitchers can throw curveballs down and away for strikes. Veterans, even guys with big-league experience such as pitcher Oliver Perez, dot rosters. Some are here for the second year. Baseball's natural selection is at work, in a place where there aren't stacks of "Harperstown" T-shirts for sale and Harper's arrival, so far, hasn't jolted attendance as it did in Hagerstown.

"Everyone they're facing now is better than everyone they're facing before," Senators broadcaster Terry Byrom said. "No matter how well he does, I think it will end up being an adjustment."

The promotion is part of the Nationals' plan for Harper, which general manager Mike Rizzo repeatedly has insisted doesn't include a big-league appearance this season. The plan extends to media coverage.

Like Hagerstown, Harper is only available to speak after games in Harrisburg at the Nationals' direction. After a series of brief one-on-one spots with area television stations Tuesday, there won't be one-on-one interviews with Harper unless the Nationals say otherwise, according to Byrom.

When Harper is in front of cameras and microphones, he is composed, deflects attention to teammates and comes across as a man much older than one who doesn't turn 19 until October.

Holland was in constant communication with the Nationals about Harper.

His default was to call the them instead of making assumptions about how to handle Harper's media interactions. He wanted to keep questions focused about Harper's on-field development.

"It's very calculated. It's all part of the plan," Holland said. "They didn't wake up on Tuesday and say maybe we'll only make him available after games. They want to make sure the maturation is what goes on between the chalk."

It echoes the approach the Nationals used with Stephen Strasburg. In 2010, he made the first three starts of his professional career in Harrisburg. The Senators issued 48 media credentials for Strasburg's first start. Harper's arrival this week bought 12 additional credentials.

When Harper plays his first Double-A road game in Richmond on Friday, he'll give a 15-minute news conference before the game. That's it for the series, since Harper flies to Phoenix on Saturday.

"It's a little inordinate, but he's an inordinate player," said Jon Laaser, who oversees media for the Flying Squirrels.

At Harper's new home in Metro Bank Park in Harrisburg, signs advertise the already-past "cowboy monkey rodeo" and the "biggest fireworks show ever." Country music pounds, past bushes covered in pink flowers, a half-dozen inflatable toys for children and the Ollie's Bargin Outlet cheap seats in left field.

There aren't the same signs of Harper's arrival Hagerstown held. Back there, Bryce Harper bobblehead night has been shelved until next year. The legend hasn't taken hold yet in Harrisburg. But Harper has the same swagger, even if he's hitting sixth instead of third. He still signs autographs - Hagerstown's team bus was frequently delayed because he tried to accommodate each request - with Luke 1:37.

"For with God," the Bible verse reads, "nothing shall be impossible."

The same could be said of Harper.

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