- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2012

Bryce Harper spent most of Saturday’s game, his 100th in a major-league uniform, stuck in the Washington Nationals’ dugout. Of course, the dugout hasn’t been built that can contain Harper for long, and by the seventh inning he was elbowing his way into the box score as a pinch hitter for Edwin Jackson. Alas, his cameo appearance yielded only a fly ball to center that, in golf terms, was hit a little fat.

It dropped his batting average to .248 — a far cry from heady days of mid-June, when he was hitting .307, slugging .553 and looking more like an MVP contender (if not Roy Hobbs) than a 19-year-old rookie. In the months since, though, the game he has always imposed his will on has tested him like never before. In the next 60 games, he put up numbers that are more in keeping with a player his age: .209 average, .587 OBP and just four home runs in 225 at-bats.

Ask him if there’s much difference between Then and Now, in terms of what he’s doing at the plate, and he looks you in the eye and says: “Not at all. Nope, nothing. Been swinging the same since I was 5 years old.”

Still, when he’s knocked one out of the park the past two months, it’s been more of an isolated occurrence — a crack of heat lightning rather than the beginning of an electrical storm. Has he hit a bit of a wall? Could be. Not many 19-year-olds have been asked to do as much as he has: that is, be an everyday outfielder on a team that currently has the best record in baseball. Have pitchers figured him out some? Well, the statistics seem to suggest that. At the very least, they’re being awfully careful with him, throwing a lot of breaking balls away and only occasionally challenging him inside. That alone speaks to the kid’s talent, to the respect he’s already earned in the game.

It also bears mentioning that the Nats didn’t exactly outfit Harper with a pair of water wings when they brought him up from Triple-A at the end of April, earlier than they’d intended because of injuries. No, they just threw him in the pool, sink or swim. And for the first six weeks, he did a pretty good Michael Phelps impression.

Granted, they could have eased him in a more gently — spared him from facing so many lefties, given him a few more days off. It’s not like that’s never been done before with a young phenom. I mean, why do you think Mike Rizzo would have preferred to have him spend more time in the minors? Player development is all about care and feeding, about not expecting a prospect to solve calculus equations before he’s completed geometry.

But Harper has never been thought of as a typical player (as witnessed by his slightly scary statement, uttered more than once, that he’s “never satisfied with anything I do”). Every step of the way he’s competed against older guys, and every step of the way he’s excelled. So why not assume he’s capable of the same thing at the major-league level, even at the tender age of 19? Why not take the approach that, with a prodigy like this, you want to expose him to as much as you can as quickly as you can, because it’s only going to speed his maturation?

Will there be bad days, rough patches, times he wants to slam his bat on the plate and break it in half (the bat, not the plate)? Sure. But the Nats are convinced he has the inner steel to withstand the negative feedback that baseball heaps on you. They’re also confident that, as pitchers adjust to him, he’ll adjust right back because, well, this is what the best hitters do.

As a result, when Harper turns 20 in October, he’ll likely have more big-league experience at that age than all but four position players since 1901 (according to the database at baseball-reference.com). At his current pace, Bryce will finish with 597 plate appearances this season; the only players who’ve had more in their teens are Robin Yount in the ‘70s (921), Phil Cavarretta in the ‘30s (919), Ed Kranepool in the ‘60s (761) and Mel Ott in the ‘20s (741). Not bad company. Yount and Ott, after all, are in the Hall of Fame, and Cavarretta won the National League MVP award. (Heck, even Kranepool still is the New York Mets’ all-time leader in hits — though David Wright is poised to overtake him.)

There were signs over the weekend that Harper might be ready for another surge, maybe like the one he began his career with. He crushed a two-run shot into the right-field seats in Friday night’s home win over the Mets, and Sunday he tripled and homered in consecutive at bats — driving in two more — as the Nationals took the series with a 5-2 victory. One more dinger and he’ll match 19-year-old Mickey Mantle’s total (13).

“I think he’s trying to send a message to me: Don’t bench me,” Davey Johnson said. “But he always swings the bat good. I just think sometimes he gets a little frustrated and overaggressive. He’s a special talent.”

What really matters, more than the history books, is that Harper’s power stroke appears to be back, the one that helped keep his club in first place while Michael Morse and Jayson Werth were healing. The Nats needed him before, and they’ll need him again, down the stretch, as they chase Washington’s first pennant in 79 years.