This is, after all, the manager who brazenly declared in spring training he deserved to be fired if the never-above-.500 Nationals didn’t reach the playoffs this year.
Not long after their initial encounter, Johnson was an assistant to Rizzo and wrote Harper’s name on a piece of paper submitted to Commissioner Bud Selig at the amateur draft. Johnson got his first extended look at the kid from Nevada in spring training in 2011. By late last season, with Harper at Double-A Harrisburg, Johnson was convinced the player was ready to start 2012 in the majors, even if the college catcher still needed time to learn how to play the outfield.
“He had hardly any experience, so we sent him to Triple-A to get some at-bats. Also that way, if he struggled at first up here, that would eliminate people saying, `See? You rushed him,’” Johnson said. “Once he finally got here, it was like, `Whew, boy, am I relaxed now.’ And really, he hit the ground running. Hit the ball hard from the moment he got here.”
Harper’s debut _ and first hit, a double _ came against the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 28, making him the youngest position player in the majors since Adrian Beltre in 1998. At the time, the Nationals made it sound as if Harper merely was around temporarily to aid a struggling offense dealing with injuries and might wind up returning to the minors.
Now Rizzo acknowledges: “We had a pretty good feeling he was ready.”
Harper’s 254 total bases and 57 extra-base hits are the most ever for a player under 20, while his 22 homers, 98 runs, .340 on-base percentage, .447 slugging percentage, and .817 on base-plus-slugging are all the best for a teenager in the past 45 years, according to STATS LLC.
“He’s pretty good right now,” Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said, “but he’s going to be better. … He looks for ways to beat you.”
It’s important not to get too caught up in the notion that Harper is tremendously successful for a teen. As Washington pursued its first NL East title down the stretch, he was among the best in baseball, no matter the age.
From Sept. 1 through the end of the regular season, the left-handed-hitting Harper _ he throws right-handed, but swings lefty because he wanted to be like his older brother, Bryan, who’s a southpaw _ led all NL players in runs (27), and ranked in the top eight in the league in slugging percentage (third, .643), batting average (tied for fifth, .330) and on-base percentage (eighth, .400).
“He’s pretty much got, in his mind, a bulletproof shield around him at all times,” Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “We see stuff every two or three days from him that’s just like, `Wow. I haven’t seen that in a long time.’”
In one game last month, Harper made an over-the-shoulder catch to end one inning and, moments later, drove a ball that hung barely above the dirt the opposite way for an RBI double. Apparently picked off second because he strayed too far off the bag, Harper bolted for third and wound up with a stolen base.
Two days later, he threw someone out at home to get one standing ovation, then earned another when a runner held at third because of the threat of Harper’s throwing ability.
That same week, Harper slammed against the wall to catch an inning’s third out and, on second base in the bottom half, took off for third on a changeup in the dirt _ even though the ball stayed near the plate. Perhaps stunned, the catcher threw the ball into left field, letting Harper score.
There’s plenty more where that came from, including Harper’s first steal in the majors, back in May. Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels plunked him on purpose; Harper moved to third on a teammate’s single, then swiped home when Hamels made a pickoff throw to first.View Entire Story
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