Going 1-for-4 over two games – with a pair of strikeouts – isn’t usually cause for celebration, but in the case of Bryce Harper it might be. It might lower the Hype Level a bit for the Nationals’ 18-year-old sensation, give him some room to breathe.
Let’s face it, Harper, talented as he is, has little chance of sticking with the big club at this stage – unless he starts channeling Ty Cobb. The plan has always been for him to start in the minors, probably at Class A Hagerstown, and progress at his own pace.
But he’s become such a rock star with his prodigious home runs and limitless potential that imaginations can run wild – particularly among the Nats’ increasingly impatient fans. They waited an eternity for baseball to return to Washington, and now they’ve waited six years for their team to be something more than chum for the sharks of the National League.
So when somebody like Harper or Stephen Strasburg strides onto the stage, it’s only natural for people to project these expectations on him, no matter how unrealistic they might be. And they can get a little crazy. I mean, think about it: How many position players Bryce’s age have had any real impact on a major-league club? It’s unusual enough for an 18-year-old to get as many 100 at bats. The last to do it, according to my research, was infielder Lew Malone with the 1915 Philadelphia A’s. (I’m talking about kids who were 18 the entire season – as Harper will be. There are number of others who turned 19 before the year was over.)
Heck, even Tiger Woods was 21 when he won his first Masters. And while it’s hard to compare a golfer to a ballplayer, the buzz surrounding Bryce has been almost Tigeresque. But now that he’s whiffed twice, grounded meekly into a fielder’s choice and – insert sigh of relief here – lined a single to left in the opening two exhibition games against the Mets, it’s obvious his presence in the Nationals’ dugout is as much promotional as developmental.
For the moment, he’s a hood ornament. Eventually, the organization hopes he’ll be the engine powering the car.
A couple of his teammates, Pudge Rodriguez and Rick Ankiel, have a pretty good idea of what he’s going through. Once upon a time, they were the prodigies making a stir by playing beyond their years. Pudge broke in with the Rangers at 19, and Ankiel pitched his first game with the Cardinals barely a month after his 20th birthday.
“At the time, I enjoyed it,” Ankiel recalled before the Nationals’ 5-3 win Tuesday at Space Coast Stadium. “You’re proud of where you got and how fast you got there, the notoriety you’re getting. At the same time, looking back, it’s tough. I mean, look at what’s going on [with Harper when he made his debut in Port St. Lucie]. He gets a couple of ABs, and the whole world’s on top of it. Everybody’s analyzing everything he does. He doesn’t have a chance to be himself and not worry about who’s watching.”
Rodriguez relieved a lot of the pressure by hitting .422 in his first 12 big-league games – and he figures Harper will break out eventually, too. “The kid’s good,” he said. “The kid’s a star. He’s going to have thousands more at bats. He’s going to keep swinging, and he’s going to keep getting hits.”
The one Harper got in Exhibition Game No. 2 came on a fastball away from right-hander Pedro Beato in the fifth inning. Unlike the day before, he did a good job of staying back on the pitch and laced it to the opposite field. His other time up, in the seventh, he had a chance at his first RBI; but the runner on third, Corey Brown, was forced at home when Bryce couldn’t get the ball out of the infield.
No matter. From one game to the next, Harper made “an adjustment with my hands,” kept them closer to his body, and got better results. Now he just has to keep making those adjustments, as all players do, until he’s on the 25-man squad.
How long that takes is anyone’s guess. The last thing the Nationals want to do is rush him.
“We want to do what’s best for Bryce Harper,” manager Jim Riggleman has said on more than one occasion.
Conveniently for the Nats, what’s best for Bryce Harper is also best for them. If he flourishes, so will they.
YOUNGEST POSITION PLAYERS TO GET 100 AT BATS (SINCE 1960)
Age Player, Position, Team, Year (Stats)
18 Robin Yount, SS, Brewers, 1974* (344 AB, .250 BA, 3 HR, 26 RBI)
19 Adrian Beltre, 3B, Dodgers, 1998 (195 AB, .215 BA, 7 HR, 22 RBI)
19 Andruw Jones, OF, Braves, 1996 (106 AB, .217 BA, 5 HR, 13 RBI)
19 Pudge Rodriguez, C, Rangers, 1991 (280 AB, .264 BA, 3 HR, 27 RBI)
19 Ken Griffey Jr., OF, Mariners, 1989 (455 AB, .264 BA, 16 HR, 61 RBI)
19 Cesar Cedeno, OF, Astros, 1970 (355 AB, .310 BA, 7 HR, 42 RBI)
19 Aurelio Rodriguez, 3B, Tigers, 1967 (130 AB, .238 BA, 1 HR, 8 RBI)
19 Tony Horton, OF, Red Sox, 1964 (126 AB, .222 BA, 1 HR, 8 RBI)
19 Tony Conigliaro, OF, Red Sox, 1964 (404 AB, .290 BA, 24 HR, 52 RBI)
19 Rusty Staub, 1B-OF, Astros, 1963 (513 AB, .224 BA, 6 HR, 45 RBI)
* Turned 19 during the season.