- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bryce Harper was nonchalant in the visitors’ dugout at Prince George’s Stadium, less than an hour before his first pro game in the D.C. metro area. He answered questions politely and dispassionately, with a cool detachment that seemed practiced or forced or both — but didn’t jibe with the announced crowd of 6,375.

An official with the Bowie Baysox estimated that a typical Monday night game would’ve drawn about 1,500 fans. Yet, Harper stuck to the company line, no matter how untrue it was for everyone who showed up to watch the Nationals’ prized prospect.

“Just another game, another day at the park,” he said prior to Double-A Harrisburg’s 13-2 romp. “I’m trying to have fun out there.”

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He gave fans just about all they could’ve asked for, going 2-for-4 with a pair of line-drive doubles – both coming in the Senators’ eighth-run fifth inning. He also made a spectacular catch in left field, crashing into the wall and staggering onto the warning track as he gathered himself, before unleashing a laser beam to first base in an attempt to double-off the runner. He was charged with an error when the throw short-hopped first baseman Tyler Moore.

“I was shocked that (Harper) came up with the ball and fired it to first base,” Harrisburg manager Tony Beasley said afterward. “At the same time, I was impressed that he can throw the ball that far. It really wasn’t a bad play on his part. You’d like to see Moore step up and catch that ball or block it.”

Harper didn’t speak after the game, which was his call according to the manager. Beasley said it might’ve been because no other teammate received a media request: “He has a lot of humility and doesn’t want to be singled out.”

He might as well get used to it, though. He’s the sole reason the crowd was four times its normal size and several media outlets were represented at the game.

Along the way, it’d be nice if Harper showed more of the personality he used to exhibit, when he seemed more natural and carefree in front of the media. Unfortunately, it appears that the negative coverage for puckering-up after a home run has led him and/or the Nationals to scrub away anything beyond the routine and mundane.

But whether he’s boring or a blast, he’s going to draw fans and coverage based on his playing ability, which wasn’t coming through very well at Double-A. He entered Monday batting just .208 in 16 games, after batting .318 in 72 games with Class-A Hagerstown. Only one of his 11 hits had gone for extra bases, a double.

Yet, if he was frustrated he didn’t show it. “I’m having good at-bats, and I’m hitting the ball hard,” he said prior to the game. “I feel good at the plate. As long as I’m having good at-bats and we’re winning ballgames, that’s all that matters.”

Beasley echoed Harper’s self-assessment.

“We’ve faced a ton of lefties since he’s been here, so he’s really had a tough adjustment at this level. His batting average is not indicative of how he’s played. He’s hit a ton of ball HARD. What he’s done against the pitching we’ve faced since he’s been here has been pretty impressive.”

So was his fielding on Monday. He made another nifty grab in the eighth inning, snaring a pop-up in foul territory as he slid on one knee into the railing. But his outstanding catch an inning earlier is the play everyone will remember. Adding to the degree of difficulty, he started back toward his left before pivoting and retreating to his right.

“Left field is still new, and he’s still learning,” Beasley said. “A ball off a lefthander’s bat has a little tail on it and that’s the play he has to adjust on. He’s done a good job. Probably two weeks ago he doesn’t catch that ball.”

After Harper’s final at-bat, a pop-up to short in the eighth inning, there was a mass exodus. Sure, the game was a blowout, but those fans likely would’ve hung around if Harper was due up in the ninth. The way the Senators were greeted and cheered, Beasley said it felt like a home game, a stark difference to the harassment they usually receive on the road — thanks to Harper.

“As far as all the extra fans and media coverage, it’s good for everyone,” Beasley said. “The guys get more exposure, and they’re well aware of that. They kind of feed off that. We’re all rooting for him and want the best for him. He’s in a tough situation but he handles it well.”

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